Harrison County

She was the one he wanted, then and now

James E. and Phyllis Davis on their wedding day.
James E. and Phyllis Davis on their wedding day. Courtesy Davis Family

James E. Davis fell hard when he saw Phyllis Victoria Knauff.

The Army infantryman sat on the couch in a reception room at Camp Wolters, Texas, where his date for the evening was serving in the U.S. Army Nursing Corps. The year was 1943, the month April. A woman, a friend of his date’s, walked in and asked if he was “Jimmy.”

“I stood up and I looked her over and I decided right there that was the person I wanted,” he said. The woman left for work and he went out with his date, a nurse named Lois. It was about the shortest date Lois had ever been on, he guesses. He quizzed Lois about the other woman, got her name and called her 10 minutes after he knew her work shift had ended.

Phyllis agreed to go out with him, but only after he assured her things weren’t serious with Lois. The war interrupted their courtship, but as fortune would have it, he was shipped in December 1943 to Oran, Africa, where Phyllis worked as a nurse in an Army field hospital.

They married in September 1944 in Naples, Italy, before the war could sweep them onto separate paths. Lois, by the way, served as maid of honor.

James Davis lost his bride Friday, November 11, mere months after they celebrated 72 years of marriage.

A born caretaker

He couldn’t put his finger on just what was so special about her. Everything, he said, was special about Phyllis. When they met, he noticed her hour-glass figure and her smile. She smiled with her eyes.

Phyllis Kay Levine, the couple’s only daughter, said her mother was special from the start. She weighed only two pounds when she was born in 1921, a time when premature babies did not survive. They thought Phyllis was dead at birth and laid her on a table. Her Norwegian grandmother noticed the baby was moving.

Mother and grandmother took a clothes basket, tucked blankets around warm bricks and nestled Phyllis inside near a pot-bellied stove. They fed her milk from an eye dropper.

Phyllis was a born caretaker. She went to nursing school right after graduation, then joined the nursing corps. Davis returned from the war just in time for the birth of their first son, Victor, in North Dakota, where Phyllis also had been born.

The family settled in Davis’ hometown, Gulfport. He saved money to build them a house while they lived with his parents. Phyllis went to work at the veteran’s hospital in Gulfport to pay for the furniture.

Then she stayed home with her children. James Jr. followed Victor. Phyllis loved her boys, but she longed for a daughter. She was surprised when the doctor announced, “You got your girl.”

Davis insisted they name the child Phyllis, too, with the middle name Kay in honor of her mom’s maiden name. He said their three children came along almost exactly 35 months apart.

Hard day coming

Phyllis Kay said her mother was her best friend. Phyllis Kay moved to Houston as a young woman, but she talked to her mother on the phone every day — sometimes several times a day.

Phyllis Kay insisted on marrying on her mother’s birthday, August 22. Roses arrived the morning of her wedding. She asked her mother to read the card aloud. It said, “Happy birthday, mother. Today is your special day, like mine. Love, your daughter Phyllis Kay.”

The two loved to travel together. They liked to shop and break for a lunch of taco bowls and wine. Phyllis also loved to cook. She enjoyed a cookbook, in fact, much more than a novel.

When her children got home from school, their mother was always there, a fresh baked cookie or cake waiting for them. She baked for her family and the neighborhood for holidays.

During World War II, Phyllis used to return after her shift to the hospital, where she encouraged soldiers to write letters home. She mailed the letters for them and, if they could not write, asked them to dictate their letters to her.

She continued to care for others long after she had left the nursing profession. Friends and family called for advice when they were sick. Phyllis dropped everything to stay with her daughter when both she and her husband had cancer.

She loved to dance so much, her husband took lessons so he could join her. They traveled and enjoyed life.

Phyllis was diagnosed several years ago with Alzheimer’s disease and passed away at age 95. Her family’s love for her has not dimmed.

Her husband said, “Tomorrow will be the worst day of my life when I have to take her out there to the VA and leave her in the ground.”