James Davis works as the environmental health county manager for Dougherty County. He has been in his current position for a little over a year. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)
ALBANY — Serving as the environmental health county manager in Dougherty County for a little more than a year, James Davis manages a staff of 10 — consisting of eight environmentalists and two administrative specialists — who handle matters such as food service establishment inspections, rabies control, food-borne illness outbreak investigations and other disease investigations involving pests, sewage and water management issues and inspections and tourist court evaluations
It’s a necessary, but often thankless job.
Davis has a long career in public health. Prior to his current position, he spent nearly five years as an environmental health specialist for Dougherty County after working for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control for nearly two decades.
In a recent interview with Herald writer Jennifer Parks, Davis speaks of how his childhood days prepared him to become a working adult, how he got to the position he is in now and how he has endeavored to keep employees motivated even when continuing cuts make it increasingly difficult for his office to continue operating.
Q. What was your very first job?
A. I grew up on a farm. I never remember not working, from the time I was five years old. I graduated to driving a tractor. I was so young that to stop it, I had to stand up to mash on the brakes. My first paying job was at an IGA grocery store when I was 13 or 14. I was a bag boy. I was forbidden to take tips. My grandpa owned the farm, but I didn’t get paid. I later drove a school bus in high school during my junior and senior year. I’ve been working all my life.
Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first paycheck?
A. I probably bought an album. Knowing me at the time, that’s probably what I did.
Q.What’s the single most effective technique you found over the past two years for keeping employees motivated?
A. The best motivation is to give people pay raises, and those have been non-existent for six years, so I bring in big dishes for my employees. It’s not much in the way of motivation, but with state cuts the way they are …
Q. What led you to your current position?
A. I took the long route. I’ve always worked in public health. I spent time in a chemistry lab, but that got so mundane I wanted to get out. I then worked in chemical and nuclear response. It was a great job, but it was a young man’s job. I started looking and ended up here.
Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?
A. My No. 1 mentor in college was my physical chemistry teacher. I also worked with him and did research for him as a student. He took me under his wing, and I never forgot that. My grandfather was probably the biggest motivator I’ve had. Since I’ve been on this job, (Southwest Public Health District Director) Dr. (Jacqueline) Grant and my boss (Southwest Public Health District Environmental Health Director) Dewayne Tanner. (Tanner) is always coaching me. He is a very influential person.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you have learned from the recent recession?
A. Never take things for granted. You never know what tomorrow will bring.
Q. If you could turn back the clock on one aspect of technology — email, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs — what would it be?
A. I wouldn’t turn the clock back on anything, but I’m a forward looking person. Nobody is thinking forward anymore, they are all looking backward … change is inevitable.
Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?
A. My computer. It’s old, and gets to the point that when it’s thinking it starts growling, but I love it — I just wish I had an updated one. I do spreadsheets and calculations (for sewage management, etc.). I input minimal data and it does all the calculations for you.
Q. What is your favorite tradition?
A. The Fourth of July. It was my grandfather’s favorite tradition. As his children grew, they all went up north — so it was hard for them to make it home for the holidays.
Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?
A. The last book I read and enjoyed was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and I’m not going to tell you how long ago that was. I’m always reading something, but it’s usually tech journals. I just don’t read for fun anymore. Regularly I read tech journals and food service manuals. I do like to read the news. I do read MSNBC news.
Q. What is your morning routine?
A. From the time I get up, I first look at MSNBC. I start ironing clothes, I take care of my personal needs and I get to work. When I get to work I make the coffee. I’m usually the first one here.
Q. What famous person would you like to meet and why?
A. Nelson Mandela, not because he just died. You have to admire someone who endured so much but didn’t turn the tables. The other person would be Bill Clinton. There is something about Bill Clinton that I’ve always admired. We need more presidents who can don shades and play the sax.
Q. Favorite hobbies or activities outside of work?
A. My only hobby or activity is running. I’ve always done it, and as I got older, I was not eating my best so I developed high blood pressure.
Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?
A. I really can’t answer that. We all make mistakes. I’m one of those who believe that if I had all the information, I would have made a (different) business decision. If it was a bad decision, I probably didn’t have all the information.
Q. Best and worst things about your job?
A. The best thing is the variety of things we do. Environmental health does a lot behind the scenes. The worst thing is the hostility we encounter once we walk outside (our doors). People think we are out there to get them, but we are trying to help. We are not trying to close down restaurants. They need to think that if they have a food-borne illness, and the lawyers come in, that is when you find out what mean is.
Q. What was the most beneficial course you took in school?
A. Physical chemistry and trigonometry. Physical chemistry because we studied wave equations, and trig because I still use that today in my job. If I need to know the distance from a well (to the street), I can use trig for that. It may not be a straight line, but trig measures help me determine that (distance).
Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?
A. A singer. That would be stretching it. I love to sing, but I’m not very good at it. That would be my dream job.
Q. Where do you see yourself on the first anniversary of your retirement?
A. Probably back on the farm sitting on the front porch and watching the chickens go by. Growing up on the farm is a hard life and I spent the first 18 years (of my life) getting out of it. (I later realized) that the farm life is not that bad.
Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?
A. Probably honesty. Everyone can make a mistakes, but people who succeed admit they made a mistake, learn from it and move on. So it’s not just being honest with others, but being honest with yourself.
Q. What kind of music do you most like listening to?
A. I like all of it — jazz, R&B. I grew up on funk, and there certain rap artists that I like slightly. There is some gospel and some country music that I like. I just like music in general. As long as it is good music, I can deal with it. I had one radio station growing up, so if you wanted to listen to the radio, you had to listen to everything. I grew up in a musical family, so I played myself. I played trumpet and piano, but I didn’t pick up piano very well. I was more of an outdoor person; I wanted to ride the horse.
Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?
A. I don’t know. I don’t really have my pulse on Albany. I don’t have a pulse on politics, which I do deliberately because of my job. I like Albany and I think it’s a beautiful city, but I can’t answer that.
Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
A. Universal Studios. That’s the best vacation I’ve had, and probably the only vacation I’ve ever had. The smoked turkey legs are the best I’ve ever eaten. I’ve worked all my life, and I can honestly say that is the only vacation I’ve ever taken. It’s sad, but it’s true — but those smoked turkey legs were good.