After she got a job in 1942 doing war work in an Owensboro factory, Smiths Grove native Virginia Wood Davis was unsure about finishing her degree at Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now WKU). On one hand, the war wouldn’t last forever, but on the other hand Virginia and her widowed mother had learned to watch their pennies, and her $80-per-month paycheck at least allowed them to stop worrying about food.
But Virginia did return to school and graduated in 1943. Taking a teacher’s suggestion that she pursue newspaper work, she embarked on a career that lasted more than 40 years and took her to reporting and editorial positions in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and finally back to Kentucky, where she spent eight years as managing editor of the McCreary County Record.
In a profession where women were still a curiosity, Virginia trod the reporter’s beat, learned to “go toe to toe” with men, and cultivated her resume. She won an award from the South Carolina Press Association in 1960, became the first woman to run the main copy desk at the Florida Times-Union, and earned numerous press awards for the McCreary County Record. She covered civil rights marches in Alabama, migrant workers in Florida, and striking miners in Kentucky. But the hours were long and the pay was low. From a starting salary of $25 per week in 1943, Virginia retired in 1985 earning $325 per week at the Record.
To colleagues and friends, Virginia’s personal habits, which included an obsessive frugality and a lifestyle that some called “primitive,” were proof of her lifelong poverty. But they were in for a shock. When she died in 1990, Virginia left a small house, a beat-up truck, some personal possessions… and investments that, after being rumored to be as much as $2.5 million, were eventually valued at $400,000. The major beneficiary of her scrimping and saving was her alma mater. Virginia left 80% of her estate to WKU–the largest bequest ever given up to that time–to be used for the benefit of its journalism department.
WKU was equally honored when a family member donated Virginia Wood Davis’s personal papers to WKU’s Special Collections Library. This collection, which includes more than 4,000 items of correspondence, diaries, genealogy records, news writing and photos, is now processed and available to researchers. It provides a full and fascinating picture of the life and times of a daughter of Smiths Grove, a hardworking woman journalist, and a uniquely successful investor. Click here to download a finding aid. For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.