On January 17, Shelby M.C. Davis ’54 GP’06 ’07 ’15 ’18 became the 28th recipient of The Lawrenceville Medal, the highest honor bestowed by Lawrenceville on an alumnus. The medal, presented in memory of groundbreaking environmentalist and author Aldo Leopold, Class of 1905, recognizes “lifetime achievement in a significant field of endeavor.”
Shelby, founder of Davis Advisors and benefactor of two trailblazing international scholarship funds, modestly credits luck for the enormous success of his business and philanthropic interests.
“I’ve been very, very lucky in my life,” he told the hundred or so guests who gathered to honor him at the annual Aldo Leopold Dinner.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he said in accepting the award, and went on to cite the influence of his parents and “two tailwinds” – 15 years of exponential growth in the stock market and the rise of globalization – in the respective achievements of Davis Advisors and the Davis scholarship funds.
He cheerfully observed, “As the Davis Funds grew, money poured in at the end. Now (with the Davis United World Scholars and Davis Scholars programs) it’s pouring out.
“That’s the way it should be,” he continued. “My parents gave me this roadmap for life: 30 years of learning, 30 years of earning, and 30 years of returning. I am now in the returning phase.” He went on to say that he inherited his business genes from his father, “a great investor,” and his philanthropy genes from his mother, “an idealist.” He also noted his early exposure to the value of international experiences and relationships.
Returning to the role of luck in his financial success, he said, “In 1982 the stock market took off and went from 1,000 to 10,000 over the next 15 years. A 1995 cover story in Money magazine called me ‘Mr. Reliable,’ and advised that mine was the only fund anyone should own. Our money under management tripled in three years. At age 60, it was time to enter the return phase.”
A particular bit of motherly wisdom provided additional motivation: “Unless you are the richest man in the world, no one will remember you for the money you made, but they will remember what you did with it.”
Davis was inspired to focus his philanthropy on education and saw an opportunity in extending the mission of the United World Colleges (UWC), an international high school program that brings together students across nations, cultures, and socioeconomic divides with the goal of advancing global understanding. He established the Davis United World College Scholars program in 2000 to continue the lessons of the UWC at the undergraduate level, where international scholarships are rare.
As he had done with Davis Advisors, he started small, with 43 students in five colleges – schools attended by family members. Assisted by the “tailwind” of globalization, the program has grown to include 95 participating colleges and universities and more than 8,500 program alumni. Davis jokes that he is currently paying 3,300 college tuitions.
In 2008, in response to a proposal from Lawrenceville, Davis expanded his United World College Scholars program to a select group of independent secondary schools. Since its inception, the Davis Scholars program has supported 219 students from underrepresented countries in an effort to enhance the global and economic diversity at American boarding schools. Among these are 60 Lawrentians.
Andres Larrieu ’18, currently studying at Princeton, spoke emotionally at the dinner of the opportunity to attend Lawrenceville as a Davis Scholar. “I have experienced things I never could have done in Mexico,” he said. “My family is forever in your debt, Mr. Davis.” Ian Rice ’95, President of the Alumni Association, read a number of congratulatory messages from Shelby’s classmates.
Speaking to students at School Meeting earlier in the day, Davis shared more of the advice that had guided his own path. He told of maintaining the family garden as a child and selling eggs to neighbors, then using the proceeds to start the habit of saving and investing. He counseled the students to study history’s great leaders to learn perspective and judgement. He touted the Rule of 72, a simple formula for assessing the impact of compound interest. And he closed with more parental wisdom: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
For both audiences, his ultimate message was clear. Calling his philanthropy “the best thing I’ve ever done,” he added, “I was at the right place at the right time with the right program. Life couldn’t get any better. Mission accomplished!”
Shelby Davis came to Lawrenceville as a Third Former in 1951 and lived in Kennedy and Upper Houses. He competed in tennis, participated in Periwig and Herodotus, and was assistant editor of The Lawrence and associate editor of the Olla Pod. He graduated Cum Laude and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton in 1958. He holds numerous honorary degrees.
He also holds the distinction of having been the youngest vice president at the Bank of New York since its founding in 1784 by Alexander Hamilton. In 1969 he left his position as head of equity research to found Davis Advisors, an independent, employee-owned investment management company.
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