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Berne Davis

Beloved Fort Myers philanthropist Berne Davis has died after a life spent cultivating beauty and culture in Southwest Florida. She was 102.

Her neice, Alexandra Bremner gave voice to a feeling many of those who admired Davis  echoed: "It's hard to imagine a world without Berne in it. She was such a vibrant, curious and amazing lady. She will be so missed by her family and friends."

Davis' contributions include more than $2 million to restore the arts center named after her and her her late husband, Sidney. Center CEO Jim Griffith called her "an inspiration to us all," pointing out that she "watched this beautiful building being built in 1933 when she was 18 years of age. Her husband Sidney had the Sidney Davis Men's Shop on the next block for over 50 years. ... We are honored to bear her name (and) have enjoyed having Mrs. Davis in the front row of nearly every performance and event that we have hosted. The room would light up when she arrived, and everyone always wanted to greet and and talk with her. Her parting words to me after each event were 'Jim, you're doing a wonderful job,' which always put fresh wind in my sails.

Florida Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, is another inspired by Davis — "living her life to the fullest, her way; helping others and sharing every step, building her bridge to heaven."

Davis also helped revitalize the gardens at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, endowed an FGCU professorship and created a meditation garden at Lee Memorial Health System's Regional Cancer Center.

It all flowed from her deep commitment to her community.  "Her life was about others," said longtime friend Woody Hanson, "She always made new friends."

Not only did she embody thoughtful philanthropy, her grace and quiet force made her a role model for countless young Southwest Floridians, many of whom poured out tributes to her on social media, praising her spirit and good works.

Even as her health became more frail, Davis continued to support the causes and people she loved, and if that meant allowing a friend to push her in a wheelchair to a party, so be it.

In recent days, as Davis awaited the end, she remained completely herself and lovely as ever, said friend Susan Bennett, who visited the day before she died. “She looked absolutely beautiful yesterday dressed in a flowery red blouse, lipstick and blush on her cheeks ... her hand poised on a pink heart-shaped pillow. It was exactly how Berne wanted to go meet God.”

Though she was the closest thing Fort Myers had to royalty (she was the second Queen of Edisonia in 1939), Davis' beginnings were humble.

The left-handed daughter of a logger, Bernese Josephine Barfield spent her childhood in lumber camps throughout Florida  — bustling company towns where her father ran heavy equipment. In 1928, he brought his wife and five children to Slater, in what's now North Fort Myers, where she cared for her younger siblings and learned backwoods skills including wringing, plucking and cooking chickens. Later in life, she'd joke that her hardscrabble upbringing might be considered underprivileged. Davis craved music, but her family had no money for instruments or lessons, so as an adult, she helped fund venues and programs that brought music to children.

She met Sidney, the banker son of a Virginia oyster dealer (and 13 years older than she was) at a party. Never mind that he was a confirmed bachelor — the charming Miss Barfield turned his head, and she adored him right back.

"He was the love of my life," Davis told The News-Press. "I never met anyone who could come up to Sidney."  Once the two set up housekeeping, they devoted themselves to the civic and cultural life of Fort Myers. When Sidney opened a downtown men's clothing store, his bride began a career of good works at the First United Methodist Church, where she was a founding member of the altar guild and at Lee Memorial Hospital.

Davis also was friendly with Thomas Edison's widow, Mina, with whom she shared a love of gardening. She became a charter member of the Periwinkle Garden Club and surrounded her home on the Caloosahatchee with blooming, thriving, colorful life  — words that might also describe Davis' gifts to the region.

Mossy brick paths wound gently through her landscape, leading visitors from fruit-laden kumquats to sprawling bougainvilleas to an angel trumpet tree drooping with blooms.

Plants of all sorts fascinated her, as did Florida's wild places. A few years ago, she spent a weekend in the western Everglades, where she faced into the wind like a figurehead on the prow of Hanson's boat as it sliced through Chokoloskee Bay and laughed around a Big Cypress bonfire at night.

Long after Sidney's death in 1986, Davis continued to speak with fond wistfulness of her husband.

Then, a few days before she died, Hanson said, her caretakers reported that when they went to awaken her, Davis asked them to wait.

"Don't touch me, I don't want to be moved," she told them. "Sidney is holding me."

And, they said, "You could feel the love in the room."