Jingle Davis chronicled Georgia coastal life in reporting and books

Credit: Handout / Kelly Galland

Credit: Handout / Kelly Galland

Sunday’s memorial service for Jingle Davis on Saint Simons Island will be perfect for a woman whose love of storytelling and sense of adventure formed centerpieces of her life.

Many yarns will be spun from memories of Davis, who for decades chronicled the happenings, history, quirky people and events of the Golden Isles and southeast Georgia. And the hundreds expected at the 8 p.m. service will get to stand in the places that helped form her — the waterside park near the St. Simons Pier where she swam, fished and crabbed as a girl, and the island library, which fostered her love of the written word.

The veteran journalist and author, 81, died June 13 of natural causes.

“She was one of the most well-known, well-loved and highly regarded people on the whole coast,” said Hyde Post, a longtime friend and neighbor on St. Simons, and a former journalism colleague. “She was a gifted writer and seemed to know everybody.”

Davis loved good tales, such as the one about her then-teenaged brother who grabbed a swimming piglet, saying it would make a great Christmas dinner, but who was chased and nearly caught by the incensed mama sow. In her stories, she unspooled wordplay that was at once vivid and straight-ahead, as in her 1989 news story for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about a colorful Savannah River tour boat operator and unofficial waterfront ambassador Cap’n Samuel Stevens, who was “headed up the river in the worst way” after being convicted in multi-million-dollar fraud case.

And there was a 1987 piece about a black religious sect that had unexpectedly bought an acre and pitched a large blue and white revival-style tent to live in near rural, mostly white Waynesville.

“This is it. I love it here,” the preacher told Davis. “This is our home now and we’re all going to be living here until we die or until Jesus comes.”

Davis included: ”local gossip lines lit up as if the Martians had landed.”

Davis was pulled toward writing early and took a smattering of journalism and writing courses. She later cut her professional teeth with freelance work for various outlets, eventually taking a gig as the the AJC’s fulltime coastal reporter.

It was a magical fit, with her being a native whose island roots ran four generations deep.

“She had a lot of fun with the language,” said Bert Roughton, retired senior managing editor of the AJC, who credited her with writing with “amazing wit and lucid descriptions.”

“I was always amazed at how easy she was to read,” he added.

Friends called her a gentle soul who nonetheless could turn tough and no-nonsense when it mattered. There was the time a law officer knocked her down during a protest when the G8′s world leaders came to Sea Island. Davis jumped up and soldiered on, chuckling about it later. She once signed up as a cook on a shrimp boat to better cover the 1980 Cuban Mariel boatlift.

But her sweet spot was coastal people — firefighters and shrimpers, cooks and cops, loggers, politicians and old-timers — and history.

In the 1990s, Roughton was dispatched to Savannah with the tense job of telling her that the paper’s coastal bureau was closing, but also to offer her an editor’s position in Atlanta. Davis clearly wasn’t pleased, especially since she didn’t really know him. Her acceptance was pointed.

“She looked at me and said, ‘I believe I can do that, and I believe I can do a better job than you think I can,’” Roughton recalled.

Colleagues say she shone in the AJC newsroom, becoming a “mother earth” figure to younger colleagues. She genuinely cared about reporters and worked tirelessly with them to improve their craft. She also obtained an ordination and presided at the marriages of several of them.

She found another outlet for her coastal storytelling after 2010, working with the University of Georgia Press on a lavishly illustrated trio of coffee table books, including “Island Time: An Illustrated History of St. Simons Island, Georgia.”

UGA Press director Lisa Bayer says the books were well above the level of most in that genre, illustrated to high standards that Davis expected of others, and meticulously researched.

“She knew how to craft an engaging narrative,” said Bayer and didn’t shy away from difficult stories, such as an incident where a boatload of kidnapped Africans imported for the slave trade in 1803 managed to break free then deliberately drowned themselves in a St. Simons Creek rather than face enslavement.

Away from the keyboard, good times with friends and family were crucial to Davis, said daughter Claudia Davis.

She says that will be reflected in Sunday’s celebration of life, planned as a big party without a formal service.

She’s survived by children Claudia, Jim, Ervin and Karl Davis, as well as 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.