Jim Davidson of Conway is in a battle against illiteracy, one child at a time. Davidson, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, began an initiative in 2005 known as Bookcase for Every Child. The goal is to provide preschool children from low-income families with personalized bookcases and starter sets of books.
"Without good literacy skills, these children have little hope for achieving personal success," Davidson says. "In fact, many will wind up on drugs and in a life of crime. What makes this project unique is that no tax money or grants of any kind are used. ... It's all about giving back, and no one involved in the project earns a penny. This isn't a school project. It's people from every sector pulling together to make their community a better place to live."
Davidson and I are having lunch at Ira's on Main Street in downtown Little Rock. He's 80 now and shows no signs of slowing down. He eats very little of his lunch because he's so busy talking about the project. We're joined by Dennis Schick, the former director of the Arkansas Press Association. Davidson says Schick has "encouraged and inspired me since beginning my weekly column in the Log Cabin Democrat."
Davidson was raised at Gould in southeast Arkansas, where his parents owned a restaurant. He initially found his niche as a salesman. He was working for Democrat Printing and Lithographing Co. of Little Rock when he had the opportunity to sell motivational tapes produced by Earl Nightingale, an author and speaker. In 1956, Nightingale produced a spoken-word record, The Strangest Secret. It sold more than a million copies, and Nightingale's career took off. Nightingale's radio program, Our Changing World, became the most syndicated program in history. It was broadcast in about 25 countries and on the Armed Forces Network. Nightingale died in 1989 at age 68.
In 1980, Davidson began his own syndicated radio program titled How To Plan Your Life. It first aired on KARN-AM in Little Rock. In 1995, he added the weekly newspaper column for the Log Cabin Democrat at Conway. There eventually would be 375 newspapers in 35 states running the column. It's published in almost 20 newspapers these days as Davidson devotes most of his time to the bookcase project. There are Bookcase for Every Child affiliates in six states.
"I've recorded 1,400 radio shows and written 1,170 columns," Davidson says. He also has written six books. The most recent, published last year, is My Heartfelt Passion: Saving Our Nation One Child at a Time.
"Improving literacy sounds simple, and it is for those of us who are literate," Davidson writes. "But it means much more for the 42 million adults in America who cannot read at level one, the fifth grade. What is tragic is the vast majority of our citizens do not know that illiteracy is a major problem, one that is not only costing us billions of dollars in lost productivity but is the root cause of much of the violence, crime and the turn our society has taken in recent years. You know something is terribly wrong when something as simple as going to the mall now has a fear factor not present even a decade ago."
In Conway, an annual banquet is held to raise money for the project. More than 700 bookcases have been presented in Conway. The nationwide total has surpassed 2,000.
Davidson says his life changed in 1968 when he decided to take the Dale Carnegie self-improvement course. His boss at Democrat Printing and Lithographing, Bert Parke, paid for the course. Parke, who died in August 2015 at age 85, graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1952, served in the U.S. Air Force for two years and then joined his family business (the company had been founded in 1871) in 1954. He served on the Worthen National Bank board, chaired the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's first Opus Ball along with his wife, was the president of the Arkansas Travelers baseball organization for three decades and was inducted into the Texas League Hall of Fame.
"The course was fantastic," Davidson says. "The instructor was the late Bob Gannaway. Bob was a wonderful teacher and a real Christian gentleman who helped me greatly. A part of each class in the 14-week course involved each member giving a one- to two-minute speech. To start this activity, Bob would call for a volunteer, and I would volunteer first every time until he finally caught on to what I was doing. My attitude was that if I was going to have to speak anyway, I may as well go ahead and get it over with. Then I could relax while I listened to the other speeches."
Davidson says Gannaway began making him speak last. Davidson had already determined that he liked public speaking. Gannaway later invited him to go into business selling the motivational tapes.
"It wasn't an easy decision because I was now earning more than $25,000 a year, and that was a lot of money back then," Davidson says. "However, I saw an opportunity to help people who had a background similar to mine. Because it would involve public speaking, this was something I knew that I would love to do. In May 1970, we formed Motivation Services Inc. and opened offices in the Donaghey Building in downtown Little Rock. Bob was like a second father to me."
He says Parke understood his decision to leave the company. Davidson was following his passion. Almost half a century later, he's passionate about getting books into the hands of children from poor families. If you're reading this column, you probably take reading for granted. Davidson's message: "Don't."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 09/08/2018
Print Headline: One child at a time