Henry Fulton Davis III, a resident of Brooklin, died peacefully on Feb. 15 on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, with his family at his side. For several years, he had been in assisted living under the care of daughter, Alexa Rosenthal, together with Alexa’s husband, Michael, who supported Henry with love and courage.
Henry was born in Boston on Sept. 15, 1928, to Henry F. Davis II and Mary Woods Davis, both from western Pennsylvania. He lived most of his life in the Boston area, retiring to Brooklin in the early 2000s. Henry’s fascination with machines emerged early, as did his love of trees. Thanks to an uncle, Henry learned to sail as a teenager. He soon dreamt of sailing around the world, but trees came first, along with marriage to his wife of 55 years, Sheila Fiona Rice Davis.
Henry graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1949, where he trained as an arborist. He spent two years in the Army as a medic during the Korean War. In 1957, he negotiated the purchase of a small tree-care outfit, known as Lowden Tree Specialists, turning it into an arboricultural powerhouse in the Boston area. In the early 1960s, he contributed to the DDT debate, and in the 1970s, along with a colleague, devised a treatment regimen for Dutch elm disease. The treatment mixed the fungicide Mycostatin with a powerful solvent, allowing for a quick uptake into the elm’s crown. Proper pruning methods were also a particular concern and the University of Massachusetts invited him to lecture on the subject in the early 2000s.
Henry enjoyed voicing for his children and grandchildren the Latin name for this or that exotic tree. Henry served as a director of the Friends of the Public Garden and worked with Henry Lee and others for over 45 years to preserve the elms and other trees on the Boston Common. Mayor Thomas Menino declared April 26, 2013, “Henry Davis Day” in the city of Boston out of gratitude for his service.
Meanwhile the ocean beckoned. Starting in the early 1960s, Henry took his family on ever more ambitious and sometimes unsettling sailing voyages. His children remember a wrong turn along the Intracoastal Waterway, putting his family in a North Carolina swamp for the night. They remember the stormy night he and Fiona navigated the inlet at Ocean City, Md. With his boat the Nabob II beached on a far-flung island, they remember Henry commandeering a bulldozer to haul the heavy welding equipment needed to fix the boat’s prop. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, he dropped down over a line of sand dunes in the bulldozer to the beach, equipment loaded.
His sailing ventures expanded with trips across the Atlantic, up the Seine in France, and down the coast of Africa, which included an extended journey up the Gambia River. When it came to rivers, his first choice was the Yangtze. The Chinese government politely ended that prospect. In the 1980s, Henry sailed with family and friends across the Pacific to Japan, China and New Guinea. In the 1990s, things settled a bit with more time in Brooklin.
Henry had many passions: trees, machines, sailing, music, history, family. Whether it be a sprawling electric train layout, a radio tower that the authorities insisted endangered planes, a mystifying crane design for putting in floats or happily mending a broken steering cable while tossed about in an Atlantic storm his hands-on brilliance with gadgets both amazed and irked. He spent many hours reading history and speculating about its inner workings, its direction. He loved classical music to a fault (“turn it down!”).
Henry engaged in various philanthropic efforts in the Boston area. He served as president of the Norfolk Fellowship Foundation, helping inmates at the Norfolk Prison in Massachusetts re-enter society. He served as a trustee of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and president of the Massachusetts Arborist Association, as well as chairman of the Massachusetts Certified Arborist Testing Board.
Henry was predeceased by his wife, Fiona, and infant daughter, Sheila Victoria Davis. He was also predeceased by his sister, Rebecca Flather, and brother, William Woods Davis. Henry will be missed by friends and family including his three children, Hank Davis (Tracy Spencer) of Brooklin; Tony Davis (Robin) of Orleans, Mass., and Alexa Davis Rosenthal (Michael) of Bainbridge Island, Wash. His grandchildren will feel his loss in the deepest way: Julian Davis (Kiara), Vesta Davis, Brooke Davis Capuano (Joseph), Skye Davis and Luc Rosenthal, Jesse Rosenthal and Wyatt Rosenthal. Henry’s 10-month-old great granddaughter, Cora Capuano, was by his side when Henry took his last breath. She will miss him in ways only she will know. His family will never forget the five years of unwavering love and support that the caregivers at the Madrona House on Bainbridge Island provided Henry.
A scholarship in Henry’s name has been set up to promote the art and science of arboriculture. Donations can be sent to The Henry Davis Scholarship c/o Scott McPhee, Harrison McPhee Inc., 14 Milliston Road, Suite 202 Millis, MA 02054 (harrisonmcphee.com/about-2). A celebration of the lives of both Henry and Fiona will take place in Westwood, Mass., on Sept. 24, details to be announced.