PLANT CITY — For much of his life, Neil J. Davis kept an agonizing secret. As a teenager, he had been sent to the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Mariana, where juveniles were mentally and physically abused and believed to have died because of inhumane treatment.
Davis died at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Land O’ Lakes on June 29. He was 94, and believed to have been the oldest surviving member of the Official White House Boys Organization, a fraternity birthed from the cruelty suffered at the state reform school, particularly in the white building where brutal beatings took place.
Known as “Gator” to his friends, Davis was born in Bartow. He served in the military police during World War II and was a veteran of the U.S. Army, Air Force and the Marine Corps. Davis was his family’s historian, but did not volunteer information about his time at Dozier.
“That was my daddy’s secret. He never even told my mom, and they were married 62 years,” his daughter, Carole Davis Ellis, said.
Ellis said she didn’t learn that her father had been at Dozier until five years ago. By then, her mother, Sara, had died. A cousin, the daughter of her father’s brother, Bill, shared the news by text.
“I was shocked,” Ellis said.
She said her father, who was 16 at the time, was sent to the school for incorrigibility. He was at the institution from February 1942 to December that year.
“It’s not something you want to share,” said Charlie Fudge, who was at Dozier from 1960 to 1961 and is vice president of the Official White House Boys Organization.
“He was a very honorable person, very polite,” Fudge said, adding that Davis rarely spoke of the abuse at Dozier. “He talked more about his days in the military.”
Fudge said that Davis and other former Dozier School students took a trip back to the school with state officials about two years ago to see the campus, which was closed in 2011 after 111 years. In 2017, the Florida House and Senate passed resolutions formally apologizing for the abuse of the boys who had been sent to Dozier.
Babbs Cooper, secretary of the Official White House Boys Organization, said she first met Davis about five years ago.
“He was such a pleasant gentleman. He had such a sparkle in his eyes. What love he had for his family, for his country,” said Cooper, whose husband, Jerry, is president of the White House Boys group.
Cooper said she remembers when Davis attended a White House Boys reunion at Fort De Soto Park about three years ago.
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“We wanted to keep him sheltered and comfortable, but he said, ‘Move the chair. I want to be in the sunshine.’ He was always so pleasant, and he had a love for everyone,” she said.
Davis and his wife brought up their four children in Tampa and Plant City. He retired from GTE. His daughter said he loved his job and family and was pleased to get to know other former Dozier students.
At his military funeral on July 7, Fudge and other White House Boys, Harley DeNyke, John Bell and Roy Conerly, were among his pallbearers.
“He was the oldest surviving member of the Official White House Boys,” Fudge said. “Most of us are dying in our 70s.”
Neil J. Davis
Born: Nov. 25, 1925
Died: June 29, 2020
Survivors: Children Alan S. Davis, Carole Davis Ellis (William), Brenda E. Davis and Wayde C. Davis; brother Dusty W. Davis (Dorothy); 7 grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren.
A graveside service was held July 7 at Willow Oak Cemetery in Mulberry.