When University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumnus and entrepreneur Steve Davis launched his program Tuskegee NEXT in Wheaton, Illinois, in 2015, his goal was to train 10 at-risk young people a year as pilots and other aviation professionals, in the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.
Davis now plans to expand Tuskegee NEXT to his hometown of Knoxville. Following up on a Tuskegee NEXT Aviation Day and Rally last summer at Downtown Island Home Airport that attracted some 100 youngsters, the program will host another aviation day there on May 14.
“Whenever I got an opportunity or privilege,” says Davis, “whether in the aviation community or in the communities where I put my businesses, I follow my father’s philosophy of leaving something better than I found it.
“I realize that I have had the privilege to enjoy opportunities because of the people who came before me. Their lives paved the path that I have walked. I am aware that I got where I am standing on the shoulders of giants. With Tuskegee NEXT, we can pay some of that debt forward to the next generation.”
Learning to Fly
Davis has had many mentors through the years. A former linebacker and business graduate from UT, he started his own company and put together successful real estate development projects. At all times, he has followed the philosophy passed to him and his six siblings by their father, William—“A man of integrity,” says Davis.
When Davis was serving as chair of the DuPage Airport Authority board, he had heard about the coming shortage of pilots as baby boomers retire. He also knew about the need to create career opportunities for at-risk youth. Davis thought of his father, who had been a Navy cook in World War II and often talked with pride about the Tuskegee Airmen. That sparked an idea: why not teach under-represented students to fly?
Each summer Tuskegee NEXT trains 18- to-20-year-olds in a 10-week program in which they earn their private pilot license and drone certificate. Of the 57 cadets who have completed the program so far, the vast majority have landed jobs in the aviation industry, joined the military, or started college.
“I feel that I am passing on a legacy,” says Davis. “It’s all about job creation. If we can help people over that hump of finding a good job, we can break that bubble of poverty.”
Gateway to Capitalism
Davis grew up on Agnes Road among many relatives in the tightly knit Lyons View neighborhood. His family went to the historic Mt. Pleasant Church near Cherokee Country Club, where Davis worked summers charging golf carts. His older siblings had attended Lyons View School, next door to their church, and been bused to Vine Junior High and Austin High School.
But Davis started first grade at Bearden Elementary in 1962, the first year that Knox County Schools desegregated.
“I’m still in touch with a half dozen of my classmates,” says Davis, “including Dean Smith.” The owner of Edison Electric of Tennessee, Smith is a partner in Davis’s Old City projects like the Crozier, Stockyard Lofts, and the upcoming Beauford Delaney Building, whose upper-story apartments will look out over the new baseball stadium.
On his way to Bearden Elementary each morning, Davis walked down Agnes Road past Elbert’s Grocery Store.
“I would buy 10 cents worth of candy and sell it at school,” he remembers. “Ten cents turned into 50 cents. I thought, ‘This is the way capitalism works.’” Davis also noticed classmate Leslie Mirts’s pencils, which had the name of his dad’s company, Dealers Warehouse. “I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s pretty cool.’ I always thought, ‘I want to have my kids go to school with pencils that have their dad’s company name.’ And they do.”
At Bearden High School, Davis was grateful for teachers like Joyce Burchett.
“She had a passion for education,” says Davis. “She would challenge me.”
Davis was recruited to play football by LSU, Florida, Auburn, and Notre Dame, but loyalty kept him close to home.
He remembers, “I grew up hearing my dad talk about sitting in the colored section of Neyland Stadium, including the time he practically froze to death so he could watch UT play Kentucky. He loved the Vols. When I had a chance to attend UT on a scholarship, it was a no-brainer.”
Davis learned life lessons from Coach Johnny Majors’s three-a-day summer practices.
It was not something you wanted to experience,” Davis says. “It’s a process you have to get through. Part of winning is just not giving up. When you get knocked down, you get back up. I learned that from Coach Majors.” Davis played linebacker from 1976 to 1979 with teammates like Willie Gault, Tim Irwin, and Jimmy Streeter.
In the classroom, Davis says, “Dr. Frye, for logistics, was one of the professors who really challenged me and engaged me. They didn’t let me get away with so-so work.” Leigh Burch, now one of Davis’s development partners, was his statistics tutor.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Although Davis had a $37,000 tryout contract with the Miami Dolphins, he decided to finish his degree. Shortly after graduating from UT in 1980, Davis started a training program with General Electric’s lighting division in Hendersonville, North Carolina. It was there that he met his wife, Tanya, an Asheville native. He was assigned a permanent position in GE’s Oak Brook, Illinois, office, but over time his entrepreneurial heart won out.
“In 1986, I decided to be my own boss,” says Davis, “and I have not had a job since.”
With a $10,000 loan, he started his own company supplying light fixtures and related electrical products in the Chicago area. Davis named his company the Will Group, after his father. The company expanded to include manufacturing of light fixtures and energy-efficient lighting throughout Illinois. Related companies now include a distributor of electrical products and a firm whose cloud-based technology provides critical information on engineered products.
Three of Steven and Tanya’s seven children followed him to UT—Joshua to the Haslam College of Business, where he majored in business administration, Tabitha to the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, where she majored in Childhood Family Studies and minored in Spanish and sociology, and William, who is a lieutenant in the US Air Force, a graduate of UT Health Science Center College of Medicine in Memphis, and a pilot. Their daughter Angel Attawia is the program director for Tuskegee NEXT.
Starting Tuskegee Next
The inspiration for Tuskegee NEXT started with a presentation to the DuPage Airport Authority forecasting that nearly half a million new commercial airline pilots would be needed to fly the airplanes entering the world fleet over the next 20 years. Davis had also seen a statistic from the US Department of Labor that people of color make up less than 4 percent of pilots and flight engineers. Along with the pilot training in its 10-week summer program, Tuskegee NEXT aims to provide role models and show a clear path to aviation careers through aviation training, career-path assistance, and life skills training.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Davis.
Last August, at the rally at Downtown Island Home Airport, Davis introduced some 100 Knoxville-area young people to aviation education with training stations staffed by Tuskegee NEXT cadets and flights with instructors and Tuskegee NEXT pilots.
“The Tuskegee NEXT program was amazing to me,” said Farilyn Hurt, who earned her Private Pilot’s License in 2018 and is now a Certified Flight Instructor. “It was awesome. Every single day, I got the chance to fly. Every single day, I got the chance to do what I love.”
Eight of the original Tuskegee Airmen attended Davis’s Tuskegee NEXT inaugural event in 2015. One, Milton Williams, often visited DuPage Airport in West Chicago to watch the first group of cadets receive their training.
“One day he had tears in his eyes,” says Davis. “He said, ‘I want to thank you for doing this. We cannot repay the things that were done to help us along the way. We have a moral obligation to repay the debt to those who come after us.’”
Brooks Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-5471)