How can I say goodbye to Aubrey Davis – my friend, my mentor, my leader, and my role model? I can’t. Because the lessons and wisdom that I have learned from Aubrey remain with me, challenge me, inspire me, and make me a better person and better citizen.
I was lucky to get to know Aubrey when he was young – just about to turn 80 years old. That was my first lesson and inspiration: Don’t retire into infirmity. Responsibility as a citizen and engagement with the world continue even as life begins to wind down. My second lesson was this: if you exercise these responsibilities, with respect, with consideration, and with a firm belief in enriching our democracy, you might succeed in pushing back the deadlines of your own life. Aubrey certainly did.
Aubrey provided these lessons both for those of us on the other side of fifty, and for those on us on the younger side of fifty – our children, our younger friends and colleagues, our grandchildren, our neighbors. He inspired his children and his grandchildren, and looked forward to seeing the accomplishments of his great grandchildren.
I first talked to Aubrey in 1997, in the old Group Health cafeteria, when we discussed the need for a public policy institute that would develop pragmatic solutions for economic security and educational opportunity for working families in our state. Aubrey got it, immediately, and offered to be a founding board member. And with that, we embarked on building the Economic Opportunity Institute.
Those of you who know Aubrey will remember him tilting his head back and closing his eyes in the middle of a conversation. Had he fallen asleep? What should we do? And then, he would open his eyes and come out with a solution to a problem, a question, a nugget of wisdom for political strategy and tactics, an elegance in policy.
Aubrey read everything we developed for policy at the Economic Opportunity Institute. He would come to meetings fully schooled about each issue and prepared to engage. He would ask the difficult questions, and find the pathway not to the perfect, but to, as he said, “rough justice”.
Aubrey understood and embodied the spirit that we are all in life together. He believed in a society in which certain basic services, such as health care, education, care for the youngest and oldest among us, are the given rights and responsibilities of citizens in our state. And he believed that on the foundation, we could build a flourishing market system.
He was also part of that market system as a successful entrepreneur, a true capitalist. He built Gaco Western, starting in 1955. Aubrey made sure that Gaco was built on three fundamental principles: superior products, sellers who were experts, and competitive prices. He built a profitable company on capitalist principles — one that prospered within and because of the humane parameters of democracy, not running unregulated and wild.
Aubrey believed health care should be a given right, not a chance encounter dependent on income, privilege, luck, or profit. That’s one of the reasons he was a founding member of Group Health Cooperative, why at the age of 70 he became its CEO, and why after that, he was elected over and over again to its governing board. It is one of the reasons that he helped to move forward the successful Initiative 773 in 2001, increasing tobacco taxes to fund the expansion of basic health coverage throughout our state.
Our job now is to take up the ethics, the vision, the wisdom, the respectfulness, the energy, and the foresight of Aubrey Davis and carry it forward as we ourselves age to our own reckoning with the unknowability of mortality.
Aubrey is my sage and guide for this journey. I will miss him every day. And yet, his spirit can guide us forward every day in the quest for the “rough justice” of our democracy.