March 1, 1933 – Jan. 23, 2023
John R. “Jack” Davis knew what it meant to give back to his community – literally and figuratively.
Trained as an engineer while completing his military service, he and a partner parlayed their industrial expertise and entrepreneurial spirit into founding a manufacturing company whose products are still used across the world.
Forty years later, he turned his attention to public service, unsuccessfully running for Congress four times in eight years to represent a district in Buffalo’s eastern suburbs that included Clarence and Newstead. And knowing how he got his own start in business, he gave back to his alma mater that launched his career, with a $5 million donation to University at Buffalo 13 years ago to fund construction of a new building.
He died Jan. 23 after a long illness. He was 89.
“He wanted to leave his legacy,” said his widow, Barbara. “He was kind and helpful to the community.”
Born in Pittsburgh to John R. and Norma Davis, he grew up in Amherst after his father’s employer, Westinghouse, moved his family to Buffalo after World War II. He graduated from Amherst Central High School in 1951.
In a biography posted on his political campaign’s old website, he recalled helping his father change piston rings on a 1935 Ford when he was 12 years old, and bolting a gas motor from a Maytag washing machine on the back of a wagon for his “first go cart” when he was 14.
He wrote that he “did fairly well in math and science,” enough to get into UB’s seven-year-old School of Engineering, where he started in mechanical engineering but switched to industrial, which “turned out to be a smart move” by preparing him for the future. He graduated in 1955, but had already spent four years as a Marine Corps reservist, having signed up while still in high school to meet the “Armed Service Requirement” for men.
He barely avoided the Korean War as his reserve battalion was activated, instead getting deferments to finish high school and then college, while getting officer training in the Marines from 1951 to 1954. “You may have heard stories about the tough training for enlisted Marines – it was tougher for officer training,” he wrote on his political bio. “They took a young boy and made him a man – tough, self-confident and a leader.”
After graduating from UB with a degree in industrial engineering, he still had to meet his military obligation, so he enrolled in Officer Candidate School and joined the Coast Guard, serving as a deck officer until 1958. That’s when he went to work for General Motors Corp.’s Tonawanda foundry, as a maintenance engineer. Three years later, he left and joined Carborundum Co. as a supervising sales engineer overseeing silicon carbide heating elements
He and a fellow engineer, Stan Matys, left Carborundum in 1964 to start their own company, called I Squared R Element Co., which makes silicon carbide and disilicide heating elements and hot surface igniters used in high-temperature electric furnaces and appliances. It’s the only U.S. manufacturer of its products.
(Barbara and Jack Davis Hall on UB’s North Campus in Amherst. | Derek Gee / Buffalo News)
The new firm, which they launched in Davis’ garage with just $20,000, competed against Carborundum and another multi-national company, but was profitable after just six months, while its two rivals were later acquired. Its first customer was Corning Glass Works, enabling it to move to a building in Tonawanda, then to Lancaster, and finally to its current site in Akron, where it employs 90 in 122,000 square feet.
“He loved his work, so it wasn’t work for him,” Barbara Davis said.
From 2004 to 2011, Mr. Davis ran for Congress for New York’s 26th Congressional District as a critic of free-trade policies – three times as a Democrat and once as an independent, including after the resignation of Chris Lee opened up the seat in 2011. He also successfully sued the Federal Election Commission, getting the “millionaires amendment” to the McCain-Feingold Act struck down as unconstitutional because it violated candidates’ First Amendment rights.
In 2010, Mr. Davis and his wife, Barbara, donated $5 million to UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which named The Barbara and Jack Davis Hall in their honor. He also established an irrevocable trust to ensure that the company wouldn’t be sold and employees’ jobs were safe, and arranged for company profits to be used for scholarships to UB.
Mr. Davis is survived by his third wife of 30 years, Barbara; four sons, Jack, Bob, Al and Ace; two daughters, Jill Josephs and Star Davis; a brother, Don; a sister, Peggy Jacobs; 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.
Private services will be held at the convenience of the family.
Original obituary link: