John C. Davis, a nationally recognized information security expert who received the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal in 1999 and served on a presidential commission on critical infrastructure protection, died of Alzheimer’s disease at his Ellicott City home Feb. 1.
Mr. Davis, a glowing grandfather and humble Army veteran who served three decades in the National Security Agency, was 80, his family said.
“He was a very quiet, gentle and proud man,” said his son, Dr. John C. Davis Jr., a rheumatologist in Boston. “He tried to develop the best in everybody around him and saw everybody’s potential.”
John Clair Davis Sr. was born June 24, 1939, in the coal mining town of Donaldson, Pennsylvania, to John W. Davis, an electrician, and the former Dorothy Rose, a schoolteacher. His maternal aunt and uncle, Mildred and Clair Jones, helped raise John.
He grew up in Donaldson and attended the old Fraley High School, which only went up to the 11th grade, his son said. To complete his degree, Mr. Davis transferred to a school in nearby Tremont, which his family jokingly called “the big city," and graduated in 1957.
Mr. Davis met his wife, the former Patricia Ann Bonawitz, during his senior year at his new high school.
They married in Tremont in 1961, the year Mr. Davis graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a B.S. in physics. He received a master’s degree in solid-state physics from Penn State in 1962 and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Johns Hopkins University in 1972.
A member of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in college, Mr. Davis served two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, at Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey and at Fort Meade in Maryland, where he would spend most of his career.
Mr. and Mrs. Davis moved to Fort Meade in 1963 and moved two years later to Columbia, where they raised three sons in nearly 60 years of marriage. They spent Mr. Davis’ final years in Ellicott City.
Mr. Davis joined the NSA as a civilian employee in 1965 and worked for the agency for three decades, retiring in the 1990s. An expert in computer security, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, advanced computer processing and other areas, Mr. Davis served in countless high-level, interagency roles in the federal government, including appointments to several information security working groups and advisory boards.
He was director of the National Computer Security Center, 1994-1999; deputy chief of research and technology, 1992-1994; chief of the Microelectronics Office,1987-1992; and chief of the Computer and Processing Technology Office, 1982-1987. A previous role as a senior NSA representative to the U.S. Pacific Command took him on work trips to Hawaii, Korea, Japan, Australia and Alaska earlier in his career.
Mr. Davis’ work at the NSA often involved classified projects and “beyond state-of-the-art" technologies, said Dean Collins, a colleague.
Mr. Collins described his longtime colleague as intelligent, hardworking and “a very dedicated patriot” who rarely took credit for his own accomplishments.
“He was a very kind person,” said Mr. Collins, 84, of Chevy Chase. “He was very good at getting people to put aside their differences and work on the problem for the U.S.”
Launching and operating the NSA’s Microelectronics Fabrication Facility, a high-tech, secure microchip plant, in the 1980s was seen as a tremendous challenge, said Nancy Welker, a retired senior NSA executive in Montgomery County who worked as Mr. Davis’ deputy for five years.
The project required tons of learning, consulting with the tech industry and discipline, which Ms. Welker described as “key to success of the whole operation."
“In his own soft-spoken and gentle way, he did make it work," she said. “People were willing to work hard for John because he worked hard for them.”
Mr. Davis, a confident, steadying presence at work, encouraged his employees and was the opposite of a micromanager, Ms. Welker said.
“He understood exactly what the people were doing," she said. “But he let them do it. He gave them the ability and the resources to do the job.”
In addition to the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, Mr. Davis received the Meritorious Executive Service Award in 1992 and the Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1991.
He served on the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection during the Reagan and Clinton administrations and later served as senior representative to the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office. After retiring from the government in 1999, Mr. Davis joined KPMG, working in senior information protection and collection roles for the global accounting firm. He later became a partner at Mitretek Systems and president and partner of Technoworks.
Mr. Davis was a master member of the Freemasonry and a member of the Shriners International, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion. He was also a former member of the National Archives Advisory Committee and the National Research Council Committee on the Preservation of U.S. Historical Records.
Michael Khoury, 55, a Department of Justice attorney and family friend of more than 20 years, called Mr. Davis “a quiet, steady presence” who always had a kind word for others. He fondly recalled lunches with Mr. Davis when the two worked in Washington.
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“No matter how hard you tried, he always picked up the check,” Mr. Khoury said.
A beloved husband and father, Mr. Davis would playfully indulge his kids in their youth when they asked whether he was a real spy with a “shoe phone," as in “Get Smart.”
“He would first laugh, and then he’d say, ‘Go check out my shoe!’ " his son said.
Mr. Davis took particular joy in spending time with his grandchildren, playing card games and Candy Land or singing the old Western tune “Don’t Fence Me In” with them in the car.
In addition to his son John and wife, Patricia Ann Davis of Ellicott City, Mr. Davis is survived by two other sons, Mark Davis of Kinderhook, New York, and Scott Davis of Pocomoke; a sister, Mildred “Millie” Shatzer of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania; and four grandchildren.