Dudley Davis

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(HOST) As 2004 comes to a close, commentator Tim McQuiston reflects on the passing of one of Vermont’s most respected business leaders.

(MCQUISTON) Dudley Davis wasn’t in the news that much when he was president of the Merchants Bank. He wasn’t press shy exactly, though he certainly didn’t like being photographed. He didn’t avoid the press. He was known to call a reporter late at night, at home, probably when Dudley was nearing the end of his own work day. But Dudley was uncharacteristically in the news twice in late November: the first time for being honored by family, friends and the Burlington community for a lifetime of support for UVM; and a few days later he was in the news again for his sudden passing.

Dudley Davis was a lifelong Vermonter; he spent almost all his 83 years in and around Burlington. His most notable absence from the scene was during World War II. After that he went to college, settled down and, in the 1950s, started working for the small Merchants Bank. He eventually ran the bank, and it grew many-fold under his leadership.

He, his wife and most of his kids went to UVM. Because of his and his family’s support, UVM announced last month that the new 70-million-dollar student center would be named after Dudley Davis.

Around Burlington, everyone knew him as Dudley. In the Burlington business community, Dudley Davis was 10 feet tall, at least. He was famous for scheduling weekly board meetings and making his directors work. He was famous for knowing off the top of his head the condition of every commercial account at the bank. And he was famous for helping out a couple guys named Ben and Jerry when a creditor was nipping at their heels. And that goes for other companies, too, like IDX and Bruegger’s and Gardener’s Supply.

When he finally retired in 1994, after almost 30 years as president of the Merchants, we tried to find a file photo of Dudley. We had hundreds of photos of Vermont’s business leaders, but not a single one of him. Fortunately, the Merchants held a rare press conference, and we were finally able to get a good photo of Dudley Davis.

The headline for that cover story came from our accountant at the time, who had been talking about how Dudley did business. There was a time when you could go to a banker and he’d loan you money as much for the content of your character as for the quality of your assets. That’s how Dudley ran the bank. You can’t run banks like that anymore because of the heavy regulation. But in Dudley’s day you could. Because of him, our accountant called Merchants “the last real bank in America.”

If that’s the case, maybe Dudley Davis was the last real banker in America.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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