John Edward Davis was born April 18, 1913, to James and Helen Davis, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although his family was from Goodrich, North Dakota, Davis was born in Minneapolis because other family members lived nearby. Ten days after his birth, the family returned to Goodrich.
After attending high school in Fargo, Davis graduated from Bismarck High School in 1931. Later that fall, Davis enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. While at UND, Davis pledged for Beta Theta Pi, and was active in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He was the ranking officer in Scabbard and Blade, an organization of select Senior ROTC cadet officers. He graduated from UND with a Bachelor of Science degree in Commerce in 1935.
Davis returned to Goodrich and took over management of his family's ranch and farm. In May 1941, he was drafted into the United States Army. He reported first to Fort Snelling, before being sent to Camp Robinson, Arkansas, where he became commander of Company C, 134th Infantry, First Battalion. He saw extensive combat duty in the European Theater, and was awarded a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Silver Star. He separated from the United States Army on July 31, 1945, at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.
In 1946, Davis was elected mayor of McClusky, North Dakota, serving until 1952. That year, he successfully ran for a position in the North Dakota State Senate. He served in the Senate until 1956, when he was nominated for Governor on the Republican ticket. He defeated the Democratic candidate, Wally Warner, in the fall election. He was re-elected in 1958, and served until 1960. He was a candidate for the United States Senate in 1960, but was defeated by Quentin Burdick. He was again a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1964, but lost to Tom Kleppe. In 1966, Davis was honored with the Sioux Award, the University of North Dakota Alumni Association's highest honor.
Davis served as the National Commander of the American Legion from 1967 to 1968 and was then appointed Director of the Office of Civil Defense by President Richard Nixon in 1969. The agency was renamed in 1972 as the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. Following his retirement in 1976, he was awarded the Department of Defense Service Medal.
In 1977, Davis returned to North Dakota to operate the family ranch and resume presidency of the First National Bank of McClusky. In 1978, he received the Greater North Dakota Award from the Greater North Dakota Association. He was active in many organizations, including the Elks, Masons, and the Scottish Rite and the Shrine.
John Davis married Pauline Huntley in 1938. The couple had three children: John, Jr., Richard, and Kathleen. The couple divorced after forty years of marriage in 1978, after which he married Marilyn R. Westlie in 1980. John E. Davis died May 12, 1990, in Rancho Mirage, California.
"'It Was Easy to Get Involved': An Interview with Governor John E. Davis." Edited by Gerald G. Newborg. Gerald G. Newborg. North Dakota History. v70, n1 (2003): 2-25.