An Act of Kindness That Has Paid Dividends for Decades

Maggie Mae Davis and Bobby Gene Willis 1954
Maggie Mae Davis (left) and Bobby Gene Willis (right), circa 1954.

We most often think of philanthropy through the lens of helping others by giving of our financial resources.

Every once in a while, giving does even more than that. Sometimes it helps people understand where they came from. Sometimes it helps a university rediscover a piece of its past.

This story begins at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now known as Arkansas Tech University) in fall 1950. Bobby Gene Willis had graduated from Dardanelle High School the previous spring, but he wasn’t sure what was next.

“I had no ambition and no idea what I was going to do with my life,” said Willis.

After working in manufacturing in Little Rock during summer 1950 (and experiencing temperatures of 109 degrees in the shop), Willis accepted a loan offered by his uncle so he could afford to enroll at Arkansas Tech and begin studying business administration.

“I didn’t have a car, so I rode with two of the girls from my high school class in the morning and hitched home,” said Willis. “After a couple of months, one of my high school classmates told me they needed workers in the cafeteria. They didn’t pay any money, but you got room and board. So, I washed dishes for seven semesters.”

It was at the beginning of his second semester that Willis met the teacher who changed his life.

Maggie Mae Bledsoe Davis graduated from Baylor University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and later completed additional graduate study at the University of Arkansas. She joined the Arkansas Tech faculty in 1928 and taught mathematics, eventually progressing to the rank of department head and associate professor.

Davis was helping students register for the spring 1951 semester when Willis approached and handed her his papers.

“I’ve been looking for you,” said Davis.

Turns out Willis made one of the highest test scores on the math section of the college entrance test.

“I was stunned,” said Willis. “Nobody had told me and I never found out what my test score was.”

Davis knew. And she also knew that the typing and shorthand classes in business administration had not played to Willis’ strengths.

“Bobby, don’t you think you should change your major?” asked Davis during that chance encounter at class registration.

Willis agreed without hesitation.

“She took me under her wing, and I enrolled for algebra and trigonometry for the next semester,” said Willis. “I ate them up. Before the semester was over, I was grading papers for (Davis).”

It wasn’t long before Willis was helping teach the differential equations course under Davis’ supervision.

He had found his place in the world. The mathematics degree that Willis earned from Arkansas Tech in 1954 took him places he never could have imagined.

“Maggie Mae completely changed my life from being a bookkeeper to working in computers, being part of the team that launched the Saturn Apollo and working on the early GPS (global positioning system) by flying unmanned airplanes at White Sands in New Mexico,” said Willis.

At the age of 91, Willis sat down and committed his memories to paper in a June 3, 2024, letter he sent to the Arkansas Tech University Foundation. For decades, Willis has regularly contributed toward an ATU Foundation scholarship that was established in Davis’ memory.

Davis died on Valentine’s Day 1954 after succumbing to injuries she suffered in an automobile incident.

As a consequence of her untimely passing, Davis’ grandchildren have no personal recollections of her. All they have are the photos and stories that have been provided to them.

When Peggy Ayers, ATU director of planned giving, received Willis’ letter, she shared it with Davis’ grandson, Jim Bryson.

“We never met our grandmother, so these stories are so important,” said Bryson.

Bryson shared the letter with his siblings, one of whom was completing a 30-year career as a teacher.

“Wow!! What a treasure you have found!! Thank you for sharing!! I’m glad I’m finishing my career teaching math,” wrote one of Davis’ grandchildren.

“WOW! I literally got chills. Wish I could have known her. This gives me more insight to our mother, too. Amazing,” wrote another of Davis’ grandchildren.

More than 70 years after her passing, Maggie Mae Davis is still making connections through Arkansas Tech.

One teacher. One thoughtful act of kindness. It can change a life and all that it touches. And it can reverberate for generations.

Bobby Gene summed it up.

“All because Maggie Mae said ‘Bobby, don’t you think you should change your major?'”