Desse Ervin Davis Sr., age 85, passed away Monday, October 16, 2023. Funeral services were held Saturday, October 21, at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church with Rev. Dr. Alfred Cason officiating. Burial followed at Swainsboro City Cemetery. “Cancer overtook his physical body, but his strong faith in God reminds us all that he is now free.”
Desse was born April 30, 1938, in Swainsboro, to the late Bessie Lucille and Carlos Davis. Born and reared in Swainsboro, he touched the lives of many all over Emanuel County and beyond through his many years in education and public service. His father was killed when he was a toddler, so Desse and his siblings were raised primarily by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet for her family of four children. As the oldest male in the home, he learned the value of hard work at an early age. Those traits honed through hours working on farms and in the fields made a lasting impact on his life and helped shape the values for his future. Desse graduated from segregated public schools in Emanuel County and played college football and basketball while on his way to earning his bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College. He began his teaching career at Emanuel County Elementary and High School, but most people may not know that his first job in education was working as a school janitor on his way to eventually becoming a teacher and coach. Desse later met another young teacher, Nellie Zackery, and they wed in March 1968. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 2018 in a union that produced three children; the late Desse Jr., John and Natalie. Nellie, a retired English teacher, affectionately known as Zack to family and close friends, passed away in August 2018 after an extended battle with cancer. Desse earned a master’s degree from Valdosta State University and an education specialist’s degree from Georgia Southern University. He worked as a math teacher, cross country, football and track coach in Emanuel County Schools for 22 years. Desse also worked part-time for the Emanuel County Recreation Department and for 25 years as a referee and high school athletics official. He was the first African American principal of Swainsboro High School and was the first principal to serve in the newly built SHS in 1989. Desse was principal for 10 years at SHS, working alongside former students-turned teachers and helping guide the lives of second and even third generations of students and families. As a track and cross-country coach, he earned 13 Coach of the Year awards from the Georgia High School Association. During his tenure as principal, SHS was designated a Public School of Excellence and was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. In 1993, Desse was honored as a national educator of the year by the Milken Family Foundation. He was also honored as Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2010. Desse retired from SHS in 1995 after 32 years as an educator, but his efforts to inspire young people continued. After retiring from the public school system, he became full-time principal at the Emanuel County Youth Development Center. His students, particularly the young men he coached, were an extension of his family, and he maintained friendships with them beyond their high school days. Former players often called and visited on into adulthood, another testament to his impact on their lives. In addition to Desse’s work in education and athletics, he was deeply involved in his church and community as a deacon of more than 50 years at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, and as an Emanuel County Commissioner since 1995. In 2019, Desse was also honored as a recipient of the Book of Golden Deeds from the Swainsboro Exchange Club. He was also a proud member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Desse served as commission chairman during his tenure on the board and despite sickness and failing health, attended meetings regularly until he could no longer do so in person. He’d often ask people where they attended church and invite them to Oak Grove. Even in his waning days when he was no longer strong enough to attend, he checked up on his church family, whom he loved so dearly. In spite of tough times, Desse was not above offering financial support to others in need. He was always willing to advise or provide wise counsel to anyone who needed it. Desse gave of his time and sacrificed so much for his family, his church and the community that he loved so dearly — his hometown. His family and his faith were most important, however, and he took his role as head of his family to heart. Desse never allowed the circumstances of his humble beginnings or the tragic loss of his father to hinder his growth and progress through hard work and sacrifice. He instilled that same work ethic in his children, and it lives on through them today, as will his lasting legacy. Whether working in his church, tending to his farm, or speaking to young people in the community, Desse worked hard at everything he did in hopes of impacting and inspiring others. Mr. Davis is preceded in death by his parents; son, Desse Jr.; wife, Nellie; sister, Nina K. Davis Bell; son-in-law, Octavious TaShawn Linder; and three grandchildren, Bryson Zackery, Byron Octavious and Bella Ann Linder.
Mr. Davis is survived by his son, John; daughter, Natalie; his grandson, the apple of his eye, Brayden Nicholas Cordal Linder; sister, Annie Vaughn Godfrey (James) of Atlanta; brother, Jesse (Bernetta) Davis of Swainsboro; several nieces, nephews, cousins, other extended family and friends.
Reno Tapley Mortuary was in charge of arrangements.