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April 12, 2004

From migrant to presidential advisor

From: North County Times - Escondido,CA,USA - Apr 12, 2004


LA JOLLA ---- In speaking with Robert Davila, it is easy to forget that he is deaf.

In the offices of National University, where he was recently named chairman for technology and the adult learner, it was also easy to forget that he grew up in poverty as the son of a migrant farmworking family in Barrio Carlsbad.

"I take the good with the bad," Davila said, in a sort of understatement about his life. In a recent interview with the North County Times, he answered questions by reading sign language from an assistant, then enunciating words that he could remember, but not hear.

The 71-year-old educator, who served as an adviser to the first President Bush, was one of eight children in the Davila family. His parents struggled to survive by working in nearby fields. During harvest, the family traveled to the Central Valley to pick tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables.

Early in his childhood, he lost his father, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, while working in an orchard.

"My father would get up on the tree and shake it," he said. "He had a heart attack and fell from the tree. Somebody ran for help, but when help arrived two or three hours later, he had died."

An early obstacle

A few years later, when he was 8 years old, Davila had a bout with spinal meningitis, which his mother initially thought was the flu, he said.

"I was in the house for a couple of weeks; doctors couldn't figure it out either," he said.

By the time the childhood disease was detected, Davila had lost his hearing.

"It was not as traumatic as it would have been if I was older," he said, his face showing only hints of sadness.

Because local schools were not equipped to teach a deaf child in those days, Davila was sent to a school for the deaf in Berkeley. There he thrived, he said, calling the experience a rare opportunity for a good education.

"When I got to school, I found out that those who would run the fastest, jump highest or get better grades would get to go to the movies," Davila said regaining his smile. Soon, he said, "I made the honor roll."

At the school he learned that there was more to life than just working in the fields. Once he reached his goal of a high school diploma, Davila set his sights on a college degree. He applied and was accepted into Gallaudet University, a leading school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor's degree.

Into academia

Davila went on to receive a master's degree in special education from Hunter College in New York City and a doctorate in educational technology from Syracuse University.

In 1971, Davila returned as a professor to Gallaudet University, where he met and became friends with Jerry C. Lee, who is now chancellor at National University. Davila later became vice president at Gallaudet.

Early on, he said, he learned from a teacher to "never close the door on opportunity." So when he was asked to apply for a position in the administration of President Reagan, he did. He did not get the job, however.

Eight years later, when President George H. Bush was elected, he was asked to apply once again. This time he was appointed assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services in the U.S. Department of Education.

Davila said he looked at his Latino heritage and his poor family's background not as a hindrance but as a motivational force.

"I was influenced by two thoughts: I needed to succeed and didn't want to fail."

Driven to succeed

The drive to succeed was instilled in him by his mother, but he also developed a fear of failure because he did not want others to say that "Latinos couldn't do the job," he said.

One of his favorite mottos comes from baseball: Make the play first.

As a child he remembered seeing a baseball player miss a play because he tried to complain to the umpire about a call.

"I don't believe in bitching," he said. "Make the play first. Doing it will sidetrack you. It will deter you. There are no shortcuts, no magic solution."

He added that education is key in creating opportunity: "It worked for me, and I am not special."

After leaving government when the Bush administration lost the election against President Bill Clinton, he went to work as vice president of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Most recently, Davila was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the National Council on Disability.

At National University, his old friend Chancellor Lee chose Davila as the school's first endowed chairman for technology and the adult learner. In the position, Davila will serve as adviser on education for people with disabilities and help develop instructional practices.

A simple decision

When it came time to name the first chairman, Lee said the decision was simple.

"You've heard his story. Good grief. Hard work, perseverance, he doesn't complain," Lee said. "He's been so successful, it will be difficult for the next chair to fill his shoes."

Though he will keep his residence on the East Coast ---- where his wife, Donna Ekstrom Davila, and his two sons Brian and Brent live ---- his new job will give him an opportunity to visit the old barrio more often, Davila said.

His youngest sister, Mary Helen Moreno, still lives in Carlsbad, though no longer in the barrio. She said she barely remembers her brother before he left for Berkeley. But she remembers the summers when he returned home, when he read to her and gave her nickels to buy candy at the neighborhood store.

"He's been on his own from very early on," Moreno said. "He's been remarkable."

Contact staff writer Edward Sifuentes at (760) 740-5426 or

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