William L Davis Lecture Series

Lecture Series

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History of the William L. Davis, S.J., Lecture Series

The William L. Davis, S.J., Lecture Series is the granddaddy of all "named" campus lectures at Gonzaga. For 37 years the Davis Lecture, sponsored by Gonzaga's Department of History, has honored its namesake, justified the confidence of the donor-family, and enriched campus and community life in Spokane. The venue for the lecture has changed over the years, but the quality of the speakers has never wavered.

Prior to the Davis Lecture, Gonzaga had no fund dedicated to bringing scholars to Boone Avenue where they might exchange ideas with students, faculty and the community of Spokane. What Gonzaga did have, beginning in the 1950s, was a once-a-year Town & Gown lecture. It was a dress-up affair administered with appropriate pomp; the speakers were usually faculty members. Then, in late summer of 1971 the university received a substantial gift of stock and cash from Edgar and Zita Berners of Green Bay, Wisc. The accruing interest from that gift would provide funds for an annual lecture memorializing the career of Father William Lyle Davis, S.J., who had died earlier that year. Fr. Davis had taught history at Gonzaga since 1931 and was Zita Berners' brother. Father Anthony P. Via, S.J., a close friend and former student of Fr. Davis, became the first to administer the lecture, in part because the Bernerses wanted in that role someone who had a personal connection with Father "Pop" Davis.

Fr. Via devoted a generous amount of time to inviting speakers, negotiating a suitable date and firming up travel arrangements to Spokane. For the first seven years, a formal dinner with upwards of 60 distinguished guests began the evening. Gonzaga University Press published the first three lectures. Times change, however, and today email is the fastest way to complete such arrangements. March is always off limits because of Gonzaga's regular participation in the NCAA basketball tournament. Speakers today make their own travel arrangements with an eye to enriching their frequent flier memberships. The most recent Davis Lecture took place in the afternoon instead of the evening. Since 1997 it has been rare to book a speaker who does not require a full complement of audio-visual technology in the lecture hall.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a Harvard historian and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, inaugurated the series. Richard S. Kirkendall, a brilliant historian and former student of Fr. Davis followed in the second year. Two more recent Gonzaga graduates have taken the podium: Professor Nancy Unger of Santa Clara University in 2001 and my son, Professor Robert M. Carriker of the University of Louisiana in 2005. Three speakers have traveled from western Europe to speak on Boone Avenue. Topics have included insights on Hitler's final solution in Poland; Richard Nixon and presidential sin; and biographies of Narcissa Whitman, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles M. Russell and Davey Crockett. Thirty-seven blockbuster subjects over 37 years.

It would be impolitic, as well as impossible, to name the best of the lectures, or even the best attended. The 1979 lecture is memorable, however, because Washington Gov. Dixie Lee Ray attended and Father Via, in his final year with the lecture series before going off to direct the Gonzaga-in-Florence program, provided an introduction of the speaker - with a respectful wink to the memory of Fr. Davis:

"Those of you who have followed our lecture series since its inauguration may be aware of the fact that Professor Hawke's topic this evening, the Lewis and Clark expedition, is the first time we have chosen a lecture in the general area of Father Davis' interest, the Pacific Northwest. There is a reason for this: Because Father Davis was such an enthusiastic and energetic lecturer, he was invited in 1956 to deliver the university Town & Gown lecture on the travels of Father Peter De Smet in the Northwest. On that occasion Father Davis began his lecture at the scheduled time of 8 p.m. Three hours and forty minutes later, at 11:40 p.m., he concluded his presentation. I mention this anecdote this evening not with the intention of inhibiting our speaker, but rather as a means of explaining why Pacific Northwest history has not been the subject of earlier lectures in this series. After all, one would have to assume that in 3 hours and 40 minutes the last word had already been uttered. After a silence then of 23 years, we are pleased to return to the general topic of Northwest history and we do so secure in the knowledge that finally after all these years we have found someone who can add something to Father Davis' marathon presentation."

By Professor Robert C. Carriker.

For more information on Davis Lecture events, please contact Dr. Robert Donnelly (a href="mailto:donnelly@gonzaga.edu">donnelly@gonzaga.edu).