Jean Davis, French horn


“I am living proof that if you keep beating your head against a brick wall eventually the wall will move but your head will hurt.”



I was born in Antioch, CA in 1945. It was a very small town then, about ten thousand people I think. Maybe once a year you’d go to Oakland or San Francisco. That was a big trip before the freeway. My parents were both originally from Colorado. They were in California because of my father’s work.

I was the youngest of three children and music was always part of my family. My mother played piano quite well and the kids would gather around and sing and she would sing too. Those are some of my earliest memories. She played a lot of the music from when she was growing up as a young adult, even going back to music from WWI, the 20s, the 30s. She had a huge book of folk songs—Stephen Foster, Americana type stuff.

I had a multitude of toy musical instruments—a little recorder, a little xylophone, a toy clarinet, a small plastic trumpet. I liked the trumpet. I remember asking for a drum set and not getting it. (laughs) I was the youngest child and the only girl. I wanted to make a lot of noise. My nearest brother was a year and a half older than I. We used to play together a lot and we were down the street with this little neighbor girl who had a violin and she showed it to us and played it for us. My brother and I went running home saying that we wanted to take violin. My mother was probably relieved that I was no longer asking for a trumpet. She had a good friend who taught violin lessons so she rented little violins for us. That’s how I started music. My brother was always better than I was. He was a year older; I don’t know if that helped but he probably practiced more. He played it all his life. He was quite good.

But when I got to fourth grade I had the opportunity to take lessons through the school and so I said again that I wanted to play the trumpet. The music teacher had auditions in the multipurpose room and we were each called up to the stage. She would play a note on the piano and we would hum it or sing it. I went through the audition and she asked if there was anything I wanted to play besides trumpet and I said, “No.” The next day when the names went up on the board, my name was not included. There was also a little girl who wanted to play drums and she didn’t get to play drums. Only little boys played trumpets and drums, girls and boys could play clarinets and they both could play strings although there were more girls than boys. To this day I’m not sure whether it was gender discrimination—I suspect that was part of it.—but she knew, because my brother was part of the orchestra, that I could play violin and maybe she wanted to have a violin player without having to teach anybody. (laughs) So I did play in the orchestra that year.

The following summer they offered summer school and one of the things you could do was take up an instrument, so I told my mother again that I wanted to play trumpet. She took me to sign up and the music teachers, a couple of men, looked at my mouth and said, “I don’t see why not.” If my mother could find me a trumpet, I could play. She was very active in the PTA so she took me over to the elementary school and talked to the principal and she let us have a trumpet from the band room.

The class had maybe eight students. I very quickly learned how to buzz the mouthpiece and I could already read music. By the end of the summer I had caught up with the little boys who had started the year before. And meanwhile the teacher who didn’t think girls could play brass instruments had left. The new teacher, a male, had no problem with me playing trumpet, so I played in the orchestra.

But when I was eleven, before I went into the 7th grade, my family moved from California to Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s known for the restoration; it’s a colonial town. It was a good place to grow up aside from the politics. It was very much a Southern small town. The College of William and Mary is there and because of the College and the restoration there were a lot of employees that had come from other places so there was probably a little bit more diversity there than a typical small town of its size. There was only one high school . . . Oh wait, there were two high schools. There was a white high school and a black high school. Even though a third of the population of my town was probably Black, I never had any interaction with any of them and I was bussed to the white school. My high school did not integrate until after I graduated. The principal said if they integrated while he was principal he would immediately eliminate all the sports teams and the dances. It never happened and it did integrate peacefully, I think while I was in college.

(editor: One of the cases in the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education originated in Prince Edward County, Virginia. The Virginia state legislature established an official commission that recommended giving localities “broad discretion” in meeting the requirements of the new law but segregationists resisted and Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” plan emerged out of an August 1956 special session. The legislature mandated that the state close any school under desegregation orders from the federal courts. Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator and political leader Harry F. Byrd considered the Massive Resistance tactic as an opportunity for Virginia to lead the South once more against “a grasping, overreaching federal government.” “We face the gravest crisis since the war between the states,” Byrd said and claimed that the integrationists were “working on the theory that if Virginia can be brought to her knees, they can march through the rest of the South.” Byrd found wide support among politicians and editors who echoed him. There were moderates in the Virginia Senate, however. On one crucial piece of legislation the vote split 21-17, with moderates believing that the Massive Resistance laws were too severe in their application and too defiant in their tone. Still, in the fall of 1958, Governor Lindsay Almond closed schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County–locales where federal judges had ordered the desegregation of white public schools. Over 10,000 white students were left without schools and parents scrambled to provide makeshift education in their homes, churches, and community centers. Ironically, Black schools, as poor as they may have been, remained open. Later in 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court ruled the school closings unconstitutional. Governor Almond grew disenchanted with the fight and called for an end to Massive Resistance. Only one Virginia locality decided to continue Massive Resistance. Prince Edward County, where the NAACP suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court began, refused to appropriate any funds for the local school system rather than bow to integration. The schools remained closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964. White students attended a private educational academy with tuition grants from the locality. Black students were left to fend for themselves. Some found a measure of relief in “volunteer” schools staffed by teachers from different parts of the country, but others had to move in with relatives in order to attend schools in other counties.)

The school in Virginia was quite small. It was 7th through 12th. The junior high school band was separate from the high school band even though it was the same school, the same teacher. The conductor put me in with the 2nd trumpets. One day when we were struggling to play a particular section, he had the 2nd trumpets play by ourselves and we didn’t do very well so he went down the line and asked each of us to play. I was at the end of the line because I was the new kid. And I don’t know if it was because I heard everybody else make mistakes or if I had time to look it over more carefully but I was the only one that played it correctly. He was mad at everybody else so he put me as the first chair 2nd trumpet player. I got promoted over all these little boys who were quite ticked off about it. They didn’t like being bested by a girl, I guess. One of them in particular started picking on me and made up a name for me and they just harassed me that following week and for several years but I didn’t quit. I stuck with it and at the end of the year the conductor said that anybody who could play all around the circle of 5ths, who could play all the scales without making any mistakes could get promoted as an 8th grader to the high school band. I wanted to get away from those little boys so I practiced all summer long and by the end of the summer I was able to play all the way around. So I got promoted. I escaped them for a year and by the time they came into the band the next year, I was already there, I was ahead of them, and for the rest of my high school career, I preceded them. So they got paid back and I wound up being the lead trumpet player. (laughs) That was one of my earliest encounters with discrimination and overcoming obstacles. It’s not that I was that great. There were only about thirty kids in the band and I probably practiced more than most of them.

So I played trumpet, I made friends, some friends that I’m still in touch with. I have a good friend Diane who I recruited to the high school marching band because she played the piano and we needed a glockenspiel player. She and I were both Yankees. She was from Massachusetts.

As a senior I got bored with the trumpet and they had a new French horn and I asked the conductor if I could play it. The fingerings are very similar to the trumpet so he said sure, I could try it. And I did. I played it for a couple of months but for the concert he wanted me back in the trumpet section and I stayed on trumpet for a while. I played all the way through high school and college on the trumpet.

I really wanted to leave the South. I didn’t like the politics. So I went to Dickinson College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. It’s fairly well known in the East and has a good reputation. I was a Sociology/anthropology major, history minor.

I discovered in college that I was much more liberal than most of the other students that I ran into. A lot of them were from Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic States. I actually had a lot more in common with the professors. Neither of my parents was terribly political but my mother was a very tolerant person who got along with pretty much everybody and was extremely unprejudiced. My father probably less so. She was a Democrat and he was a Republican. That’s back in the days . . . she was probably an FDR Democrat and he was probably an Eisenhower Republican. They were both kind of moderate.

When I started looking at possible jobs for after college a daily news sheet came out from the placement office saying that so-and-so company was there to interview men for whatever. Nothing for women. When I was a senior they did have somebody from the Katie Gibbs Secretarial School come and talk to us. I went but it was about learning how to make coffee and how to dress and all that.

The only role models I had were stay-at-home mothers like mine who was out in the community doing all this volunteer work but not paid work. Or nurses. Or secretaries. Or teachers. When I found out about social work I thought, “Oh, that sounds interesting. I’ll give that a try.”

I did think about going to graduate school but I met somebody and wanted to get married instead. We wound up in Binghamton, NY, upstate.

So after college I got a job working as a social worker at a residential treatment center for troubled teenagers. It was a group home setting. It was tough. I don’t know that I was that good at it. I had no idea what I was doing. I was right out of college. I didn’t have much experience. The pay was not great. The administrative and social work staff was quite good considering we didn’t have a lot of experience. I spent a lot of time the first year chasing down runaways with my colleagues and getting them back. I had a lot of responsibilities. In some ways it probably required more responsibility than any job I’ve had since. I did some interesting things. With a colleague we had a softball team one summer. And then I counseled them individually and worked with their schools and their parents if they had them and the agency that had placed them.

I’d been there a year and a half and they hired a young guy practically right out of college. He had taken a year to go around the world with his new wife but he had no experience and they started paying him more than me. I probably shouldn’t have known that but because I was good friends with the business manager he thought it was funny and told me about it.

I had a Phi Betta Kappa key and I used to wear it if I was feeling insecure, to remind myself that I had done well at something. The executive director also had a phi betta kappa key on his keychain. Maybe that’s why I wore mine. He walked by me one day and said, “Oh, is that your husband’s?” (laughs) But those were the days, y’know.

My husband was a graduate student. This was the height of the Vietnam War. He had been in ROTC even though we were both opposed to the war, me particularly. He had been given a draft extension to work on his graduate degree but then he had to go into the army and after a short stint down at Ft. Belvoir near Washington, DC, we wound up in the Detroit area for a year. He was in the Corps of Engineers with the Lake Survey District working mostly with civilians.

My daughter was born at the end of that year and three weeks later he was on his way to Vietnam so almost from the get-go I was a single parent. He was there for a year. At first my daughter and I moved to Virginia to live with my parents and then we went back to the Binghamton, New York. I was reestablishing our place there so that when he came back from his service he had a place to go because he still had some graduate school to finish up. It was a whole lot of responsibility that I just had to handle. I took some graduate school courses myself and undergraduate psychology courses thinking I might go on with that.

When he got back, our marriage really never got back together. Maybe it hadn’t been so good from the start but the war finished it off. And I discovered while he was gone that I could function independently as an adult, make my own friends, make my own life. I wanted to continue that and so we broke up.

I had a part time clerical job but I needed to bring in more income. I got some child support but he was a graduate student. It wasn’t like either one of us had a whole lot of money. So I got a job at this horrible insurance company. If you’ve seen the movie “9 to 5” it was like that except that it wasn’t funny.

First of all I barely passed the typing test and we had to type up group insurance policies by hand. There were no computers then. And they had to be letter perfect—no erasures, no corrections. Most of the people were getting $72.50 a week. They were paying me $75. I figured that my college degree was worth about $2.50 a week. (laughs)

It was extremely boring. You sat at your desk and worked and at break time they came around with a little cart and everybody would immediately stand up and get in line to buy a donut and coffee or something and after ten minutes everybody better be back in their seat. The office manager would send around a memo telling us that we were taking too long if we took eleven minutes. But there weren’t that many jobs at the time. At least I could put food on the table and pay my rent. At five o’clock the bell would ring. That’s the other thing. This bell rang at the start, at the end. That was just awful. It was like being back in high school.

All of the women were sitting on the main floor and all the offices were men. To make matters worse we were typing up group insurance policies that had the names of these people, their sex, how long they had been with the company, their position, and their salary. Just looking at this I could see that all the women regardless of how many decades they worked for the company, they were much lower paid than any of the men.

After working at this horrible place for about two months I called my brother in California—He had moved to San Diego and was getting established out there.—and I said, “Can I come to California?” (laughs) He was wonderful, just a great brother. This is the one who played the violin. He had a neighbor who had a spare room and he got me essentially a free place to sta. He started sending me job announcements like civil service tests and things like that. So I eventually dropped my daughter off at my mother’s and drove west by myself.

My friend Diane whom I had recruited to play glockenspiel in high school had gotten married to a middle school band director. She had always loved the sound of the French horn so as a wedding present her new husband gave her a French horn telling her that he would teach her how to play.

That marriage lasted a few weeks. I was dropping my daughter off in Virginia and Diane was there, home because of her divorce and trying to get herself reorganized. So we got together and she handed me the French horn and she said, “Here. I know you can play this. Take it. I never want to see it again.” It reminded her of her failed marriage. So I wound up going to California with a French horn. If it hadn’t been for that and for her, I probably wouldn’t be playing French horn but now I had one.

Over the years I’ve played both the trumpet and the French horn but I eventually decided to concentrate on the French horn . . . AND just to bring that full circle, years later when she had gotten over this trauma she took up the French horn and remarried and went to band camp in Pennsylvania every year at Allegheny College. And after my husband died in 1999 I called her up and said, “Diane, I want to come to band camp.” So every year since that time she and I get together for a week at band camp and we both play French horn. (laughs). Except for this year when it was cancelled, of course. (editor: because of the pandemic)

I had always wanted to drive a Volkswagen cross country so I did that by myself with my French horn and a few possessions and I started over again thanks to my brother. Eventually I got a job with the county welfare department.

After doing that for a couple of years I got bored so I decided to go to graduate school and I found a program at the State University of New York at Albany that was essentially free even if you were out of state. You got an internship where you had a stipend so I figured that I could actually afford it. It was a college student personnel program designed to provide residence hall directors for the New York State University system which was expanding at the time. It was the Baby Boom Era. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do job placement and career counseling work and I think my motivation was wanting to make sure that people knew more about what their career opportunities were than I had never been exposed to growing up. But I also thought I wanted to work in a college. Since I couldn’t afford to stay in school long enough to get a PhD and be a professor I figured I could do this in a couple of years and get a job.

Which I did. I worked at Trinity College for a couple of years, a very good liberal arts school in Hartford, Connecticut. But I had some problems with my boss who was a complete sexist. I don’t know why I kept running into these people. He was not super bright. He was very hard working but he did the whole thing about having the secretary make the coffee and I wasn’t really into that kind of thing. Although he did give me some professional opportunities he was a micromanager and I just didn’t like being supervised. He’d give me a project and then he wanted a complete detailed review every day to make sure I was doing it right.

I decided that I wanted to be more independent so I wound up getting a job at a private junior college in northeastern Pennsylvania, just north of Scranton actually, Joe Biden country. I was part of the counseling staff. I was in charge of career counseling but they didn’t have a program yet although they’d gotten some grant funding for it. I was supposed to establish it. It was a great opportunity even though it meant going from the four year to the two year school.

I didn’t like that part of the country. It was too cold but the people, particularly the people in my own area, my boss and my coworkers were great; they were like a family. That was wonderful. And I liked the work. I had a lot of independence and it was nice to be starting something. My boss . . . at the interview I asked him what his style was because I didn’t want to get another boss like the previous one. He just laughed and said, “Laissez faire.” (laughs) And we were colleagues. It worked really well. In fact we became lifelong friends. He died but I’m still in touch with his wife. They were both really great to me.

Shortly before I left Connecticut to take that job I met a fellow through a neighbor who was a ham radio operator—Chod Harris. In fact he worked for the American Radio Relay League. His dream was to go live on an island in the Caribbean. He was a ham radio contester and he wanted to win all of these international prizes where you try to talk to people all over the world as quickly as possible. It was a technical thing.

He decided to quit his job. He had a small inheritance and so for very little money he bought a Caribbean house on the island of Montserrat in the British West Indies which is one of the best places in the world for ham radio. You can talk to the United States, you can talk to Africa. You got a straight shot to a lot of places and without a lot of interference. Apparently there’s something about the iron in the soil. And if you’re in a place like that everybody wants to talk to you whereas if you’re in the United States you’re competing with everybody else.
We’d gotten involved and we kept up our relationship after I moved to Pennsylvania. When he quit his job and decided to go there he asked me to marry him and so I said, “Sure.” Career wise it wasn’t the best thing to do but personally it was. So we were off on an adventure. We enrolled my daughter in a little school in an old plantation estate, run by a woman from South Africa. My daughter said it was the best school she ever attended.

It was a very small island. They were poor. There were only about 12,000 people there and that probably included some cattle and goats. (laugh) I’m sure they overestimated the population because they got paid by the British government by the head. It was a British colony. My marriage license was signed by the royal governor.

The people were extremely friendly. I think the education only went through . . . well, it was the British system so anyone who wanted any kind of advanced education or training had to leave the island. They all spoke English.

There were some other ex-pats that we got to know. We lived on the less populated side of the island but once a week on market day we’d drive over the mountain to where most of the people lived. (editor: They called the house “The Last Resort.”) The island has since been wiped out both by a really horrible hurricane and a volcano. The population now is probably about 3,000. Only one part of the island is still habitable.

Chod won just about every contest he entered. He did this marathon contesting where for forty-eight hours he had to talk to as many different people in as many different countries on as many different bands as possible so he spent his time stringing wires around the yard, putting up antennas, figuring it all out and then he would stay up for two days. We would turn off of the power in the house, even the water heater, so that it didn’t drain the electric load. And he did; he won all these contests. One of the reasons he did this at this time was that the sunspot cycle was such that the radio waves were better than usual so he was able to rack up these huge scores and win all these awards and set all these international records, some of which may still stand. He was quite prominent in his field. He’d already written a book about it. His name was Chod Harris (editor: Harris, Chod, VP2ML. Noted DXer, Founding Editor/Publisher of DX Magazine; CQ DX Editor inducted into the The CQ Amateur Radio Hall of Fame in 2005.) although with ham radio operators they tend to know each other by their call signs. He was very well known, particularly in contesting circles. He was an extreme nerd but also extremely funny, the funniest person I ever met. So it was quite an adventure. It was never a dull moment.

We lived there for almost a year but I didn’t want to bring up my daughter there. It was a good experience for a year but it lacked medical facilities and stuff like that.

When we came back to this country in 1980 we got a motor home. He was from Rochester, New York, originally. He wanted to go somewhere warm, somewhere without snow. I did not want to go anywhere in the South. So we had picked out several areas to look at that we could afford and decided to drive across country visiting each of these places for a few days. At the end he wanted Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I wanted Sacramento. I wanted to be somewhere with universities and colleges where I could work or get a job.

I had an old boss whose parents-in-law lived in Oakmont and we just decided to come over and look at Santa Rosa because of that. We wound up here even though it was smaller than what we had thought. I wanted a place with trees. He wanted a place with cheap housing. At that time Santa Rosa was much more affordable than it is now. I think the house that we bought was like $110,000 which was a lot of money in those days.

We settled down. We had both gotten rid of everything but he liked to do woodworking so he built a lot of the furniture in our house. He’d done stagecraft in college. He knew some basic carpentry. He wound up buying this little woodworking magazine that somebody had started. He was the publisher and I edited all the articles. I really liked doing that. It was called Pacific Woodworker. It may even still be around. Woodworkers, real craftsmen—there were some famous ones around here. There was a guy up at the College of the Redwoods up in Fort Bragg. I can’t remember his name. I interviewed him. He wasn’t very nice but most of them were great and there were a lot of local ones and woodworking shows. We went over to Hawaii once and interviewed these people over there and we could write some of it off on our taxes. (laugh) We never made a lot of money from it but it was fun to do.

Later Chod took over something called the DX Bulletin which is a ham radio newsletter, a weekly newsletter that hams liked. And then he also started a ham radio magazine. He wrote a couple of columns for different magazines, too. He was self-employed.

I started working at Santa Rosa Junior College, teaching part time. Then I got hired to run freshman orientation groups and do academic advisement with new students, teach orientation courses, study skills. I taught a course called “Introduction to career development”, or how to decide what you want to do when you grow up. A lot of the students were in their 30s and 40s. And a lot of them were women. I gave a lot of vocational interest tests. We’d teach them how to do research. There was a real need for it. I was helping people do things that hadn’t been available when I was growing up, particularly women. And I’ve always enjoyed research, I’ve enjoyed libraries, so I worked in the career center which was a special library really, helping people use the resources. And I finally got my full time job with the junior college. That wound up being my career for much longer than anything else I had ever done. I was a counselor and an instructor.

Eventually when they decided to have a full time career counselor I got passed over the first time for a white male who had connections but they finally gave up and hired me. I used to say that I was living proof that if you keep beating your head against a brick wall eventually the wall will move but your head will hurt. By the time I got my full time job—I went back and I counted—I had actually applied for jobs nineteen times. Some of them I had gotten but they were only temporary, like a sabbatical leave replacement or something like that. I had to do that many applications and interviews before they finally gave up and said, “Okay, let’s hire her.” (laughs) I retired in 2006.

My husband died fairly suddenly from a heart attack in 1999. He had a genetic high cholesterol problem. His mother lived to only about 49. He made it to 50. It was huge.

(editor: obituary from Princeton Alumni Weekly
Charles J. Harris–The Class of 1970
Chod Harris died Dec. 8, in Santa Rosa, Calif., from complications following a heart attack.
He was born in Rochester and came to Princeton from the Taft School. He graduated from Princeton cum laude in biology, with a certificate in science in human affairs. This interest was also reflected in his work on the first Earth Day in the spring of 1970. While on campus, he was active with Triangle and the Astronomy, Photography and Amateur Radio clubs. The latter interest continued over the years. In 1980, he bought the DX Bulletin, a publication on amateur radio, then founded DX magazine and wrote columns on the topic for GQ magazine. He also wrote two books on the subject. He ran for the California Assembly on the Libertarian Party line in 1994.
Chod is survived by his wife, Jean, brothers Peter and Sandy, daughter Jody L. King, and parents Margie and Joseph Harris ’37. A man of deep sincerity and intelligence, his presence at our 30th reunion will be sorely missed in the same degree as his presence enlivened our 25th.)

The two biggest changes in my life were the birth of my daughter and the death of my husband. I still grieve for that whole period of my life. It’s nothing I would have ever imagined. It wasn’t perfect by any means but I had so many unusual experiences. Who would expect to live in the Caribbean for a year? That was a very special time.

But a couple of years later I met Greg. He had been fairly recently widowed so we had that in common. Greg would tell you that he was a computer programmer. He actually had been a music major in college—music composition. He was from Washington, DC. He came out after college to go to Berkeley as a music composition graduate student. He wanted to compose but he didn’t think that he was good enough so he quit and went to work for IBM and they trained him as a programmer. His wife at the time worked for Chevron and they sent her to run the Gauer Estate, an Alexander Valley vineyard and winery. So he came up here with her, commuted for a while, and wound up working for a couple of different high tech companies down in Telecom Valley and eventually for Cerent, which was bought out by Cisco and was quite a nice financial windfall for him. But then his wife died of cancer.

We got together through a personals ad in the Press Democrat, if you believe that. Computer dating was just starting then. I answered his ad. He said that he was a widower and that was a plus for me. He plays guitar. He was self-taught when he was in high school and I think he knew a little piano too. A friend of his played bass guitar and they both sang. Greg has a really nice voice. They played in restaurants and pubs down in the Bay Area when he was in his 20s and 30s. But he gave it up. When I met him he wasn’t playing and maybe because he could hear me practicing my French horn he eventually took up the guitar again and now he plays a few times a week. He’s done a little composing. We sometimes sing together. He’ll play the guitar and we both enjoy singing.

I was playing French horn at the Junior College in the symphonic band which I still do when they’re in person. I started it while I was still working there as a kind of pre-retirement thing to build more other stuff into my life. I was playing in an ensemble group and through them I met Neil Herring. He was playing in a woodwind quintet and they needed a French horn player. He went on to do some other things but Genie McKenzie became our oboe and she kept telling me about the New Horizons Band and how they really needed more French horns. Finally around 2012 or 13 I came over and listened and decided to join.

I’ve played in a lot of community bands over the years and I don’t know if it’s our age or what but they’re just the nicest group of people. They’re more friendly, much more supportive and less competitive than other groups. I don’t know if it’s the coffee and cookies or what but . . .  Lew’s spirit and his energy and his kindness, the way he includes people and tells people what’s going on; he’s got a lot to do with it. He’s just a genuine good human being. He always shares if he’s heard from someone why they’re not there. He always lets people know what’s going on. Sending Get Well cards. All of that makes it a community. He’s the soul of the band, that’s what I would say. It means a lot to him too. You can tell from his messages how much he misses it (during these pandemic times).

Like everybody else I think I like the people as much as the music. I think that’s what keeps me going. And hopefully, before too long, we’ll all be back together again, making and enjoying music.