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November 19, 2002

Dry cleaner relied on expertise of 57-year employee

From: Denver Post, CO
Nov. 19, 2002

By Claire Martin
Denver Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 19, 2002 - Willie Davis Sr. missed only one day of work in nearly 60 years at Paradise Cleaners, and that was when his physician insisted he take two weeks off to recuperate from a heart attack.

So when he didn't show up for work recently, Paradise owner Buzz Geller knew something was wrong. Then Davis' daughter, Claricy Davis Weeams, called.

Her father had died Nov. 8 of respiratory failure. He was 76.

Davis lost his hearing in an accident when he was 9 years old. He was playing "Follow the Leader" with some friends when the leader leaped off a shed roof. Willie also jumped, but nobody noticed he had landed awkwardly. The rest of the kids piled on top of him.

His mother noticed that Willie couldn't hold his head up. It turned out he had broken his neck.

He spent the next 18 months in traction and, shortly afterward, lost his hearing.

The disability forced him to be transferred from his public school in Little Rock, Ark., to the Arkansas School for the Deaf, where he lived on campus in segregated housing known as the Negro Dormitory. He learned American Sign Language and received occupational training that, because of Jim Crow laws, limited his choices to shoe repair and laundering.

Davis chose laundering and easily found work.

He started at Paradise Cleaners in 1945 and became involved in Denver's deaf community. He played basketball and softball for the Silent Athletic Club. When the club traveled, motel operators often turned him away but rented to his white teammates. (They slipped him in, anyway, but he often had to sleep on the floor.)

At Paradise Cleaners, Davis worked his way up from trainee to manager of dry cleaning operations. Though he was deaf, Davis could diagnose boiler problems and other mechanical breakdowns.

"He could fix anything," owner Geller said.

"You know that there's probably 100 different mechanical devices incorporated into a boiler. He'd know if it was the shut-off valve or the pump. He had full knowledge of every machine in the dry-cleaning industry. That and all the plumbing."

Davis was the company's master spotter, tackling the toughest stains - nail polish, caramelized oil, permanent marker - that the chain's 17 stores sent to the plant.

"We used to say that if Willie can't get it out, the only way to get that stain is to cut it out," Geller said.

"He's a miracle worker. It sounds like a little thing, getting a stain out, but the knowledge is in knowing how far to go without taking the color out of the garment. It's a feel that you get. You can almost start to see the dye moving around on the fabric.

"He had a printed card he'd initial saying, 'This is the best I can do,' and sign it 'WD,"' Geller said. "I heard ... from Mike Rosen, the KOA show host, who said he'd gotten clothes back with those cards, and he couldn't even see where the stain was. But Willie could. He was a real perfectionist."

Then-owner Jack Geller, who hired Davis, was so impressed with him that he learned American Sign Language so they could communicate, said Buzz Geller, who inherited the business when his father died.

"Willie and my dad always communicated through sign language," said Buzz Geller, who communicated with Davis in writing after he inherited the business, at age 28.

Geller said that when his father died, it wasn't until he went into the plant that he broke down.

"I was born next-door to the plant, and I never came in a day without talking to Willie for some period of time," he said.

"I just fell into his arms. Seeing him made my father's death real," he said. "And now, losing Willie. ... It's hard for me to even walk back to the area of the plant where you could usually find him."

Besides his daughter, survivors include Davis' wife, Elizabeth; sons Willie Earl Davis Jr., Lawson Claire Davis, Owen Lafayette Davis, and Homer Bell Davis; 11 grandchildren; and 5 great-grandchildren.

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