O. Preston Davis, a tall man with the bearing of a gracious Southern gentleman, always kept a busy schedule. He planted, tended and reaped beautiful flowers. He appreciated operas, symphonies and choral music. He sang, greeted and read at church.
He took up jogging when he retired at age 62 as personnel affairs officer at the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Nixon years. At 67, he was heavily into tennis, vowing once, "I'll give it all up to play tennis every day."
In his nineties, he swam 30 laps every morning, practiced tai chi and yoga and sometimes walked up 11 flights of stairs just to do it.
A dashing leading man from his early days at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, Davis continued acting on small stages for most of his life. A few years ago, he even slipped on a skirt and donned a straw hat with long braids of yellow yarn and became a gangly Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, with Toto in his arms, for a Halloween party at Goodwin House retirement community in Alexandria.
"I don't usually do things like this," he called to tell a friend before going to the party and capturing the top prize.
A man with "as positive as attitude as anyone," according to his son, Davis loved being vibrantly engaged in life. Of his many and varied activities, gardening remained one of his favorites until he died April 29 of congestive heart failure at age 94. Years after he had planted his first seedling, evidence of his handiwork and expertise still can be seen across Alexandria.
Davis, a native of Eulonia, S.C., grew up in Florida and graduated from the University of Florida. He came to the Washington area in the 1930s, lured by the growing federal government. He acted in plays and worked at the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs until World War II, when he entered the Navy. After four years, he was back at the bureau.
He and his wife, Woody, moved to Portland, Ore., for a few years, and there, he fell in love with the wildflowers that sprouted because of the rain. From the first day the wildflowers captured his attention, he always carried tools in the trunk of his car to dig up plants.
"We would be driving along, and then the car would stop," recalled his son, John Davis of Potomac. "He would get out his shovel and burlap so he could dig up a little specimen and wrap it up and take it home and plant it."
He studied each specimen and learned its Latin name. He and his wife became knowledgeable about many flowers and shrubs.
By 1954, he was back in Alexandria with 78 specimens. He and his wife transformed the back yard of their new home, which was overrun with weeds and poison ivy, into a naturalist's delight with camellias, wildflowers, ferns and miniature and Japanese rhododendrons. Theirs was a teaching garden, showcased for the first time in 1980 on Alexandria's Historic Garden Week tour.
An announcement of the tour of their yard stated, "The erratic sloping contours of the half-acre lot might have dissuaded persons with less imagination, but, in the tradition of the early southern planters, the owners prepared an excellent landscape design that turned the seeming handicaps of the lot into advantage."
Over the years, Davis shared his passion with others as an officer in the Potomac Valley chapters of the American Camellia and Rhododendron Societies and as a speaker on horticulture. He also passed on his enthusiasm to his daughter, Marty.
"For an amateur, it amazes me the number of people who looked to me for advice," he once told his son.
At Immanuel Church-on-the Hill, where he was a member for 50 years, Davis used his expertise to guide the landscaping and helped raise money for the church's memorial garden.
In the 1970s, he advised Alexandria officials on what to plant when they converted a former Civil War fort into Fort Ward community park.
His wife died in 1986, and Davis eventually moved to Goodwin House. He maintained one of the 3-by-10-foot garden boxes behind the building until a few months ago.
"It was a beautiful garden. People loved to see his garden," which included lilies, begonias and small azaleas, said his friend Alberta Carten. "He was considered an authority in all the names of the plants."
Like the Portland wildflowers that captured his imagination years ago, Davis remained sturdy and vibrant until the end. His motto, according to his son, was: "Live today, don't look back; continue to do better things tomorrow."