PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Favorite son Martin L. Davey got warm homecoming in 1939

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

It might have seemed like the entire town turned out to welcome Martin L. Davey back home to Kent.

The two-term governor of Ohio had left office hours earlier, during the morning of Jan. 9, 1939, and was returning from Columbus to the city where he was born and had begun his career in politics a quarter-century earlier.

He and his wife, Berenice -- whom he called "Ohio's most beautiful and gracious first lady" -- were escorted along a parade route from their home on West Main Street to the Kent Opera House, where they were guests of honor for a tumultuous homecoming celebration.

"The streets to the theater were lined with people," the Kent Courier-Tribune reported. "Boy Scouts carried red flares and bombs were exploded to herald the arrival of the city's first citizen."

The Opera House -- where Davey had received his Kent High School diploma during commencement ceremonies in 1900 and later made his first political speech ­-- was filled beyond capacity. More than 1,000 Kent residents crowded the auditorium area; an overflow crowd gathered outside at the corner of Columbus and North Water streets to hear the program over a public address system.

Davey's close friend, W.W. Reed, served as toastmaster for the event, introducing 50 prominent Kent citizens and guests seated on the platform. Speakers included Kent State University President Karl Clayton Leebrick and two of his predecessors, James O. Engleman and John McGilvery; Kent State had attained university status in 1935 during Davey's first term. Other speakers represented Kent civic organizations and service clubs.

The former governor had been denied a third term after losing the Democratic primary in 1938; he was touched by the ovation from his friends and neighbors. "I'd rather have this demonstration than the acclaim of the greatest multitude without it," he said.

Davey spoke informally, "confining his brief address to a rambling ... conversation with the audience on his associations in Kent," the Courier-Tribune reported.

He dropped a hint at the possibility of a political comeback. "You can never tell what the old fire horse will do when the gong rings," said the 54-year-old former governor, who also had served as mayor of Kent and four terms in Congress.

His homecoming salute took place 25 years after he began his career in public service, taking over as mayor of his hometown in January 1914 at the age of 29.

In his first address to Village Council -- Kent wouldn't become a city until after the 1920 census -- Davey outlined his goals as mayor and also shared his political philosophy. "There is great work to be done. The people are expecting much."

Davey began his remarks with a plea for unity, appealing for cooperation from the council, which was divided politically.

"Foremost in all our actions must be the spirit of courtesy and cooperation," he said. "We cannot always agree on everything, but when we disagree we shall both extend and receive the utmost courtesy. We shall give every consideration to opposing opinions."

The new mayor said there was "only one big idea" to guide the village in dealing with the challenges it confronted. "That which is best for the people as a whole must be the basis for all our decisions," he said.

"We must be progressive. The people expect it. We promised it," he said. "Never was a more false doctrine expounded than that expressed by the saying, 'Let well enough alone.' It is un-American."

After taking office as mayor 100 years ago, Martin L. Davey was re-elected twice, cutting short his final year in office to go on to Congress. He served until 1928, when he made his first bid for governor. He lost that race, but went on to win the state's top office in 1934 -- just 20 years after taking office as mayor of Kent.

After ending his service as governor, he returned to Kent to resume his duties as president of the Davey Tree Expert Co., which his father, John Davey had founded.

"The old fire horse" made one more bid for office, running for governor for the fourth and final time in 1940 but losing the race to incumbent Gov. John Bricker. A year later he had a serious heart attack that curtailed his political activities. He was 61 years old when he died on March 31, 1946.

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