OSKALOOSA — There's no question Billee Davis was a remarkable woman.

Davis was recognized on Monday, May 6, as an Iowa Woman of Achievement by the Women Lead Change group of Des Moines.

The Women of Achievement award recognizes the contributions of Iowans who exemplified lasting contributions, was a role model or agent of change, impacted the social, cultural, economic or political well-being of the community, state or nation and helped inspire future generations.

Davis will be recognized at a ceremony at the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines 9–11 a.m. June 8.

Theresa Davis, known as Billee, was born in Oskaloosa in 1909 and died in her hometown in 1979.

Davis' family members as well as the local American Legion Auxiliary nominated Davis for the recognition and wrote letters in support of her nomination.

Davis' cousin, Musco CEO Joe Crookham, said he had been speaking with another relative of Davis', William Rudelius and compiled a nomination.

"We began to talk about the Bridge of Women's Achievement and we thought that her high-value life deserved to be recognized," he said, "and that other women could be motivated by what Billee achieved."

Oskaloosa attorney

Following her graduation from Oskaloosa schools, Davis attended Drake University. She majored in music before switching her major to law.

According to information from her nomination, Davis was the only woman in law school during the time she was enrolled there. She was one of only five women among 45 candidates to pass the Iowa Bar Examination in 1932.

Davis was an office manager for a short time at a local mining company, Tarzan Coal, before becoming a full-time attorney in the Life and Davis law firm.

In 1938, Davis was elected vice president of the Mahaska County Bar Association. The next year, she became president of the association. At that time, she was believed to have been the only woman to ever head a bar association in Iowa.

World War II Service

Davis, according to her nomination, was a persistent letter-writer to U.S. Congressman Karl M. LeCompte. Her letters were focused on getting women into military service. In 1942 Davis enlisted as a private in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, later known as the Women's Army Corps.

Private Davis displayed strong leadership skills with her reaction to a small fire in a barracks closet. According to a letter of recommendation from her nephew, William Rudelius, Davis, unlike several other trainees who simply stared at the door with smoke emerging from it, "grabbed a fire axe from the wall, knocked the door down and put out the small fire."

She was then recommended for and sent to Officer Candidate School and later assigned to New York City, where she commanded a 500-woman WAC company as a 2nd Lieutenant. Later, Davis, at the rank of Captain, commanded a 300-woman WAC unit in Miami, Florida.

In 1945, Davis described herself thusly:

"I'm just a natural born torchbearer. That's why I joined the Women's Army Corps. I thought its cause was wonderful and I still do."

Davis retired at the rank of Major in March 1946, and served in the Army Reserve for several more years.

American Legion Auxiliary Unit 34 also wrote a letter in support of Davis' recognition.

"Her leadership with humility served as a role model for hundreds of WACs that served under her and with her. In commanding a WAC company that processed hundreds of millions of V-Mails (Victory Mail) that helped maintain the morale of U.S. military serving abroad and families at home, Capt. Davis helped contribute to victory in World War II."

According to the American Legion Auxiliary, due to the tremendous weight of letters being sent to troops overseas, WACs – including Davis and her company – worked round the clock to reduce the letters to "thumbprint sized" microfilm tapes that were sent overseas, developed, and sent to military personnel.

Return to Oskaloosa

Upon her return to Oskaloosa, Davis rejoined Howard Life in the law office of Life and Davis. According to her nomination, one of Davis' cases in 1948 "involved representing homeowners along A Avenue who were opposed to cutting down 137 century-old shade trees in order to widen the highway. That case received national exposure through a two-page photo spread in Life magazine."

Greg Life, of Life Law Office, worked with Davis as a young attorney.

"I practiced with Billee in the same law office for five years, so I had a lot of good memories of Billee," he said. "Probably the most significant was that she had a lot of friends and she always had time for people."

Davis impacted Life's growing career.

"Because I was just new out of law school," he said, "she spent some time with me, teaching me some practical aspects of practicing law."

She was a remarkable woman, Life said, and the honor is well-deserved.

"She was, to my knowledge, the first female attorney in Oskaloosa," he said. "She served in the military after she was practicing law in World War II, so she interrupted her practice to go serve in the military and her whole focus of practicing was on helping people."

A desire to help

William Rudelius wrote he spent several weeks each summer visiting Oskaloosa and living with his aunt.

"I saw her rare ability to treat all she met the same way, often with a flip remark that made them feel special –a skill for putting people at ease that I have tried to emulate throughout my own life."

Davis was especially attuned to cases with a strong community impact, according to her nomination, such as protecting housing for low-income residents and assisting individuals with personal legal problems.

Jeanne Rudelius, in her letter of recommendation, shared examples of how her aunt impacted the people she came across.

"The annual summer vacations enabled me to see first-hand how beloved Aunt Billee was. Everywhere we went people would recognize and greet Billee, often thanking her for something she had done for them."

Jeanne Rudelius shared a story that upon a visit to Iowa more than 30 years after her aunt's death, she met a former resident of Oskaloosa.

"I asked if she had ever heard the name Billee Davis. She said not only had she heard the name, but she had benefited from Billee's belief in community helping one another," she said. "Her house had burned down many years before, leaving her and her husband displaced. Upon hearing about the fire, Billee arranged for them to stay in an unoccupied residence she knew of until they got back on their feet."

Davis was especially attuned to cases with a strong community impact, according to her nomination, such as protecting housing for low-income residents and assisting individuals with personal legal problems.

According to the nomination, Davis' "communications and leadership style often appeared 'curmudgeonly,' which belied the kindness and caring that soon became apparent."

Crookham said he thought Davis would be very appreciative of being recognized "for the lifetime of being there for people and her country when the needs were there," he said. "On the other hand, she would likely grumble about people making too much fuss about her."

Davis was described in the Herald after her death as saying exactly what she thought and believed, "regardless of whether that agreed with the powers that be in the community. Miss Davis was someone who thought well and was not afraid to take an unpopular view when she felt called on to do so."

But, according to the newspaper story, Davis was among the kindest of people.

"She took a genuine and humane interest in those with problems... someone who paid more than lip service to the ideal of serving her fellow man."

Managing Editor Angie Holland can be reached at aholland@oskyherald.com