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In Memoriam: Richard Davison

Campus remembers long-time English professor, devoted theatregoer

Richard Allan Davison, professor emeritus of English who taught at the University of Delaware for 36 years, passed away peacefully at home on Jan. 19, 2023. He was 88.

Richard Davison
Richard Davison in a 2005 photo

A scholar of American literature, Dr. Davison joined the Department of English in 1968 and served as associate chair of the department from 1969-74. In 2001, he became affiliated with the University Honors Program, and that year he also received the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award. Retiring in 2004, he continued to be active at the University, and he also gave many readings and talks on a variety of writers and on theatre throughout the state.

The University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press is the home of two named collections that were gifts of Dr. Davison and his wife, Milena Davison. The first is a collection of approximately 900 playbills the couple acquired through their attendance at plays, musicals and one-person shows over several decades. The playbills represent a wide variety of performances held in American, Canadian and British venues. A large number of the performances featured in the collection were staged by the Resident Ensemble Players at UD. The second is a smaller literary collection including material related to Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Anderson, W.D. Snodgrass and others.

Colleagues remember

Several of Dr. Davison’s friends and colleagues from the Department of English shared their memories of him.

Tom Pauly, professor emeritus: “Years ago when I first arrived at UD as a young assistant professor, Dick Davison was the associate chair and one of the first to welcome me. At that time and for many years afterwards, he was a major force in making the English department the friendly place that it was. He was not just a passionate scholar of American literature, but a special enthusiast of the whole University. This enthusiasm spurred him to purchase and inhabit a house located a single block from the campus. As much as he loved the peaceful communal atmosphere of Newark, he possessed a unique appreciation for its easy access to New York City. He regularly commuted there to see a staggering range of plays. He could always tell you which one of recent productions was worth seeing and over the years became a true authority on postwar New York theatre. This range of interest developed him into an avid collector of first editions of American authors. Dick Davison will be long remembered as a valued contributor to the vitality of the English department and the University.”  

Jeanne Walker, professor emeritus: “Dick was a generous and welcoming colleague to me as a new member of the English department during the mid 1970s when the English department was quickly trying to add women to a primarily male faculty. It was a challenging time. Dick stopped by my office occasionally with cheer and news and kind offers of help. Several years later, we both led groups of Winter Session students to London, and we sometimes collaborated, sharing speakers or group trips to the theatre. I remember one January when I arrived in London after a seven hour overnight flight during which I did not sleep, I discovered that our broker had sent me the wrong key to a flat I had rented. I slogged around London, finally found the address of the flat and the key didn't work. Locked out, and unable to rouse the broker, I gave Dick a call in his new flat. We went off to lunch together, had a hilarious time talking and exchanging stories, and afterward things fell into place. He was like that, always lively, always generous, always there with good stories and often he helped to make things better.”

Richard Davison speaking at the Snodgrass Symposium
Dr. Davison speaks at a 2011 UD symposium celebrating the life and poetry of the late W.D. Snodgrass, who was Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UD from 1980-94.

Julian Yates, H. Fletcher Brown Professor: “While I didn’t know Dick hugely well, I remember him as a lovely person. It’s hard to imagine a more genial, supportive presence, always delighted to hear good news for and about others and unflaggingly supportive/engaged in theatre on campus, then the Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP).”

Ben Yagoda, professor emeritus: “When I came to the department in the early ‘90s as a sort of minnow out of water (a mid-career journalist and freelance writer with no Ph.D.), pretty much everybody was welcoming, but no one more than Dick. I can’t remember our first encounter, though I’m sure he made the overture. Soon we were having lengthy conversations in Memorial Hall about Hemingway, FITZgerald (he emphasized the first syllable), Salinger and John Updike, whom he resembled more and more as the years passed. (Memorably, he was once mistaken for the author at an Updike conference.) We started regularly going out to lunch together, and I actually still remember some of the conversations we had — about the Mets, about our research, about his early years teaching at Gettysburg College, about plays one or both of us had seen the previous week or in 1966, about both our families — on the walk up to Main Street and our usual spot, Salad Works. Over the years, it was my great good fortune to get to know [his wife] Milena a little bit, and my wife and I greatly enjoyed lunches at the Davisons’ house followed by a play by the Resident Ensemble Players. (In almost every case, Dick had already seen the play but was happy to go again.) They were a wonderful match, as Milena had and has a complementary spirit, intelligence and spark. When I think of Dick, it is always and absolutely an image of him with a delighted smile on his face. He is either sharing some experience or observation he knows I will be interested in, or expressing deep interest in and curiosity about something I’ve experienced or said. It’s a good and comforting image, but of course no substitute for the real Dick.”

Lois Potter, professor emeritus: "Richard Davison was always eager to talk about theatre and knew an enormous amount about the American stage. We often had lively conversations about the New York scene and about the PTTP., which we both loved. He and Milena were a delightful couple to be around." 

About Richard Davison

Born in Montréal, Canada, Dr. Davison earned his bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College, his master’s degree at the University of Rochester and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Before joining UD, he taught at Gettysburg College and Seattle University and was a visiting professor at Washington College and at universities in Essen and Cologne, Germany. While at Seattle University, he was the director of the English Graduate Program and wrote and hosted 39 episodes of a television series, Literature and Life, in 1966.

Richard Davison
Dr. Davison in a 1983 photo, courtesy of University Archives and Records Management

Dr. Davison was the author of numerous articles on such figures as Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Stephen Crane, Hart Crane, Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren, Steinbeck, Albee, Salinger, and Hemingway.  A member of the Hemingway Society and the Fitzgerald Society, he was a past president of the Frank Norris Society and published articles and books on Frank, Charles, and Kathleen Norris. 

The John Updike Society, of which he was a charter member, posted a memorial to Dr. Davison shortly after his death. The tribute notes Dr. Davison’s resemblance to Updike and recalls that he enjoyed telling the story of when they first met. Updike joked that it was “like looking in a mirror.” The article also salutes Dr. Davison as “the embodiment of the ‘gentleman scholar,’ who enjoyed talking about literature and was always gracious.”

Richard Davison

A passionate theatergoer from the time he saw his first Broadway show, The Music Man, in 1958, Dr. Davison was an enthusiastic audience member, scholar, dramaturg and corresponded with many great theatre artists. He coedited two books on theatre with Jackson Bryer, The Actor’s Art and The Art of the American Musical, which features interviews with 18 leading composers, choreographers, producers and directors, including UD alumna Susan Stroman.

Dr. Davison is survived by his wife of 48 years, Milena (Taychman) Davison; children, Heather Davison (Julian), Gregory Davison and Anne Davison (Amy); and one grandchild, Moth.

A celebration of his life will be held this spring.

Donations in Dr. Davison’s memory may be made to the University of Delaware Library, Special Collections, Office of Development and Alumni Relations, 83 East Main St., Third Floor, Newark, DE 19716-2128. Please include “Special Collections” on the memo line.

To read his complete obituary or leave online condolences, visit Spicer-Mullikin Funeral Homes.

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