No more birthday cakes

An ornery boss who didn't want to save the world. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I'd like you to meet Edward Mike Davis, former Texas oilman.

Only, you can't meet him, because he’s dead.

So, we'll have to get to know him via his legacy, which is a trove of 40-year-old, typewritten, corporate memos that include some of the harshest, most acerbic, and flat-out “grumpiest” missives you'll ever read.

Start with this one, for example, dated January 13, 1978, distributed apparently to every single employee of the three Texas oil companies he ran at the time:

“Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don't want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons-of-bitches.”

Or this one, dated February 8, 1978:

TO: All Employees
SUBJECT: Celebrations of Any Kind

Per Edward Mike Davis' orders, there will be no more birthday celebrations, birthday cakes, levity, or celebrations of any kind within the office. ...

If you have to celebrate, do it after office hours on your own time.


What kind of person—what kind of boss?—writes something like these memos, and sends them to his entire company? Was he mentally ill? Was it all tongue-in-cheek? Was he just ornery?

Or is this just how bosses treated employees 40 years ago?

A self-made man, sort of

Very little surprises me anymore. But still, let's start with some context.

Davis was born on March 1, 1931, but as the New York Times reported, it's unclear where. Reportedly he served in he Army. He had six siblings, all of whom predeceased him.

His big break came when he worked as a chauffeur for a Denver heiress named Helen Bonfils, whom he later married. He 28; she was 69 at the time. When they divorced a decade later, Davis took his settlement and headed to Texas, and the oil industry.

Soon, he had his own company—several, in fact.

And now that he was the boss, he never tired of reminding his employees how successful he was, and how they needed him much more than he needed them.

For example, from three days before Christmas, 1977:

If you are not happy working here, I suggest you get a job somewhere else. ... Any conversation of unhappiness or unrest among my employees pertaining to this will mean immediate termination.

Or this one, announcing the hiring of a new finance director:

I have tried to get the work done in the past under everyone else's ideas, and it hasn't worked, so we will do it my way now. ... I am not asking you, I am ordering you. If you don't like it, that is your problem. ...

We are going to do it the way I want it done. If you have a suggestion on how we can improve our methods, your suggestions are more than welcome. The best way to submit a suggestion is to put it in writing, sign your name, and send it to me by registered mail -- then you can't say it got lost. I DON'T WANT ANY EXCUSES.

Owner of All Companies and The Boss (if there are any questions, test me)

Memos of note

Without the memos of course, there's no reason that the New York Times would have devoted an 800-word obituary to Davis after he'd fled this mortal coil four years ago.

He had made news with his celebrity divorce, and later when billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian sued him alleging fraud, but it's doubtful either of those moments of notoriety would have done it for him.

No, it’s the memos.

And let’s give credit here: The reason the Times knew about the memos, and thus wrote the obit, is that they were coincidentally from the same blog and book I credited with discovering Leonardo da Vinci’s resume: Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note.

(Yesterday’s story reminded me of this one. I’m sharing it so quickly in part because I wanted to do so before I forgot about it — yet again.)

Anyway, one of my favorite quotes is (maybe) from Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So how did Davis’s colleagues feel about him? I’m not sure they mourned his passing, per se. Some marked the occasion of his death on social media. But it’s impressive how they collectively seemed to remember him without actually saying anything nice:

  • “I remember the first time I was cussed out by him,” one consultant wrote.

  • He was “truly one of a kind,” an employee said.

  • He’ll be remembered as “one of the last of the great oil field wildcatters,” a third remarked.

Frankly, from what little I know of the man, I think it’s how he’d like it. As he wrote at the end of one very long memo in 1978:

There is one thing that differentiates me from my employees. I am a known son-of-a-bitch, and I care to remain that way. ... I am not a preacher [and] I am not trying to save the world. I just intend to run my business the way I want to.

7 other things worth your time

  • Yelp says more than half of U.S. restaurants that closed temporarily due to the coronavirus are now closed permanently. (Mashable)

  • What did people say about wearing masks in the 1918 pandemic? It sounds familiar. (Charlotte Observer)

  • Airlines are in big trouble, but some private jet companies are flourishing in Europe, largely due to uber-wealthy Russians traveling back and forth between that country and their second homes in “London, Cyprus, Monaco or Nice.” (AFP)

  • Need some good news? How about this: a massive study of 333,000 people over nine years shows that those who ate dark chocolate more than once a week were less likely to develop heart disease. (I’ll be writing something about this for tomorrow.) (Yahoo)

  • U.S. gun sales are way up, according to an industry group, and the percentage increase is greatest among Black Americans. (Washington Examiner)

  • Amazon is now using robots to deliver packages in Georgia and Tennessee. I guess this has been going on a while in California, but I missed it. (KOMO)

  • Hey, remember yesterday when I wondered how Leonardo da Vinci proposed to get all the water out of a moat? A reader found what looks like the answer (this is why I love you guys), from the Codex Atlanticus, a 500-year old, 1,119-page bound set of da Vinci’s writings and drawings. In short, it looks as if his idea was not about tunneling into the moat, but instead trying to pump the water out. (Codex Atlanticus, DongWorld)

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