John Davies dies at 76; longtime San Diego civic leader

John Davies, a major civic figure in San Diego for decades, particularly in education, urban planning and the revitalization of a once-crumbling downtown, died of pancreatic cancer Friday at his home in downtown San Diego. He was 76.

Along with his civic involvement in San Diego, Davies was a member and then chairman of the University of California Board of Regents and also a trustee of the UC San Diego Foundation.

Davies was a confidant and political ally of Pete Wilson during the latter's tenure as mayor, U.S. senator and California governor. Wilson and Davies met as students at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in the 1960s.

The two formed a friendship and alliance that was to play a major role in shaping modern San Diego, Davies becoming the ultimate City Hall insider during Wilson's tenure as mayor from 1972 to 1982.

"He is an irreplaceable friend," Wilson said. "He had a gift for leadership that served him well in different venues. John was a man of great sincerity and great intellect."

When Wilson had a difficult or politically volatile task, he often turned to Davies: as chairman of the city planning commission when developers — and the local newspaper — were fighting the idea of managed growth; as a director of the Centre City Development Corp., which was designed to revitalize downtown and bypass a stodgy business establishment; and then as chairman of a task force to develop a campaign to build a convention center.

As senator and then governor, Wilson turned to Davies to evaluate candidates for judgeships, as did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. By Wilson's count, Davies' recommendations were responsible for the appointment of nearly 40 federal judges in California and 600 state judges.

John Davies was born June 28, 1934, in Chula Vista. His father, Lowell Davies, was city attorney of Chula Vista, later a prominent lawyer in private practice and a patron of the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. The venue's outdoor stage is named for Lowell Davies.

John Davies graduated from USC in 1956 and then served in the Navy for three years before enrolling in Boalt Hall. He was a star student and member of the Law Review.

After graduating, Davies and Wilson joined Lowell Davies' law firm. Soon Wilson was elected to the state Assembly. When the San Diego city government became mired in various scandals, Wilson returned to run for mayor with help from Davies and others.

Nominated by then-Gov. Wilson, Davies won approval as a UC regent despite opposition from Common Cause, a lobbying group, and some Democrats who thought Wilson should have named a woman or racial minority to the post. Davies took the criticism in stride.

"They oppose me because I'm white, wealthy, a male, a friend of the governor's and a campaign contributor," he said. "I can't argue with any of that."

Although his ascension to the Board of Regents in 1992 may have been rocky, Davies was later named chairman and served as a peacemaker between various factions. He was an early supporter of the Mark Twain Papers project and the long-awaited autobiography of Twain published by the University of California Press.

Davies returned to San Diego's redevelopment agency after Wilson left for the U.S. Senate.

"I want San Diego to avoid the sprawl that exists in Orange County and Los Angeles," he once said. "We should develop the central core and have a downtown that doesn't die at 5:30 p.m."

Much of Davies' vision for downtown San Diego has come true: with theaters, hotels, high-end housing, a lively entertainment zone, Petco Park and a restaurant row, all anchored by the Horton Plaza shopping center.

"John was instrumental in developing San Diego into the world-class city we see today," Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

Since 1993, Davies was an attorney with the law firm of Allen, Matkins, Leck, Gamble, Mallory and Natsis, specializing in real estate and probate law.

He is survived by his wife, Ann; and four children from a previous marriage: Christopher, Michael, Thompson and Suzanne Davies Farr.

A celebration of life is set for 4 p.m. June 3 at the Town and Country Resort Hotel in Mission Valley, 500 Hotel Circle North, San Diego.