The first thing Buster Davis ever told me was “no.”
It was 2006, and I’d been working for The Itawamba County Times a little over a year.
(There are so many … many things I want to tell 2006 Adam. He was so young. So naïve. So hopeful for the future. I could crush his spirit like a cicada husk between my fingers.)
By that point in my journalism career, I was relatively comfortable with interviewing, photographing and writing about people. Or, at least as comfortable as I’d ever get. Mr. Davis had just been voted “Best Itawamba Ambassador” in our annual Best of Itawamba competition and, as was the practice at the time, was to be the subject of a feature on the front page of the special section announcing the winners. I’d written the story about the previous year’s winner, the lovely Ms. Marilyn Leary, and knew the process: I’d call Mr. Davis up, tell him he was a favorite of the people. He’d be thrilled, no doubt, and eager for a bit of time in the spotlight. He’d welcome my interview with open arms, greeting me like a never-met long-lost friend. We’d chat for a bit. I’d snap his pic. We’d high-five. Then I’d return to the office to write some Pulitzer Prize shoo-in. The world would be a better place.
Obviously, I didn’t know Mr. Buster Davis all that well. Not only did Mr. Davis not welcome me with open arms like a long-lost friend and yadda yadda yadda, he outright turned down the interview and sort of suggested that maybe we consider finding ourselves an alternate “Best Itawamba Ambassador.”
I was rattled, to say the least. I’d had my job for a relatively short amount of time, and I was still eager to impress my bosses and our readers. Surely, I couldn’t let them down by failing to write a feature on that year’s beloved “Best Itawamba Ambassador.”
So, showing an uncharacteristic amount of resolution, I drove down to see Mr. Davis at his dealership.
My first mistake was showing up during Mr. Davis’ lunch break. I was invited to wait for him to return. As I understand it, he was somewhere in the building watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
I sat in his office at the far side of the dealership, a modest, understated space for a man with several lifetimes’ worth of accomplishments under his belt. When Mr. Davis returned some 10 minutes later, he greeted me graciously, but not exactly eagerly. I stated my case again, told him being named “Best Itawamba Ambassador” was an honor because it came directly from our readers. I asked again if he’d reconsider letting me interview him.
He told me “no.” Again.
After several minutes of back and forth arguing-but-not-quite-arguing about the matter, Mr. Davis finally agreed to let me ask him a few questions and then jot down his answers. Which I did, although the man seemed skeptical of the endeavor the entire time. We wrapped things up fairly quickly and parted on amicable terms. I thought we were good.
Then, Dr. David Cole called me. You know, former Itawamba Community College president, Dr. David Cole? Yeah, he called. And not even to waive my outstanding tuition fees. No, he wanted to talk about Buster Davis.
“Mr. Davis wants me to ask you not to publish that story about him,” was the gist of what he told me. At that point, I was getting increasingly flustered with the whole situation. Understand, I wasn’t trying to put Mr. Davis in an uncomfortable position; I just wanted to write the story I was expected to write. I was still eager to please back then. (Oh, young Adam. How you’ll change.)
I pleaded my case to Dr. Cole, and he seemed to understand. He told me he’d talk to Mr. Davis.
And I guess he did, because a day or so later, Dr. Cole dropped by the office. He’d been sent by Mr. Davis, (his wording … “sent”) to request a chance to read my story before it published, a total break from our paper’s standard practice of guarding stories like porcelain children until the day we toss them out into the unyielding concrete of the world.
Again, I was put in another awkward position. I knew our paper’s policy, but I was beyond frustrated with the entire situation by that point. I relented, told Dr. Cole he and Mr. Davis could see the story before it published (by the way … the only time I’ve allowed such a thing in all my years at the paper). I printed a copy and handed it to Dr. Cole. Maybe I’m just reading into it, but he seemed relieved.
He returned less than an hour later with only the most minute of notes in the margins. If I recall, Mr. Davis had fixed one of my typos and had me downplay some of his accomplishments.
Dr. Cole told me Mr. Davis was OK with running the story.
I can’t say for certain, but I think Mr. Davis remained irritated with me for a while. For the next couple of years, if he needed something from me, he wouldn’t call. Instead, he’d tell our advertising manager, Shelley, to have “that boy” come and see him. That was me. “That boy.”
But eventually, Mr. Davis started calling when he needed something.
“This is Buster,” he’d say. “Come see me.” And then he’d hang up.
Over the years, I learned a few things about Buster Davis. Just as I wasn’t trying to put him out by writing a story about him, he wasn’t trying to cause me trouble by bucking against the very idea of being written about. Despite all the accolades and accomplishments, the pie-in-the-sky projects he spearheaded and largely saw to completion, Mr. Davis was a reserved person. He didn’t like the limelight and didn’t care for a bunch of praise, even if he deserved it.
So, I’m pretty sure he would have hated this column and all the fuss people are no doubt making about him since his passing last week. But just like 14 years ago, he deserves every bit.