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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


May 22, 2015  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Former state legislator, Helen Gordon Davis, embodied ‘best of Jewish values’

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

Helen Gordon Davis, legendary former state lawmaker and advocate for women and minorities, died Monday, May 11 in Tampa.

Funeral services for Davis, 88, were held at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, where she was a longtime member.

“In many ways,” said Rabbi Richard Birnholz, “Congregation Schaarai Zedek served as a springboard for Helen’s passion for community activism. Helen served as president of our Sisterhood. She was drawn to Sisterhood’s social justice projects that afforded her the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those most in need. She was also very involved at Schaarai Zedek in her children’s activities in religious school. And in her later years, she would address various groups at temple and participated in our senior activities.”

Rabbi Birnholz said another congregant, former City Councilwoman Linda Saul- Sena, who served on the Tampa City Council for 20 years, told him that Davis “was her inspiration and role model.”

“I personally believe that she embodied the best of Jewish values which involved working to repair our sometimes broken world,” Rabbi Birnholz said.

Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, also a congregant at Schaarai Zedek, said, “I knew Helen all my life. My parents were the first people her parents met when they moved to Tampa.”

“She was way ahead of her time. ... I think the community has lost an enormously effective and necessary voice. We do not have many people, male or female, I would put in that category today.”

Davis was a trailblazer, in 1974 becoming the first woman from Hillsborough County to be elected to the state House. Initially she faced great resistance from openly hostile male lawmakers but in time she earned their grudging respect and worked with both Republicans and Democrats to initiate legislation that endures today.

Among her many achievements are the creation of the Florida Prepaid college tuition plan, the Guardian Ad Litem program that provides advocates for children in court cases, and a host of measures aimed at equal rights for woman and minorities.

Davis and her husband created the first “Women’s Survival Center” in Florida in 1977, an institution that became known as the Centre for Woman and last year was renamed the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women in her honor. The center helps women prepare for employment, offers professional leadership and empowerment programs, counseling and wellness programs, substance abuse treatment, a construction services division, a center for girls ages 5-14 and a women’s business center.

The Centre issued a message after Davis’ death, calling her “Feisty, forthright, strong and brave” and said she “was a shining light, a beacon of hope to so many forlorn and forgotten. She was an outspoken pioneer and champion of civil rights.”

Davis’ role as advocate for women’s causes was so strong that earlier this year famed feminist Gloria Steinem was honored at a luncheon in Tampa with the first Helen Gordon Davis Waves of Change Women’s Leadership Award. At the event, Steinem praised Davis’ work as a lawmaker. “Helen was in the middle of a very hostile atmosphere and under scrutiny absolutely at all times. That is incredible courage. And she didn’t lose any of her humanity. She kept her humor and her joy,” Steinem said, according to a story in the Tampa Bay Times.

Davis was born in New York and moved to Florida in the 1940s with her husband, Eugene, a successful liquor distributor. She worked as a fashion model and earned a reputation in local community theaters as an accomplished actress.

In 1948, she was the first white woman in Florida to join the NAACP and was one of two white women to join the Woolworth Luncheon “sit ins.”

She chaired the Florida League of Women Voters Administration of Justice Study that ensured the passage of the constitutional amendment creating Florida’s circuit judicial system. This work resulted in an award from the National Association of Juvenile Court Judges.

Davis was elected to the Florida House for six consecutive terms and in 1988 was elected to the Florida Senate.

During her years in the legislature, Davis sponsored bills that created the Hillsborough Consumer Affairs Agency, the Displaced Homemakers for Divorced Women Act, court depositories for child support payments, the marriage license trust fund for spouse abuse centers, and the Delinquent Child Support Act. The bills she sponsored also doubled the penalties for hate crimes, placed a one-cent tax for indigent healthcare in Hillsborough County and created mediation and arbitration in the courts.

Davis also developed “Phone Friend” for latchkey children and raised funds for the study of pay equity in state government, which resulted in a $5,000 pay increase for 36,000 women and minority state workers.

Among more than 100 other national and state awards, Davis is the recipient of the Outstanding Legislator award from the National Democratic Women’s Clubs and the Nelson Poynter ACLU award for her contributions to the advancement of civil liberties.

In 2012, Davis was honored at the state Democratic Party dinner in Tampa with the “Champion of Equality” award, given to a state legislator by Florida State University.

That same year she was inducted into Weinberg Village Jewish Senior Hall of Fame and received an “8 Over 80” award from that organization for her many achievements.

Survivors include three children, Stephanie, Karen (Fred Stuart) and Gordon Davis (Lorena Lacayo); a sister, Jeanne Desberg, and five grandchildren. The family suggests memorial contributions to the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women, 305 S. Hyde Park, Tampa, FL 33606.

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