The Woman Who'll Knock Your Socks Off
By Diane McMahon
Photography by Christian Lee
Joan Davis tells me I’ll know her by the golf clothes and distinct knee socks she’ll be wearing. She’s sitting at a table outside of Starbuck’s in Pineland Mall; I recognize her instantly. (Later she will ask me if I think she looks like Shirley MacLaine. She really does.) I compliment her quirky wild socks before going in to get coffee. The barista says, “Oh you’re interviewing Joan today, right?” I ask if she knows her. “Only for 15 minutes, but we’re good friends already. Don’t you love those crazy socks she sells!”
I suspect Joan Davis characteristically leaves a whirlwind of friendly energy in her wake. I re-join her and we transfer to the outdoor sofas. She sits forward—alert, enthusiastic and in charge—and begins talking about life.
She has lived in Hilton Head for the past eight years with a retired New York state trooper who she refers to as her “gentleman friend” (she hates the term significant other). She has buried two husbands, the first her high school sweetheart. She has two children from her first marriage and four stepchildren from her second. She, along with her older brother, grew up in Saddle River, N. J. Their father was an executive with Eagle Pencil Company, which bought Little Saint Simons Island, SC as a hunting retreat, and like adults in the 1940s, her parents were heavy drinkers.
She takes her first (maybe second) breath and laughs. “You’ll have to rein me in or direct me because I’ll go off in a thousand directions.” Her momentum is engaging and infectious. As she continues, two distinct story lines emerge. One is the story of an extremely successful corporate career woman, excelling at a time when few women reached executive positions. The other is a history of family alcoholism, mental illness and Joan’s own diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. She says candidly, “My life’s been all over the place.” She’s open about all of it.
Joan was one of the first sales reps for L’eggs Hosiery. She wore hot pants and boots (she admits she had great legs) and drove an econoline van with the slogan, “Our Legs Fit Your Legs.” She moved up and became the sales trainer for the Eastern Region hosiery division. She was then hired by Maxwell House in their sales and marketing division and became the first female in the Maxwell House Masters Club. When they merged with Kraft Foods she continued winning national awards. After 25 years she retired. She now owns GONE GOLFING, an umbrella company representing manufacturers of golf accessories (like her socks), which she markets and sells. She is now also the marketing director for the Savannah-Hilton Head chapter of Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA) and has served on the boards of more organizations than I can list, including the Mental Health Association and the YMCA.
Her success is even more admirable when viewed against the backdrop of a history that could be perceived as insurmountable. Her parents’ alcoholism required she manage the household as a child, and ultimately led to her mother being institutionalized, at which point her father committed suicide. Shortly after she married her second husband in the early 1970s, he was hit by a drunk driver. Joan cared for him until he died 12 years ago. Her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder—her moods were manic rather than depressive—was something that took years of therapy and several breakdowns to learn to manage.
Her experience raises an interesting question. Although manic moods are a psychiatric disorder, for many people who experience that side of bipolar disorder there are levels of mania that feel like a gift. The intense emotions, unbridled enthusiasm and high energy make one feel wholly alive and excited by life. It feels like passion; that thing we humans crave. What’s the dividing line?
Joan knows that much of her success is due to her unflagging energy and enthusiasm (plus her ability to sell anything to anybody); but she has to be vigilant. She has learned to temper her natural buoyancy and excitement with a diligent adherence to a healthy lifestyle. She doesn’t want to tip into the risky world of sleep-deprivation, impulsivity, invincibility, over-spending and delusion that are the dark side of manic disorder. She is militant about getting proper sleep (in bed by 9 p.m. and up at 5 a.m.), plenty of outdoor exercise and eating right.
Joan also says, “My whole thing in life is to help other people.” She calls herself a “faithful person.” It reveals itself most visibly in her deep gratitude and appreciation for life and being alive. She believes in respect for all people. She believes in “personal choice” and accountability. When she exuberantly tells me, “This is the best day of my life,” even my cynical self believes this is the sincere choice she makes every day.
First Executive Position: head of NYC fan club for "Guiding Light."
Favorite Personal Quote: “Golf for me is a 3-letter word spelled FUN.”
Favorite Famous Quote: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues but the parent of all others.” —Cicero
Personal Hero: Brian Cosacchi, who taught her how to sell.