Pfeiffer Friends of the Library to host storyteller

By Ken Keuffel, Pfeiffer University

Donald Davis is among the most famous triple threats in the world of storytelling.

He has authored 18 books, including “Southern Jack Tales.”

He has made 40 storytelling recordings.

And he continues to make his mark as a live-performance artist, which he will demonstrate on April 21 during the annual Friends of the Library Spring Luncheon, in Stokes Student Center on Pfeiffer’s Misenheimer campus. He is the recipient of both the Circle of Excellence Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Storytelling Network.

Davis promises that he’ll tell “no more than two” stories at the highly anticipated event, but he is keeping said tale or tales a mystery until the very last moment.

“I have some nominations for stories in my head,” he said recently, adding that the one he elects will be based on his sense of the event’s organizers and audience members.

The material Davis chooses will almost certainly reflect his signature blend of influences and storytelling philosophies. Now often called “The Dean of Storytelling,” he grew up in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, where storytelling was the dominant form of DIY entertainment. Television, which featured but one channel out of Asheville, wouldn’t become a factor in his life until he turned 13.

During his youth, Davis (b. 1944) was introduced to tales of Scots-Irish ancestry in which Jack, the central figure, overcomes such trials as earning a living, finding a mate and subduing ogres of all kinds. He also soaked up elements of large family gatherings that were as much about conversations that turned into lengthy stories as they were about eating dinner on Sunday afternoon.

“It was a very oral world, and I was surrounded by it constantly,” Davis said. “My Uncle Frank, my dad’s younger brother, could easily tell a story that was an hour long, and everybody would be looking for it.”

In time, Davis would become most attracted to stories of his family and their places of origin. More often than not, these highlight unusual predicaments faced by children in ordinary settings of school, home or church. Davis favors telling these tales, particularly to multi-generational audiences, because “the one place everyone’s been is childhood,” he said. “The grandparents get it, the parents get it and the children get it.”

Davis honed his storytelling craft in sermons he delivered over a 25-year career as a United Methodist minister. This was done out of necessity: “When I first came out of seminary, I was still preaching the way I was taught, watching people fall asleep. Gradually, I began to pull storytelling more and more and more into my sermons.

“By the time I was in the last 15 years of those 25 years as a minister, it was pretty much storytelling down the line. And that’s what really worked. A lot of the big stories I now tell started off as little stories in sermons.”

Davis now likens storytelling to a type of travel in which wisdom is passed down. The traveling begins with our using physical maps until we get familiar with where we are, at which point the map becomes “internal in our heads.” A similar concept applies to the movement of our lives.

“We’re moving forward on a map that we’ve drawn in our heads,” Davis said. “That map determines where we’re going, where we may possibly go and where we’re not going to go. It’s very limiting as well as enabling. We’re actually living out a story. We’ve written the story that we think we’re going to live ahead of time, and we’re living our way into it.”

The Friends of the Library Presents Storyteller Donald Davis will be at 11 a.m. April 21 at The Community Room of the Stokes Student Center on Pfeiffer’s Misenheimer campus. Cost (including lunch) is $35. To make reservations, go to https://community.pfeiffer.edu/folspring.

Ken Keuffel is Pfeiffer’s assistant director of communications. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.​