Longtime Tyler businessman Ralph Leonard "R.L." Davis, owner of The Christmas Store, has died. He was 86.
Davis, who was born in Houston and grew up in Livingston, moved to Tyler in 1950. He died at his home on Wednesday.
Davis was inducted into the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame in 2007. He served as president of the Texas Rose Festival and the Tyler Museum of Art.
Mary K. Lust worked for Davis for years, starting in 1982 and until he left R.L. Davis Fine Gifts. She said he asked her a few years ago to come back to work part time at The Christmas Store and she worked there last season.
"He was a tremendously sharp businessman," she said. "He had a very tough nature at times but could also be the sweetest man."
Mrs. Lust said he had a wonderful eye for merchandising and made a success of everything he did. He was generous in the community and had a great sense of humor, she added.
"It was a family," she said of Davis' employees.
Verna Hall, board president for the Tyler Museum of Art, said Davis was very involved with the museum, the Women's Symphony League, the Shriners and several other organizations.
"When he signed on to support something, he supported it all the way," she said. "He really supported a lot of things that were good for the community."
The Women's Symphony League presented him with an award last year for his support of its Benefit Ball, she said.
"Ralph was a longtime customer of our company," Nelson Clyde, publisher of the Tyler Morning Telegraph, said. "He was a great merchandiser and a tenacious business man. … R.L. Davis and The Christmas Store were well known in the area as providers of high-end household merchandise."
In 1974, Davis married Judith Sugerman Davis, of Dallas. They were married for 26 years until her death in 2000. In 2001, he met Gloria Kusin Bishkin, of Texarkana and Dallas, and they were married in 2002.
He served in the U.S. Army before moving to Tyler, where he purchased a dress shop and changed the name to Ralph's. In the slow season, he had his alterations team produce skirts that he designed, and he sold them for $5.99, according to earlier reports.
Davis decided to expand his clothing manufacturing and bought equipment from a defunct clothing manufacturing company in Alto. He established R.L. Davis Manufacturing Co. in the upstairs portion of what is now Rick's on the Square. It later moved to North Bois D'Arc Avenue and Bow Street.
The clothing manufacturing business expanded during the Vietnam War, when the Army paid for equipment to make pants. The profits allowed Davis to open a 72,000-square-foot manufacturing facility where the Ralph's Originals and Mr. Beau sportswear lines were made. Those brands were sold nationwide.
The R.L. Davis Manufacturing Co. became a founding member of Dallas' World Trade Center. He sold the company in 1981.
Davis opened The Christmas Store in 1978 and R.L. Davis Fine Gifts in 1989.
In 2006, Davis sold R.L. Davis Fine Gifts to Christi and Fred Khalaf, who changed its name to Cole and Co. and moved it to its current location in the La Piazza shopping center in 2008. In 2011, Debbie Dickerson purchased the business.
Davis closed The Christmas Store in 2002 but reopened it in 2008, running the store for more than 40 years.
"I guess I didn't know how to retire," Davis joked when reopening the business. Davis said he reopened because so many people told him they missed the store and needed a place to purchase high-quality merchandise.
The seasonal store, at 2822 W. Erwin St., is open from Labor Day Weekend to mid-January each year.
Davis served in many civic and charitable organizations, including Congregation Beth-El, Tyler Jewish Federation, Trinity Mother Frances Hospital, East Texas Symphony, Junior Achievement and Shriners.
Margo Adams knew Davis for nearly 40 years and said he was the godfather of her oldest child.
"I think he was very involved both businesswise and civically," she said. He was "giving to this community."
Henry Bell said Davis was very community minded.
"He was all about promoting Tyler," he said.
Bell, chief operating officer of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, knew Davis for at least 25 years and worked with him when Davis serves as president of the Texas Rose Festival. He said Davis loved the festival and the tourist industry.
Davis' memorial service will be at 3:30 p.m. today at Lloyd James Funeral Home in Tyler. Burial will follow at Rose Hill Cemetery.