Linda Jacobs Davis has been renegade, spiritual searcher and community beacon – all shaped who she is today
~ By Julia Prodis Sulek.
Linda Jacobs Davis is a woman who understands the power of story. She’s been encouraging others to tell theirs for years. As CEO of the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership in Marin County since 2002, a big part of her job is to help nonprofits learn not only how to tell the stories of their organizations, but the personal ones of their volunteers and clientele as well.
At the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership’s Heart of Marin awards dinner she organizes every year, presentations by representatives of the nonprofits get so emotional, Davis sets out boxes of tissue on each table. She’s often the first to cry.
“Everybody has a story, and it’s important to remember it and tell it and use it to grow from,” she says. “I like hearing where they’ve come from, what they’ve overcome. I love listening.”
But now, with her grown sons off to college and her mother ailing, she feels it’s time for her own telling. On a recent airplane trip to visit her mother, Davis flipped open her laptop and began outlining the story of her life.
Her two sons know her mostly as a mom and nonprofit champion. But there has been so much more — what about those ’70s! They barely know anything about her rebellious youth, her marriage to a high-ranking member of the controversial self-awareness training organization est, or the year she spent helping her best friend fulfill her bucket list before she died. (That included finding a man for her friend to have sex with one last time. Check!)
They don’t really know how she went from hippie child to executive director of a Chamber of Commerce. Some of her most profound stories seem like lifetimes ago. But to Davis, they are real, they are vivid and they molded her into the woman she has become.
Davis is a vibrant 57-year-old, taking regular yoga classes and hiking in the oak-studded hills behind her home. But sadness has surrounded her lately: Her father-in-law died early this year and her mother is in declining health. Friends have died of lung disease, heart attacks and prostate cancer. Even her beloved dog, Maya, passed away in November. (Davis keeps a shrine to her in the entry hall.)
After her first husband and her best friend died within two years of each other — the two most wrenching experiences of her life — she worried that the stories they shared might die along with them. She keeps journals, photographs and souvenirs to help her remember. She is calling upon those now.
Saving the world
In her family room, she opens a scrapbook she keeps in a cabinet. In it are cigarette butts and ticket stubs from the concerts of Alice Cooper, Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad. There’s a photo of Davis as a teenager sitting in the bedroom she painted orange. Her hair is braided. A guitar lies beside her. Music posters hang on the wall. In those days, she kept a diary with a lock on it.
Born into a lower-middle-class family in Coral Gables, Fla., in 1955 — her father worked as an insurance salesman and her mother sold Tupperware until the kids were grown — Davis became the renegade of the family. She hitchhiked to concerts across Florida. In high school in Southwest Miami, she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I would make statements, try to be different, question things,” she says. “I was on restriction all the time.”
In high school and into college, she turned her energy to advocating for those who had little voice. “I did crazy things,” she says. She called herself a hippie, joined protests against the Vietnam War and became active in an early version of the Green Party. She read Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and studied modern dance.
“She wanted to be independent and on her own,” says her younger sister, Arlene Jacobs Feltman, a doctor in Texas. “She definitely wanted to save the whales and save the world.”
After graduating from the University of South Florida with a degree in art history, Davis was introduced in 1977 to est, short for Erhard Seminars Training. Like many young people drawn to founder Werner Erhard, she considered herself shy and was looking for a jolt of self-confidence through the program, which taught self-awareness and intensive communication and demanded brutal honesty and self-analysis. Erhard has been criticized as a cult-like figure, and some participants complained that the sessions were too emotionally heavy-handed. Though Davis would one day break from the “Erhard Family,” she says this is where she “went from a very shy, insecure person to trusting who I was.”
And this is where she met her first husband, Jack Mantos, a Harvard-educated, Tampa physician who became Erhard’s second-in-command. Together they moved to San Francisco when she was just 23 to help run the San Francisco office of est. When they married in 1983, Erhard served as best man. Five years later, when Davis was 31 and working for the Breakthrough Foundation, a training program for youth that was started by Erhard in 1980, her husband collapsed in the kitchen and died of a cardiac arrhythmia. She plunged into self-reflection, reading books on death and dying, talking to rabbis and priests.
“It was an awful period of time,” she says. “Jack was brilliant. When he died, I thought all that brilliance died with him. I made a pact with myself I would be smarter. I would listen more. I would learn more, read more, because life was short and I was going to do something that mattered.”
That way of thinking crystallized two years later when her best friend, Libby Moore, whom she met through est when she first moved to San Francisco, was dying of a brain tumor.
Moore’s bucket list included trips to Disneyland and Hawaii, watching the movie “Ghost,” giving things away, throwing a goodbye party and having sex one more time.
Over the course of a year, Davis helped her fulfill each wish on that list. She joined her on the trip to Hawaii, where Davis had arranged for a friend of a friend to be a “male companion” for the week. She still giggles at the thought of how she and a friend found the tall, somewhat attractive man to grant this last wish.
She would do anything for her best friend. They even made a pact, that if it were possible for Moore to communicate from “the other side,” her friends would feel it with a soft impression on their left cheek.
Family and leadership
“She prepared for death in a way that was just remarkable and so empowering,” Davis says. But Moore’s death was devastating. Davis has never had as close a girlfriend since.
The experience of losing her husband and best friend, she says, “made me a better person. I had more empathy and compassion, and I asked more questions. It was less about me and more about other people.”
By then, Davis had met and married Perry Davis, a dark-haired salesman who had two degrees and spoke fluent Spanish. They met at the gym in San Francisco. Unlike her first husband, he was old-fashioned in some ways. He was shy and sent her flowers.
“He was very romantic — he swept me off my feet,” she says.
She was Jewish with hippie roots, and he was a straitlaced Catholic, but within two years of meeting, they were married with two children, Aaron and Jacob. Her husband converted, and they raised their children Jewish.
Again, she kept journals of those years, documenting the boys’ first steps, first words, their favorite foods. Through the years of football games and soccer tournaments, she and her husband taught them the value of helping others, of giving back.
“We always had similar values through it all,” she says. “We believed that family always came first and that we had to instill ethics, integrity and service as values in our kids.”
After Hurricane Katrina, she took the boys to New Orleans to help rebuild some of the flooded homes. Her youngest, Jacob, is studying molecular biology and playing football at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he is also volunteering with local schools. Her oldest, Aaron, is an artist and in graduate school at Robert Morris University in Chicago. His paintings reflect messages of social justice.
During those child-rearing years, Davis worked as development director for Planned Parenthood, until she was ready to take on a job as leader of an organization. When the position of executive director of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce came up in 1996, she took it. This once anti-establishment nonconformist learned the value of community, structure and organization to be an effective advocate.
For seven years, she enjoyed the challenge and politics of the job, but ruffled some conservative feathers along the way, most notably when she penned a pro-choice column in the local newspaper. She looked for a better fit, and in 2002, found the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership. She also served on numerous boards, and continues to serve on several, including the Marin Economic Forum and California Association of Nonprofits (she is currently the board chair).
“Her life has been full and rich, a wonderful tapestry of overcoming heartache and being a voice for people not being heard,” says Maureen Sedonaen, board president of the Center For Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership who, along with Davis, was honored in the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. “It all starts with her heart and goes from there. She is a person who is very smart and very savvy and takes her passion and uses it in the world to have a positive impact.”
Writing a book about her life, as Davis now wants to do, is a daunting challenge. But her boys are gone, and the house is quieter these days. She believes she has one in her.
“It feels like sometimes I’ve lived three lives,” she says: her rebellious teenage years, the era of est and losing her husband and friend, and her decades as a mother and nonprofit advocate. “I kind of wish I had a fourth one. You learn lessons from each one.”
If she could, she would take everything she’s learned, she says, “and have one more big hurrah.”