Nebraska Legal Legend Remembered For His Exceptional Life

By 
Andy Roberts
The Daily Record

He was that rare individual who not only was a character but also had character.James Martin Davis, who can best but inadequately be described as an icon of Omaha’s legal community, died Aug. 30 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Davis was in the courthouse at Tecumseh when he felt the signs of a heart attack that he knew too well. Eleven years earlier, he had been revived in the operating room. But there was no miracle this time. Davis died while being transported to a Lincoln hospital.

Jim Davis will be remembered in many ways in addition to his flamboyant work as a defense attorney. He was a husband to his wife Sarah “Polo” and father to daughter Tori Sitz. He was also a grieving father after his son Jimmy was killed in a 1996 car accident as Davis was launching his Democratic campaign for Nebraska’s 2nd District seat in Congress.

His was an exceptional life, including service in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and in the Secret Service before the Omaha native returned home to launch his legal career.

Bob Kerrey, former governor and senator of Nebraska, remembered his fellow Vietnam veteran fondly. Asked for his thoughts, Kerrey said, “One overused word describes Jim: ‘Patriot.’”

 “Love of country was written into his DNA,” Kerrey said. “And he was a great storyteller, funny, generous, and as good a friend as anyone could ever want.”

Davis also left his mark in print, as many pointed out.

“Every year that I will remain on this earth, I will miss his Omaha World-Herald essay,” Kerry said.

Davis wrote an annual column for the World-Herald each Memorial Day. In June, the newspaper published a compilation of those columns: “Memorial Day: Our Nation’s Time to Remember.”

Others will remember the phone calls that began with, “Hello Amigo!”

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine knew Davis from their court battles over the years.

“He was a worthy opponent. He was an excellent lawyer,” the veteran prosecutor said.

The two men knew each other from Kleine’s earliest days in the County Attorney’s Office.

Kleine said that Davis identified with his role as a defense lawyer and did a “great job” for his clients.

“He’ll be truly missed,” Kleine said. “He was a leader in the legal community.”

Omaha attorney Bill Eustice had known Davis over the decades, but a friendship developed when Eustice’s late wife, longtime Salvation Army spokeswoman Susan Eustice, connected them through charitable events.

After Susan Eustice passed, Davis took Bill Eustice and some other attorney friends to the Bahamas.  He remembers Davis “as a warm and genuine guy, and that’s just the truth,” Eustice said.

“When you got to know him, he just couldn’t be a nicer person,” he said.

Davis’s knack for being in the media spotlight was a source of amusement to Eustice and many of their friends.

“We poked fun at him all the time ... the most dangerous place to be was between him and a TV camera,” Eustice chuckled.

His friend’s sudden passing remains a shock, and he was flattered when Davis’s widow asked him to be a pallbearer.

“Three weeks ago, we were lying by the pool at Caesar’s Palace,” Eustice recalled. “The generosity was never ending.”

Eustice added: “He was something else.”

That was something that Ben Nelson, another former governor and senator of Nebraska, learned in September 1967 when the two men were beginning law school at the University of Nebraska.

Nelson recalled how all the first-year students were in a large room on campus, but Davis — a late enrollee — was seated by himself. A professor read off a roster of the new students, but Davis’s name was not called.

“Who are you?” the professor asked.

“Davis, sir. Jim Davis,” the new law student responded, before adding, “Isn’t this Creighton?”

The room sat in stunned silence as the professor was doubled over in laughter.

“He established right then and there he had the class sense of humor. And bravery,” Nelson stated. “It took one day for everyone to know him.... He never held back.”

It was the beginning of a 54-year friendship. There was an intermission in that when Davis enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam and later the Secret Service, earning his Juris Doctor from the University of Indiana before returning to Nebraska.

“I remember what a great friend he was and how often we got together,” Nelson reminisced.

They hunted and celebrated birthdays together – not on the same day.

“Whenever Jim and I were together, there was a lot of back and forth,” Nelson said. “He was always there when you needed something.”

Nelson emphasized that, if you had a legal issue, Davis would be the first person you called.

“As a lawyer, he most often represented the unpopular,” Nelson pointed out.

His friend believed that everyone had a right to be presumed innocent and deserved a fair trial.

“He wasn’t just going through the motions,” Nelson said.

Davis took that representation to a new level and was willing to speak outside the courtroom where he became a media darling.

“He knew how far he could go and what he could say. He knew where the line was,” Nelson stressed. “That’s not easy to do.…. He was good at it. I think it was because he really believed in that he was doing.”

Davis made sure his clients had their day in court, Nelson emphasized. He also mentioned the Memorial Day columns.

“They were never about him. They were about his colleagues,” Nelson said.

The same could be said of his legal work.

 “He enjoyed his celebrity, but when you boiled right down to it, it was never about him, it was always about somebody else,” Nelson said.

On a personal note, Davis did like cigars and cognac, he added. 

Davis was buried with full military honors from Millard American Legion Post 374 and VFW Post 8334 at Calvary Cemetery last Saturday following a Mass of Christian burial at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church. In addition to his widow, daughter and son-in-law, he is survived by a grandson, two brothers and a sister, other in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews.

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James Martin Davis

November 30, 1945 – August 30, 2021

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