To folks around here, she's known as Susie, or Clem's daughter. But to the logisticians who move tons of food, equipment and people for the U.S. Army, she's the boss. They call her Brig. Gen. Susan Davidson. Davidson, 48, was the only girl of six children in a prominent citrus family in close-knit St. Joseph. At a promotion ceremony this month in Fort Belvoir, Va., her two children replaced epaulets signifying the rank of colonel with those worn by a general. The ceremony was March 1, the first day of women's history month.
Consider the odds. There are about 420 generals in the Army. That includes 29 women, or about 7 percent. And one of those women comes from little old St. Joe.
Davidson said her parents didn't necessarily expect her to achieve such professional success. That wasn't a major focus for girls who grew up in the '70s in the tiny rural hamlet north of San Antonio.
"It was a small community filled with orange groves, and your closest neighbors are a half mile apart," she said. "It doesn't lead yourself to indicate you can be a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief."
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Her father Clem owned the C.J. Petters and Sons orange grove company. At its peak, the company included more than 500 acres of groves and also managed many other acres. "I'll be a little bit egotistical and say I think everybody knew who they were," she said.
Not only did Davidson know everyone in town, she said, "I was pretty much related to everyone I met." Her mother Joan is from the Bernard Barthle clan that settled in St. Joseph in 1883. Davidson's paternal grandmother was a Gude. She's got deep roots.
On a recent drive, her uncle Ralph Barthle pointed out homes of cousins, uncles and grandparents who had passed away. He passed the home of a friend who isn't related. "I don't know how that happened," he said half jokingly.
"You couldn't do anything around here without someone knowing," he said. "You walked the line pretty straight."
Davidson and her five brothers spent much of their time outside. A few steps outside her childhood home is a massive Pecan that always seemed to have kids hanging from it. Look north and there's a postcard perfect view of Old Florida with a small pond and rolling pasture. She loved to fish there, or at the larger pond at her grandparents' house.
The siblings were competitive, keeping track of who earned the most Monopoly money and who scored highest in Yahtzee.
"She was an equal value part of the group," said her brother Brian Petters, who recently retired after 22 years in the U.S. Air Force. "She could rough and tumble either verbally or roughhouse a little with us."
Life in St. Joseph revolved around the Sacred Heart Church. The new building was constructed over three years using mostly donated labor. The community took on no debt. Davidson's uncle Jim Barthle designed a two-bell system for the church, but died before it was built.
Davidson divulged the "secret" of St. Joe: As her grandfather deciphered the designs, he installed the pulling mechanism on the left side of the bells. When the ropes first dropped down, they fell into the men's bathroom.
"At that point in time, it didn't matter because girls couldn't be altar servers," she said.
Ralph Barthle added: "I think my dad might have got that backwards. He isn't here to defend himself. He was a dairy farmer, not an engineer."
Serving in the military was almost an unspoken expectation of the Petters children. As each sibling entered the service, they were commissioned by their father, a lieutenant colonel in the Florida National Guard.
Davidson was taught by the nuns at St. Joe School, where she used to watch shuttle launches outside on a sidewalk facing east toward a ridge. She graduated from Pasco High in 1981 and went as far away as she could for college. After two years at the New Mexico Military Institute, she earned a chemistry degree from New Mexico State University.
She delayed a five-year commitment to the Army for a few months in 1986 to help her father replant a grove that had died during a hard freeze. The team marked off lines every 25 feet, and an auger followed to dig holes. Then she helped pack the dirt around the young orange trees.
During that visit she realized she wouldn't spend much more time in St. Joseph.
"It wasn't the same place as it used to be," she said. "I knew I would be gone for at least five more years. I had a little bit of a realization that it wasn't going to be the same as it was."
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When her initial Army commitment was over, she decided not to return to the citrus business. "I found out I really like what I do," she said.
Davidson has held various transportation support and logistics positions, including an 11-month tour during Desert Storm. Why such a long tour for a relatively short conflict? Well, it takes a long time to bring back all the equipment needed for a war.
In 1989 she married Mike Davidson, and they had two children, Jennifer and Michael. The couple divorced in 1999. In the years that followed, she was called to several overseas deployments, and she credits her extended family with helping take care of her children. In 2008, she married Redding Hobby, a deputy director in the Defense Logistics Agency.
Davidson is now the deputy commanding general — the No. 2 boss — of the Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, based in Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Her team arranges for the transportation of everything that makes the Army function. Everything.
That includes the trucks to move food to soldiers at war. It includes the right parts to fix the trucks if they break down. It includes the household goods of every military member who is transferred.
Davidson leads an eight-person joint Air Force and Army team that created the land bridge for the initial troops and transport planes to land in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom.
"As I understand it, she is one of the best logisticians the Army's ever had," said her aunt Cinda Rawlings, who lives in Atlanta and took Davidson to Braves games as a kid. "She can keep track of 1,000 things at one time and can sort out what's the most important thing to move forward."
Even from their younger days, Brian Petters said his sister showed the leadership skills necessary to make general. That's coming from someone who taught leadership skills in the Air Force.
"It ain't because she's a girl or because she's a woman," he said. "I don't believe for a minute she's gotten any favoritism, because I've seen the talent she has. She's there because she's the best at what she does."
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Many of the groves in this little Catholic community are gone. St. Joe is on the northern edge of Florida's citrus belt and seems to get a hard freeze every 20 years or so. Recently many trees were wiped out by disease.
And like Davidson, many people have moved away. They find jobs, have families. Life happens.
Rawlings, who moved to Atlanta after graduating from the University of South Florida, said she understands why her niece left.
"When you're from a big family and you're from a small town," she said, "once you kind of get a taste of the rest of the world and you go back, it seems so small."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.