A continent away from Boston and the work at the Massachusetts Port Authority that would define his career, Dave Davis used to ride his favorite horse in California’s ranch country during his youth. Tending to chores and pulling out a book to read in spare moments, he imagined a different life.
“When I was in high school, I was milking 40 to 50 cows every morning and night,” he told the Globe in 1975, when he became executive director of Massport. “And one day I saw all these city kids going to school who didn’t have to get up at 5 every morning and be home by 6 at night. I said, ‘Boy, I’d like to get out of this.’ ”
The trail out led from state government in California to policy work in Washington and to Kevin White’s administration at Boston’s City Hall. Among his accomplishments at Massport were tackling the challenge of reducing noise levels for neighborhoods near Logan Airport and significantly increasing racial and gender diversity at the agency.
Mr. Davis — who originally hailed from Belden, Neb., where the population is still fewer than 200 people — died Saturday in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications of surgery to remove a benign tumor. He was 80 and divided his time among the South End; Fort Myers, Fla.; and his longtime retreat in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine.
“To be tough,” he told the Globe in 1975, “you don’t have to shout and pound the table.”
At about 6 foot 4, he did not need to make noise to be noticed, and all who met him could see the farm boy in the urban man.
“It’s almost a cliché to say it, but it’s very true with Dave,” said Fred Salvucci, a former state secretary of transportation. “He was a tremendously nice person, kind and considerate.”
Running Massport, Mr. Davis worked to create a business environment that encouraged robust expansion at Logan Airport while intruding as little as possible into the lives of neighbors.
“On the one hand, I had to consider the people living in the vicinity of Logan and their right to the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their homes and property, which has been denied them so long,” he told the Globe in 1976. “On the other hand, I had to consider the critical need for people to retain their means of income.”
“Over the course of his time, the Port Authority adopted the most aggressive noise abatement rules in the country,” said Salvucci. That came about, he said, as Mr. Davis juggled negotiations with airlines, federal agencies, state and city government, and neighborhood groups.
“I think it’s fair to say that Dave was a real national leader,” said Salvucci, who added that Mr. Davis helped initiate soundproofing for nearby schools and pushed affirmative action hiring to give minority residents living near Logan “a shot at a job in the airport.”
Mr. Davis, he said, “was very creative at identifying the win-wins.”
Bob Weinberg, chairman of Massport during part of the 15 years Mr. Davis was executive director, said his friend had “a real sense of the importance of public service, that it was a legitimate calling and made a real difference in people’s lives.”
Weinberg added that Mr. Davis was also known for never flaunting his considerable intelligence.
“There are smart people who need to tell you how smart they are,” Weinberg said, “and Dave was not like that at all.”
An only child, David William Gries was a boy when his parents divorced. He moved to Iowa with his mother and stepfather, whose last name he took, and then to farm country about an hour south of California’s capital, Sacramento.
“He came up the hard way, I think the good way,” said his wife, Niki Janus. “He developed a work ethic, a love of reading, an appreciation of what education can do to get you up and out.”
At the University of California, Berkeley, from which he graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Mr. Davis and nine friends chipped in $10 each to buy a hearse for rides into San Francisco and to go out in the evening.
Years later, for a writing exercise, he noted that “not every young woman was interested in a date if it involved being picked up by a 20-foot shiny black hearse with purple upholstery and curtains. . . . I rationalized this by deciding that such a woman would probably not be much fun anyway.”
Mr. Davis briefly attended law school before leaving because he needed income to support his wife and children.
Beginning in 1959, he worked several years in state government as a budget analyst, leaving when Ronald Reagan succeeded Edmund G. Brown as governor.
Packing his family into a Rambler, Mr. Davis drove to Washington, D.C., where he worked on a presidential task force at the end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and as a research associate for the Brookings Institution.
Recruited to Boston to work in White’s administration, Mr. Davis was budget director, ran the Little City Halls program, and was executive director of the city’s economic development and industrial commission.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Davis was budget director of Harvard University before moving to Massport. His first marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Davis met Niki Janus while he was at Harvard and she was special assistant to the president of Radcliffe College. He asked her to lunch at a French restaurant, and she arrived “carrying tote bags full of budget materials, thinking this was going to be a working lunch, and it turned out not to be,” she recalled. They married in 1976.
“I consider him an original feminist,” said his daughter Michelle of Jamaica Plain. “He surrounded himself with very strong women.”
Along with recruiting women to work in significant roles at Massport, Mr. Davis “thought of women as his equals, and he treated us that way and never doubted our ability and intelligence and our role in the world,” his daughter said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Davis leaves another daughter, Carol Pino of Norton; two sons, Matthew and Benjamin, both of San Francisco; and six grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate his life at 11 a.m. Dec. 2 in the Exchange Conference Center in Boston.
In an age in which many parents did not make time for their children during the workday, “we always had access to him,” Michelle said. “There was never a question that we came first in his life. I think that was unusual in that generation.”
Indeed, she recalled, “we had permission to pick up the phone and call him at his big job at Massport. He would pick up the phone in the middle of a board meeting and say, ‘Let go of your sister’s hair.’ ”