Jon Davey’s office on the upper floor of Southern Illinois University’s Quigley Hall is an eclectic place. Bookcases line one wall, complete with books are architecture and design, sometimes double-parked on the shelves. Certificates, plaques and photos line the opposite wall commemorating trips to Europe, his service in the military and in recognition of honors for teaching excellence and public service. A number of tables are pushed together along with a desk, a sort of depository for papers, books and files and even a few Lego building blocks, all relating to the classes he teaches, the camps he leads and countless community projects. The window overlooks some of SIU’s oldest and most distinguished buildings.
It’s a perfect office for the 65-year-old Davey.
It’s been a long journey to this place, but in talking to him, you get the idea that he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The son of a minister, Davey says he developed a nose for adventure and a willingness to try things at an early age. He says that spirit was enhanced by frequent moves as a child.
“I went to six different grade schools,” he said. “We’d get to a new town, mom would rip the map out of the phone book and give it to me and my two brothers and say, ‘see you guys at supper.’ I got really use to exploring and traveling.”
Eventually, the family moved to Mount Vernon, where Davey went to high school and then studied at Rend Lake College before duty called.
“I didn’t have any political friends and I got drafted,” he said. “I didn’t have to go to Vietnam; I ended up going to Berlin. I hated the military because it confined my spirit. I loved the military because it gave me so many opportunities. It really was a great time.”
After discharge, Davey returned to Southern Illinois and began studying architecture.
“Architecture was something I always wanted to do. In fact, I remember vividly a dream one night where all of my architecture tools (the skills necessary) were given to me,” he said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from SIU in architecture — what would eventually be the first of five degrees he earned from the institution. A post-graduation extended trip back to Europe resulted in lots of slides of buildings throughout the continent.
“I came back and called anyone I could think of and said that I’d come give a presentation. I guy named LeRoy Dawson had me give a lecture at SIU and when I was done, he told me that I should apply to teach because, I had ‘the gift’ for teaching. I was invited to teach in 1981 as the first SIU architecture graduate to be invited back to teach, first as a visiting lecturer, progressing up the academic ladder. He’s now been a full-time faculty member for more than 35 years, earning the department’s teacher of the year award five times.
Over the years, Davey has frequently asked his students why they have chosen to study architecture. Often the responses have perplexed him — and led him to a new venture.
“They’d say to me, ‘Dad says I can draw,’ or “Mom says I can pick out colors.’ That’s not a reason to choose architecture or interior design so I thought I would do a camp,” he said.
Davey said “he threw together” the first summer Kids’ Architecture Camp at SIU.
“I had 35 students the first year and remember, I never had taught grade school kids in my entire life. I knew nothing about discipline,” he said.
Davey said with the camp he was able to take a new approach to teaching architecture.
“Up to that point, schools of architecture were not very hands-on, but I wanted that. I wanted the kids to touch concrete, so I got a concrete truck to come to campus. I wanted to take what we teach in four years at the University and teach it to kids in one week.”
He says the camp, now it its 26th year, is about more than buildings and design.
“I look for teachable moments,” he said. “We talk about life, about philosophy, about anything.”
He obviously has been successful with it. He’s seeing second-generation campers and many camp alumni are now practicing architects. Many other former campers come back to teach at the camp.
The same is true for Davey’s other summer project, Lego camps.
“The Lego thing is another story,” he concedes. “I don’t like Legos; it’s not my foray, but kids and parents like it. It helps kids learn processes and again, it’s about teachable moments.”
Davey leads architecture-focused trips abroad, assists with the renovations of Carbondale’s R. Buckminster Fuller Dome and is finishing a book on kid’s architecture. He says it can be a catalyst for learning about more than design.
“Architecture is a vehicle to teach and can be used to teach about anything. It’s about life.”