By Kristi Robinson Horine
In 2006, Chris Davis walked into Images Modeling Agency in Lexington dressed in his usual attire: Wrangler jeans,
dusty boots and his cowboy hat.
“I had to go in there and say I was interested in being a model,” Davis says.
Davis had made – and lost – a bet. As out of place as he felt that day, he knew he had to go through with it. He was raised to be a man of his word.
What started as a 15 minute initial interview, turned into a modeling contract that took him to Los Angeles, California. The trip to Los Angeles turned into an eye opening experience that he says has helped him be the best Lancaster mayor he can be.
“I can remember the first time I went to Los Angeles. There were so many buildings, so many people, and everything was completely a 180 from the way it is here,” Davis says. “What I learned is that it makes me appreciate my home and my small community so much more. That was a turning point for me.”
While life’s adventures took him westward to the bright lights of the City of Angels, his humble beginnings were right in the heart of Garrard County. And as far as he can tell, that’s where he wants to stay.
Deep roots in his place
In its 220 years, Garrard County has produced some notable figures, from Kentucky governors to state and federal politicians, to a brigadier general back in the 1860s.
It was into this small town in 1983 that Davis was born. His mother was an elementary school principal. His father was a police officer, a member of the local fire department, a business-owner and a county magistrate.
Davis and his older brother, Anthony, learned the value of hard work, caring for their neighbors, and the importance of civic involvement.
Davis’ family lived in town, but he frequented his grandfather’s farm out on Highway 39, three miles out.
“I learned to drive a tractor when I was four and my great-granddad had a lawn mower that he built a wooden bench to go across. We could sit three deep on that bench,” Davis recalls. “I bought a lawnmower when I was fourteen and drove it on the sidewalk to get a haircut and drove it to the stockyards after school. I’m definitely a redneck kid.”
Davis and his brother mowed lawns and worked cattle. During the school year, Davis played basketball and golf and, after he graduated from Garrard County High School in 2002, he went on to Union College with a sports scholarship.
“I love sports, I always have, but I wanted to go into agriculture,” Davis says. “They didn’t have ag at Union, so I transferred to Eastern and got an agribusiness degree.”
It was during his last year of college that he lost the bet and had to walk into the modeling agency. That was also the year he started going to city council meetings.
“I’ve always been interested in what was going on, what was changing, what was not,” Davis says. “I followed the council for a few months and then one Sunday morning before church started, I said I was going to pick up the papers at the courthouse the next morning and I was going to file for city council.”
Davis was 22 years old, attended every council meeting in 2006, and was elected to serve his first council term beginning in January 2007.
While all this was happening, Davis was preparing to take a step into a field he had known about, but had never seriously considered before.
Standing in a new field
Sometimes, life seems like a series of interruptions. We start on a journey in one direction, then along comes an invitation to step off the original path. When we are young, the invitation into the unknown can be an adventure that changes everything.
In 2007, Davis seemed to be on a sure path. He held a seat on the Lancaster City Council. He was flying back and forth between Kentucky and California to fulfill his modeling contracts. He had just completed his requirements for an agribusiness degree from EKU. He and his brother were mowing yards and farming cattle.
One day, out of the blue, the Garrard County School System called on Davis, asking if he would be interested in a rather special position.
“They asked me if I wanted to be a special education teacher,” he says.
In order to take that position, Davis would be required to go back to school for his Master’s Degree and he would have to turn down two other simultaneous job offers – one in sales and the other in banking.
For Davis, who bleeds Garrard County Golden Lions like UK fans bleed blue, the choice was a step in the right direction.
And so he did.
Davis was a full-time teacher by day, a student driving three nights a week down to Union College in Barbourville for his master’s coursework, and a city council member. From November 2007 to July 2015, the busyness of his life was rewarded in the classroom and out.
“My first two years of teaching, I taught kids with severe disabilities. It’s so touching to see how kids can improve, how they really work hard to become as independent as possible,” Davis says. “The kids would give me a hug every morning and a hug every afternoon.”
Five years into his teaching career, Lancaster city government hit a rough patch and Davis stepped in as interim mayor. It was then that he discovered yet another field was waiting to be explored.
For the love of Lancaster
In 2014, Davis filed to run for mayor and won the position, taking office in January 2015. After being so close to the inner workings for eight years, Davis knew all his co-workers and they all knew him. In order to strengthen already established relationships, Davis made some deliberate choices.
“We have a phenomenal city team and a leadership team, which is the department heads. I trust each and every one of our employees and I trust each and every one of our department heads. It’s all ‘we’,” Davis explains.
He works to ensure that his team has the freedom to manage each department, and also works to ensure that the commitment to care and communicate is more than just lip service.
Davis and his commissioners supply a privately funded quarterly meal for the city employees. He meets one-on-one with each department head, and he encourages congregating with one another as much as possible.
In addition, he and his team are working to implement a strategic plan for the city. With help from the Kentucky League of Cities, Lancaster has developed a written plan that outlines the city’s vision and the goals to see that vision become a reality.
Davis keeps a copy of the strategic plan manual on his desk at work, one at city hall, one on his desk at home, one on his iPad and one on his iPhone.
And, being a member of the board for the Bluegrass Area Development District, Davis knows that when the time comes to call on help from the BGADD, help will be available.
“The ADD is a great resource tool. I’ve used them twice since I’ve been here, once with a grant and once with a new revenue study,” Davis says.
“David Duttlinger has been tremendous. When we were discussing the water plant about five years ago, he came to every meeting and we appreciate his expertise and his wisdom.”
The collaborations and the work have paid off and the difference is evident.
Over 60 citizens filled 140 trash bags during one of the community cleanup days. A new summer concert series has brought downtown to life. A Fourth of July festival honored Vietnam Veterans and hosted 500 people. Blighted properties have been demolished to make way for something beautiful, something new.
“All of this points to three words: Quality of Life. We want to create a better overall environment,” Davis says. “We have a commitment to a positive attitude in our community. We can do this. We can be who we want to be.”
Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer from Paris, She wrote this story for the Bluegrass Area Development District.