FORT WAYNE — Phyllis Davis has hired almost every employee at Southwest Allen County Schools during her nearly three-decade tenure as the district’s human resources director. That’s more than 1,200 employees – the size of a small town.
Davis, who retired from her position at the end of January, had a profound impact in her role as HR director, SACS Superintendent Philip Downs said.
“Southwest Allen County Schools is a reflection of Phyllis because she hired all of us, not to mention an expectation of a standard of performance that is very high. That’s because Phyllis herself started off by holding herself to that high standard and hired based on that,” he said.
Davis graduated from Delphi High School and earned her bachelor’s degree at Ball State University. After college, she worked as a teacher and, for the next several years, she and her husband, who’s from Huntington, moved around a lot for his job in the lumber industry.
The couple was glad to return to the area in the early 1980s. Davis taught a political science course at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne before she was hired as a research assistant at a search firm. After that, she joined Lincoln National Corporation as an HR consultant.
She was hired as SACS’s first HR director in 1992. Davis said the position was a perfect fit for her passion for education and legal expertise.
She built the department from the ground up, writing countless procedures, handbooks, policies and guidelines. She also developed the district’s self-funded benefits program and opened a clinic on campus about eight years ago. Making sure SACS employees have access to affordable health care has been a point of pride for Davis.
“If employees are healthy, they’re going to be here. They’re going to be in the classroom,” she said.
It’s about people
Davis has a reputation among school board trustees and administrators for her scrupulous attention to facts and figures but, for her, HR is about more than running numbers.
“Being that person that helps to make sure that people feel valued and important and developing a culture that people feel appreciated” has been at the heart of her work, Davis said.
At her retirement party, special education teachers Rachel Radloff and Kate Graham described Davis as a cheerleader. She has always been a supportive presence and takes the time to get to know the district’s more than 1,200 employees, they said.
“My brain cannot hold that, but she does. She remembers everyone, not just their names and faces,” Radloff said.
“She knows every person and a little thing about everyone so that she can connect (with them),” Graham added.
Davis said the job was demanding, but she grew up in a family that valued hard work and education. Her grandmother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.
“You work until you get the job done,” she said.
From hiring quality teachers to supporting employees, the job is ultimately about “making certain that everything is the best it can be for kids,” she said.
“What I’ve been most proud of is the quality of staff and the fact that I think people do come here and stay. There’s a lot of longevity because our staff knows that it’s a great place to work,” she said.
The district has hired LuAnn Erickson to replace Davis. The two women spent a month working together to ensure a smooth transition. Erickson brings 25 years of HR experience to the position. Previously, she served as the HR director for marketing firm LaBov.
“She’s a professional and someone who will carry on as I have done here,” Davis said.
Hard to say goodbye
During a school board meeting Jan. 22, the school board trustees recognized Davis’ service to the district by presenting her with the Sagamore of SACS award. It was an emotional moment for Davis.
“It’s tremendously difficult to leave. I truly love my position. This is kind of my second family,” she said.
Davis is looking forward to spending more time with her six grandchildren. She intends to stay busy in retirement with plans to volunteer, consult and write a book about best practices in HR. For now, she’s taking time to reflect on time well spent.
“I do believe life’s a journey and this has been a great piece of that journey,” she said.