On the Right Path
From teenage runaway to college president. One man's remarkable journey.
By Jerry C. Davis, Point Lookout, Missouri
Reprinted with permission from Guideposts.
Copyright © 2004 by Guideposts. All rights reserved.
Early one cold February morning in 1963, I threw my things into a pair
of cardboard suitcases, pulled on my overcoat and sneaked out of my
college dormitory. I took one last look back through the gray Georgia
dawn, then scaled a wall and hiked through the woods until I got to the
highway, where I managed to hitch a ride with a truck driver.
"Where you headed, son?" he asked.
"Away," I said. I didn't care where, as long as it was far from here.
I'd just been kicked out of school. Again. I was too ashamed to go home to my granddaddy, who had raised me,
and 'fess up to yet another disgrace. Another failure. He was a minister, and I could just imagine the kind of
sermon he'd give me. I don't need someone telling me what to do, I thought. I can take care of myself.
I had a friend, Dennis, up in Georgetown, Kentucky. I figured I could crash on his couch. That was 300 miles
away from Georgia, though. The truck driver took me part of the way, then I hitched another ride that left me on a
lonely strip of highway near the Kentucky border. Night fell. Shivering, I buttoned my thin overcoat up to my chin.
Lord, all I need is another ride. Is that too much to ask? I had been taught that prayer was where I should turn in
times of trouble. Well, we'd just see about that.
A pair of headlights appeared in the distance. I jumped to my feet and waved my arms. A big rig roared past me
in a cloud of dust. I should have known, I thought bitterly. I'm on my own.
I picked up my suitcases and trudged along the shoulder of the road. By the next evening I reached Lexington,
Kentucky. I went to the bus station and spent some of the little money I had on a doughnut and coffee. Then I
checked the schedule. A bus left for Georgetown in an hour. If only I had enough left for the ticket!
"Where you trying to get to?" a man sitting nearby asked.
"Georgetown, Kentucky," I told him.
"You look pretty hungry. How about I buy you a cheeseburger?"
I sized the man up. A stranger offering to help me for nothing? Right. He probably wanted to preach at me, tell
me how to run my life.
"Why?" I asked.
"You seem like you could use a hand." I hesitated. The thought of that cheeseburger made my stomach rumble.
"No, thanks," I told the man. "I'm doing fine."
"Okay, son," he said and stood up to go. "Have it your way."
As soon as he was out of sight, I let my head drop into my hands. How was I going to get to Dennis's? I glanced
at the pay phone in the corner. I was far from home. But one call to my grandfather and he would help me. No
way, I told myself. You're on your own.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I looked up. It was the man who had just offered to buy me a burger.
"Here you go, kid," he said. "Good luck."
He shoved something into my hand and walked away before I could say a word. It was a ticket to Georgetown
I climbed onto the bus and fell asleep wondering what possessed that man to help out a guy like me. I didn't wake
up until the bus pulled into the Georgetown depot. I made it, I thought, squinting out the window. I could just
imagine the look on my friend Dennis's face when I showed up at his door.
But at his house, the windows were dark. I rang the bell and pounded on the front door. No answer. Nobody was
I felt like collapsing right there on the sidewalk. I was about to say a prayer when I remembered my vow. You're
on your own. I stuck my suitcases under the porch. I'd come back for them later. Then I started walking, more to
warm myself up than anything else. I buried my hands in my pockets and stared through the windows of the
houses I passed. Family homes. Tears came to my eyes. I had never felt so alone.
I passed a little church, then came to a plain, nondescript building. A line of men had formed out front. The sign
over the door read: The Salvation Army.
I was about to turn away, fast, when a woman stopped me. "Do you need a meal, son?" she asked. She wore
some kind of soldier's uniform, yet her expression was soft and gentle, like a mother's. I opened my mouth to
refuse, but the words wouldn't come. I lowered my head. "Yes, ma'am," I said. "I sure do."
Inside, she sat me at a long table with about a dozen guys who seemed down on their luck. Mostly they were
older, but younger than they looked, I sensed. Was I staring at my future? Was I destined for their fate? I looked
away. Again, I felt the urge to run, to escape. Then came the aroma of food. The meal was nothing fancy—a
bowl of soup and a small piece of bread—but it sure tasted good to me. It warmed me and renewed my strength.
"Do you have a place to stay tonight?" the woman in uniform asked me. I shook my head. "Well, you do now."
She led me into a room with a cot. There's got to be a catch, I thought. But I was too tired to refuse. She handed
me clean sheets, a blanket and some meal tickets. "These will get you breakfast in the morning," she said.
I fell into bed. Exhausted as I was, I couldn't fall asleep. Light spilled in from the street through the window grate,
casting long shadows on the walls like the bars of a prison cell. That was how I felt—trapped, nowhere to turn.
The other night I was alone on a roadside. Tonight I was living on charity. And probably only to be preached at
and told what to do in the morning. What options did I have, though? To freeze? Starve? I'd been running...from
failure, from humiliation. But what was I running toward?
Here I was, on my own at last, and all I felt was scared. More scared than I'd ever been. More scared than when
my parents split up. My dad was a drinker and a yeller. Mom, a preacher's daughter, ran as far away from her
troubles as she could. And now I was running, too. I would have frozen by the side of the road if it hadn't been for
that truck driver, that man in the bus station, that lady at The Salvation Army.
Seems like I always get help at just the right time, I thought. Something clicked, almost as if everything had
suddenly been put in focus for my 19-year-old eyes. Somebody had to be looking out for me. Somebody who
wouldn't let me push him away no matter how hard I tried. In fact, the farther I ran from God, the closer he
seemed to pull me.
I slipped out of bed and knelt in a patch of moonlight. Lord, I prayed, the words finally coming. Thank you for
your patience. Thank you for your love. I don't know what's good for me. Please, I need your guidance.
The next morning I called my granddaddy. I told him about getting kicked out of school. About running away.
Everything. Then I asked his advice, and for once I listened. Granddaddy didn't yell. He didn't even tell me to
come home. He suggested I stay in Kentucky and get a job, try living on my own. And he said he'd keep praying
I found work at a hospital and enrolled at a nearby college. I finally stopped fighting the world and opened up to
it, asking for and accepting help from the people God placed in my path.
That was the beginning of a long road that led to graduate school and a Ph.D. Today I'm still in school, so to
speak. I'm the president of a college—the College of the Ozarks. A funny fate for the kid who ran away from
school, I know. Or maybe not. Maybe it was where I was headed all along.