Friends and neighbors gathered Wednesday to mourn together after learning four members of the Davis family were killed in an early-morning house fire.
Russell Davis, 56, his wife Wendi, 55, and daughters Susannah, 19, and Haley, 17, died when their Stilson Street home burned sometime before 4:45 a.m. Wednesday, said Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn.
The family was well loved by many, especially students at Southeast Bulloch High School, and an impromptu memorial gathering was held Wednesday afternoon in the school’s band room.
Band director Matt Olsen, red-eyed and exhausted, taught several of the Davis children, including Susannah and Haley.
“This is a very bad day,” he said. The gathering was organized quickly in order to “give students a place to have somebody to hug, some shoulder to cry on.”
Susannah Davis was a freshman at the University of Georgia and graduated from Southeast Bulloch High in May. She was the school’s 2010 homecoming queen.
A junior at SEB, Haley Davis was a percussionist in the school’s award-winning marching band, “The Swarm.”
At first, students sat in chairs arranged in a circle, silently mourning. Some hugged, others wept. Parents and faculty members stood nearby, red-eyed with grief. During a prayer, several sobs were heard throughout the room.
Olsen wandered around, offering a handshake, a shoulder clasp or a hug to several students. About 75 people mingled after the prayer, sharing memories of the Davis family.
A group of friends huddled, moving from stunned silence to respectful laughter as each shared memories of trips to the beach or fun times had in the Davis home.
One unidentified young man spoke of Wendi Davis.
“She was like my other mom, so when she came in subbing, I hugged her,” he said.
Wendi Davis was a substitute teacher on an almost daily basis, Olsen said.
Another student recalled Russell Davis chaperoning a trip to New York where the boys attended a Yankees baseball game.
Davis worked for Hodges Management Company as manager of the Dairy Queen Chill and Grill in Rincon, which is owned by Inman and Mary Sue Hodges of Statesboro. He and his wife Wendi were very active in band events and chaperoned many other school gatherings.
“We are deeply saddened today about the passing of Russ Davis and the three members of his family,” said Inman Hodges. “Russ had been working with us about a year … and we held him in very high esteem as a manager. It is truly a tragedy.”
Senior Matthew Upchurch said “Haley and Sue were two of the happiest people on this earth. Even in a dull moment, they were still shining.”
The girls were well liked and very active in the school, he said.
“They impacted so many peoples’ lives. I think some people are still trying to grasp the whole concept (of their death),” he said “I know I am. It just doesn’t seem real that they’re gone.”
Neighbor Charles Howell, who also is in charge of the SEB band boosters, had trouble finding the right words to describe the unique family.
“They were giving beyond description,” he said. “They were involved with the band boosters for 15 to 20 years, worked concessions, went to competitions. They rode school buses for hours (on school trips.) They were super, super people.”
As he spoke, students were lying on the band room floor, writing memorials on yellow banners.
The Davis family “were the kind of people to adopt anyone into their family,” said Kristen Mayo. “They were like ‘the’ Stilson family.”
Daniel Alexander was full of fond and humorous memories involving the Davises. He grew up living close by and was childhood friends with the family.
“All our parents and siblings were interchangeable,” he said. “They were so faithful.”
Visibly shaken, Southeast Bulloch High Principal Trey Robertson welcomed visitors into the school, which would otherwise have been empty for the holidays.
“They were both fantastic, active students,” he said. “Well beloved, fun to be around, very dependable in every form and fashion. Their parents were excellent supporters.”
A candlelight vigil will be held tonight at 5:30 p.m. in front of the school in memory of the Davis family.
A memorial fund, which will be used for expenses by the Davis’ four surviving adult children, who did not live at the Stilson home, has been set up at Farmers and Merchants Bank. Donations can be made at any FMB branch under the name “Davis Family Memorial Fund,” said family friend William Hendrix.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.