Hours at Catholic Worker teach Knight of Columbus enthusiasm, compassion

Jack Davis, left, and other Knights of Columbus and volunteers prepare salad for the Las Vegas Catholic Worker soup line. (Julia Occhiogrosso)

Jack Davis
Age:
76
Profession: Volunteer at the Las Vegas Catholic Worker, member of the Knights of Columbus
Lives in: Las Vegas

Sr. Camille: Jack, the newsletter from the Las Vegas Catholic Worker showed you serving meals to the Worker's guests. It described you as a Brooklyn transplant. What motivated your relocation?

Davis: My relocation to Las Vegas occurred shortly after retirement from my work in the telecommunications industry. I guess that was about 13 years ago now. My daughter, son-in-law and oldest son live in Las Vegas. It was only natural that this is where I should spend my life in retirement.

Did you travel alone?

My younger sister, Loretta, accompanied me on my drive to the West and stayed to help me set up my apartment. Loretta lives in West Babylon, N.Y.

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The trip reminded me of the trek of the pioneers moving westward. The difference was that I was driving my Chevy and not a Conestoga wagon, but like them, all that I cared to bring with me was inside the vehicle. My sister was allocated one seat and an area for a small suitcase. As you might guess, I was starting my life over.

Who, if anyone, did you leave behind?

My youngest son, Robert, was in college and had a job on Long Island. He still lives in the New York area and works with computers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. There was also Bob, my older brother, his family and Loretta's family.

With whom do you live now?

I now live with my oldest son, Brian. After a six-year enlistment with the Marines, he worked as a subcontractor for Verizon in the New York area. He'd become used to a warmer climate and decided to move west, go to school and live in Vegas.

Do you miss Brooklyn?

I have to admit when traveling back to New York, I used to say, "I'm going home to renew my accent." Now, when asked that question, I respond that Vegas is home.

My life here in Las Vegas has become very full. I joined the Knights of Columbus, and this organization familiarized me with the Catholic Worker. Do I miss Brooklyn? Yes, I miss the family I left behind, I miss hearing my native tongue (Brooklynese), and the thing I miss most of all is New York pizza.

With whom did you grow up? Please describe your birth family.

I was born in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., to loving and nurturing parents and was educated in the Catholic school system by sisters and brothers.

My mother, Loretta, was a stay-at-home mom and the smartest person I'll ever know. My father was Richard Valentine Davis. That's right; he was born on St. Valentine's Day and was stuck with that name growing up. Father worked for the New York Telephone Company and provided a comfortable life for us all.

My oldest brother was also named Richard Valentine. I guess my father wanted to share the pain. Richard served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and earned an undergraduate degree from St. John's University and a master's degree from New York University. He married his lovely wife, Anna, and they had two children. He became a vice president at New York Life. After many years at this company, he did what all good New Yorkers do: He retired to Florida. Sadly, he has gone to be with our Lord now. I miss and pray for him every day.

I saved the best for last. Since my younger sister, Loretta, was born, the world has never been the same. She entered a household dominated by men and made her presence known from the onset. When she was to be married, I informed my brother-in-law-to-be that he would have a very eventful life with my sister Loretta; he married her anyway. Every time I see him now, he starts our conversation with the sentence, "I know you warned me!" All kidding aside, they have a wonderful marriage, two children, and grandchildren.

What schools did you attend?

I attended the parish school, St. Athanasius, in Brooklyn, and was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, then St. Michael's High School, staffed by Xaverian Brothers. I attended Brooklyn College but didn't graduate from there.

Did you have role models?

First of all, my mother and father. I never doubted that my parents loved me. They provided us with so much, including an exemplary Catholic education.

I was inspired by priests, sisters and brothers, who show us the way to Christ and ultimate happiness with God. Lastly, there are my brother Knights of Columbus who every day live the Gospel in their service to the community, our church, God and country.

What profession did you embrace?

Out of high school, I proudly served my country in the Air Force. One of the worst things that has happened to this country was the elimination of the draft. The draft created a bond with every man (at the time) in the country. At one time in their lives, they had something in common. You could complain about it, share stories about it and even hate it, but for one short time, a man who was a banker and the unfortunate homeless person shared a life. I think for all the bad that was done (combat), much more good was created. There was a sense of togetherness. The program I entered allowed the satisfaction of your military obligation by serving six months on active duty (in my case, the Air Force) and six years with a reserve unit. I joined the New York Air National Guard, first in the 106th Bomb Wing at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, where I was, for a short while, a gunner in a B-26.

After my time there, I was hired by the New York Telephone Company. I transferred to a communications construction squadron and attained the rank of staff sergeant before being discharged. For two years, we were posted to Cape Canaveral in Florida. During my 35 years with the telephone company, I worked at most of the craft jobs, including the most fulfilling position of computer analyst.

After retirement, I was hired by James and Leonard Engineers, an engineering firm on Long Island. They had a contract with the telephone company, which is now called NYNEX. My last assignment was very gratifying. It involved the normalization of telephone service to the area affected by the 9/11 tragedy.

When did you get married?

When I was 21, I married my wife, Virginia. She was just 18, and as I think of her right now, I marvel at her beauty. How did this vision say yes to this ruddy-faced excuse for manhood?

We became parents almost nine months to the day after our marriage. My daughter, Barbara, was as beautiful as her mother. We were children raising a child. I'm sure that the help of our parents through this time was the only thing that saved us from failure. Not long after the birth of Barbara, Virginia became ill. We saw many doctors before she was diagnosed with lupus.

That must have been devastating.

It was. At that time, not much was known about this disease. Huge doses of steroids were prescribed and ultimately took their toll. I lost my beloved Virginia while she was still in her 20s. The time after her death is still a blur to me. If it weren't for my in-laws, my mother and family, my daughter would have perished. I was numb and living like a robot. I worked, ate, slept and felt nothing. I wasn't angry with God, the doctors or anyone. The best I can say is that I was taking up space. God has a plan for each of us, but it is hard to see his hand in what transpired next.

What happened?

I was thrust into the era of the sexual revolution. When I had last dated, women were pursued by men. They were respected in the hope that one day, the right one might accept you as her husband. That was all out the window now. Women had become aggressive. They openly talked about sex, but marriage was never in the conversation. The Lord made us human with all the frailties of the condition. I found out that I was human.

In this phase of my life, God was pushed to the back burner and the devil ruled. As might be expected during this period, I became involved with my second wife. Francine was a good woman and had a son by a previous marriage. During our marriage, we had two sons. That union was to end in divorce. Almost from the start, we were in counseling. Fran had valid points. I was not at home very much. I was always working and wasn't able to pay much attention to her. In my defense, the reason for my many hours was to pay the bills that seemed to never stop. We tried counseling and even the Retrouvaille Program. It helped, but only for a while. We divorced after about 20 years of marriage.

Actually, we have a better relationship now. It helps that we have a continent between us.

How did you manage to recover from that turmoil?

During the ending of my marriage, I began to return to the church. First, it was a quiet calling. It became louder and louder till I could no longer resist it. In church one Sunday at St. Columba, the priest stated that everyone has the right to ask God for forgiveness. Catholics have the sacrament of reconciliation to accomplish this. I went to confession and asked for forgiveness of my sins. My faith has become stronger each day since that time.

Why do you think you got to Las Vegas?

I think that God sent me to Vegas. I know that I came here for the majority of my family, but my life here has been very happy because of many other things. Back east, I resisted joining the Knights of Columbus. When I was approached here, somehow it was different. The men in my council are truly Catholic gentlemen. At first, I was a member of the St. Joseph, Husband of Mary Council 10442. While there, our state deputy, Dave Ryan, asked for help with a program he had started to provide a pancake breakfast to a homeless community served by the Las Vegas Catholic Worker. On the second Saturday of each month, we would fund, provide cooking help and, with other volunteers, serve the meal. When I moved to St. Anthony's Council, I asked those members to help. The result was an overwhelming success.

How does the Catholic Worker serve this community?

Four days week, it provides a meal, beginning with soup. However, the Friday menu is a pasta breakfast. Pasta for breakfast? Why not? The meal is very filling and, thanks to the kitchen staff at the Worker, very tasty.

Here is where I come in. Every Friday, I help prepare a salad to go along with the traditional Italian meal. I start by buying a dozen green peppers, two pounds of carrots, six large cucumbers, about 30 Roma tomatoes, and a bag of yellow onions. During the week, these ingredients are finely diced for Friday's breakfast. The items have to be chopped as small as possible. Some of the clients do not have the best of teeth. The last thing we want to do is to have our food cause one of our people pain and suffering. On Friday, some of my fellow Knights and a few parishioners from one of our neighboring churches gather at the Catholic Worker kitchen to help. Julia Occhiogrosso, the director of the Worker, has dubbed our group as "Jack and the Jackettes." I can live with this!

What a gift this is to those who come for food!

These actions have given birth to other efforts by our council. During Lent and Advent, we collect and distribute new socks, underwear, gently used clothing and personal items (toothpaste and brushes, shaving gear, etc.) to the Catholic Worker community, a ministry run out of Bishop Gorman Catholic High School called Matthew's Closet, and recently to Sister Guadalupe, who ministers to a small group of children and poor families in scenic Arizona.

Anything else you'd like to mention?

I personally am most proud of the statewide program I started to raise the name of the Baby Jesus during the Christmas season. Christmas has become nothing more than a business opportunity in our country. Salespeople are instructed to wish everyone a happy holiday so as to not offend anyone. Christmas by its very name is the celebration of the birth of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

Why are people so afraid of saying, "Merry Christmas"? After all, broken down, the word itself says Christ's Mass. To this end, I began to think about ways to accomplish a return to the meaning and celebration of this second most important day in the Catholic church.

What did you come up with?

So help me, the answer to the whole project came to me in dreams. Not just one, but a series of nighttime events.

It shouldn't be a large expense to accomplish. A button to be worn could be a conversation starter. What should be on the button? Obviously, it should be colorful to attract attention and have an appropriate slogan. The words "Keep Christ in Christmas" came to me. A contest for children in faith formation from around the state of Nevada would supply the artwork. Where to have the buttons made was the next problem. Again, it was decided that they should be made here in Las Vegas by a shelter workshop called Opportunity Village that creates employment for the physically and mentally challenged.

We've been offering this program through the Knights of Columbus Councils in Nevada for the last seven years. Last year, we distributed over 15,000 buttons to parishioners throughout the state. Hopefully this program will continue to grow and return the honor and respect to the Lord during this holy season. My God lives and he is here in Sin City.

What can you say about your companions at the Catholic Worker?

Julia Occhiogrosso and Gary Cavalier are the directors of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker. Their dedication to helping with the everyday needs of the homeless community they serve can only be described as extraordinary. Each day, they worry about finding food, clothing and people needed to attend to the group, mostly of homeless men, served each day. Often, the attendance by 200 to 300 people creates an enormous task. Placing their faith in God and the endless stream of volunteers each day, they approach the challenge with enthusiasm and a smile.

What have you learned from them?

Enthusiasm to do the best job with what God has given you to work with.

What gifts do you have to offer them?

My years in business have taught me how to organize, problem-solve and motivate.

My years with the Knights of Columbus have taught me some culinary skills and that while I am not the chef, I am a pretty good second banana.

Have you learned anything from those who come for food?

Compassion. The phrase "There but for the grace of God go I" is alive while we serve these poor unfortunates.

Please describe them in general terms.

There are hundreds of stories with this group of people, everything from alcoholism/drug abuse to the loss of a job that put them out on the streets. There are people here that are employed with a home of their own but don't make enough money to pay the rent and eat. The thing that hurts the most is when you see children in the soup line. Children should not have to worry about where they will find their next meal or where they will lay their heads at night.

If someone has touched you because of his or her personal story, please share it.

I am always gratified when I get a smile from one of our clients. There is not one, but many that touch me. Usually, it comes from the pleased look on the face of someone who you asked how they're doing today. Just the act of stopping to talk with them seems to lift their spirits. I'm sure that most are very lonely.

Do you have a favorite Scripture passage or Bible story?

The prayer I say each day while attending Mass is part of Psalm 40: "Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will."

How and with whom do you pray best?

I would like to say at daily Mass with my fellow parishioners, and that is partially true. I prefer a quiet place; however, this has become very hard to find. As you can deduce, my life is very active. I pray the Lord to provide more time for reflection and prayer.

For what are you especially grateful?

I am grateful for many things. For my family and all the support given me over the years. For my children. I love them dearly and pray that in my lifetime, they come to truly know our Lord and savior. My priests, Fr. Bob Puhlman (our pastor) and Fr. Steve Hoffer (our associate pastor) for their shepherding, holy direction and friendship. The staff and volunteers of the Catholic Worker, without whom our ministry would not be possible. For my brother Knights, who provide such valuable support for our church and community and especially for their friendship.

How can I list things that I'm grateful for without listing the Trinity? For God the father, creator of heaven and Earth. For his son, Jesus Christ, for providing salvation for us all by his death on the cross, and the Holy Spirit for his constant love and inspiration for the church on Earth.

How do you relax?

Lately, it has become difficult, but usually it is getting lost in one or more of the crime/detective shows on the TV these days. My favorite is "Blue Bloods." The show depicts a police family headed by New York Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, aptly played by Tom Selleck. The picturing of the obligatory Sunday dinner and open discussion about their Catholic faith is refreshing.

"Blue Bloods" is my favorite, too. Movie?

It seems that every time I know that "The Shawshank Redemption" is on, I can't resist sitting down to watch it.

Game?

My favorite game is the playing of baseball. I stress playing because watching today's game on TV is like watching paint dry. To play it is to experience pleasure. To play it well, with the right group of people, is pure pleasure. The skills and friendships learned on the diamond have served me well through the years. Just notice that many of our young people don't play baseball. Diamonds in public parks go unused. They seem to think that the only way you can play baseball is on a fully organized, uniformed and supervised team. So much was learned in a back lot game that never saw supervision, uniforms or, for that matter, formal rules. When I was young, we made it up as we went along. We played hard, got bumps and bruises but always made it home for dinner. Arguing was a part of the game. You came to see that sometimes you were wrong and learned to accept it. Most of all, we learned friendship and respect from the game.

Music?

It seems that except for some of the songs of my youth ('50s and '60s), my favorite music is one or more of the hymns sung at daily or Sunday Mass. They seem to repeat themselves over and over again in my head, providing an anthem for my day.

What else would you like us to know?

It seems that there could not be another thing to tell you. I kind of ran off at the keyboard here. I guess I have to repeat words I have come to believe in.

I have come to believe that I am exactly where God wants me to be at this time and doing what he wants me to do. I pray that, with his grace, I am able to be what he wants today and always.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 16-29, 2015 print issue under the headline: A Knight at the Catholic Worker .

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