John M. Davis founded the Seattle law firm that became Davis Wright Tremaine and grew into one of the country’s most successful law firms.
As John M. Davis founded his solo law practice in 1944, he scribbled notes on the back of an envelope he called his “Real Aims.” They were: “Good reputation among fellow men, especially for ability and integrity.”
What he started on that premise would grow into one of the most successful law firms in the country, Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine, with offices throughout the country and Shanghai.
And Mr. Davis, who died of natural causes Friday at the age of 101, would be remembered for living up to those aspirations.
“His brilliance. His intellect. His keen wit. And his dedication to public service,” said Mark Hutcheson, a senior partner at the firm. “He drank the Kool-Aid. He was a real believer in service to others.”
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Mr. Davis, who until last year regularly visited the firm’s offices on a weekly basis, never officially retired.
“He truly was our moral compass,” said Hutcheson, who joined the firm in 1968.
“Mr. Davis was invaluable mentor to generations of attorneys at the firm,” said Jeff Gray, the firm’s managing partner.
During his career, Mr. Davis, who watched his father work as a banker and who himself worked at a bank while an undergraduate at the University of Washington, developed a reputation as a top banking lawyer.
He served as counsel to Washington’s state banking association for 36 years and, early on, saw the potential of Asian markets. He helped Japanese banks open offices in Seattle, a key step in promoting Pacific Rim trade.
His firm also has served for many years as legal counsel to The Seattle Times.
A Boy Scout and Eagle Scout in his youth, he carried the values into public service as an adult, including more than three decades of work with the Pacific Science Center. He also was a founder of the Mountaineers Foundation, and served for 27 years on the board of Virginia Mason Medical Center.
“It is our duty to participate in the community — it’s part and parcel of being a lawyer,” Mr. Davis once said.
In 2004, in honor of his 90th birthday, the law firm established an annual diversity scholarship in his name at the University of Washington School of Law, where Mr. Davis earned his law degree and was one of its oldest living graduates.
John MacDougall Davis was born in Seattle on Feb. 20, 1914, to David Lyle Davis and Georgina MacDougall Davis. The family lived on Mercer Island and then in Spokane, where Mr. Davis attended school.
Early in his law career, Mr. Davis worked as an associate in a prominent Seattle firm, which promised to take care of him. But he “wanted to take care of others,” according to a remembrance posted on the law firm’s website, and set out to establish his own practice.
He also devoted himself to family life. With him throughout was his wife of 70 years, Ruth VanArsdale Davis, who died on Dec. 20, 2009, at the same Mercer Island retirement community where Mr. Davis died.
The couple raised six children, first on Capitol Hill in Seattle and then on Mercer Island. Outdoor activities, including mountain climbing, played a big part of their lives.
Margaret Philbrick, a daughter who lives on Mercer Island, recalled a family climb of Mount Rainier when she was 14. “It was exciting and it was pivotal,” she said. “Dad wanted us to learn self-reliance. He wanted us to develop a habit of perseverance.”
A son, Bruce Davis, of Seattle, recalled at 15 climbing all six of Washington’s major peaks with his father and mother during one summer.
The family also spent weekends on property at Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula, where Mr. Davis once came across a young man who had become stuck in a tree while installing a TV antenna. Mr. Davis retrieved his tree-climbing gear and rescued the man.
He was in his 70s at the time, Philbrick said.
It was the same intensity he brought to all he did, marked by an embrace of changing culture and technology.
He brought women into the legal profession, built a personal computer from a kit so he could learn about what then was a budding new technology, and enjoyed studying the mysteries of the universe, according to Philbrick and Bruce Davis.
Besides Philbrick and Bruce Davis, Mr. Davis is survived by four other children, Jean Davis Burpee, of Roseburg, Ore., John M. Davis Jr., of Port Orchard, Ann Davis Palmason, of Mercer Island, and Elizabeth Davis, of Seattle; along with 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, who reside in Washington, Texas, California and Japan.
His brothers, David T. Davis and Donald C. Davis, predeceased him.
Mr. Davis played a patriarchal role in the family.
“His passing is significant to an extended family that he kind of provided an anchor to,” Bruce Davis said.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. May 17 at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, 3605 84th Ave. S.E., with a reception beginning at 2 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made through a gift to a favorite charity or through service to those in need.