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16 May 2018

Know Your Neighbors: Meet Tom Davis, the Agua Caliente Tribe's Longtime Planning Officer—and a Cancer Survivor

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Tom Davis with his wife, Deb. Tom Davis with his wife, Deb.

Tom Davis is philosophical regarding his work: “I wouldn’t change a thing. I enjoyed having my own business, but when it became tedious, my attitude was, ‘I’m outta here.’”

That attitude was a lucky break for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Davis, 68, a Rancho Mirage resident, was born in Teaneck, N.J., and grew up in Anaheim. He started doing consulting work in the desert in 1990 and made the full-time move from Orange County in 1997.

“I had my own land-planning and development consulting business,” says Davis, “but when the recession that everybody forgets about happened, many of my competitors were heading to Las Vegas because there was so much development going on there. I wanted to expand my business reach and profile, and I knew the desert had great growth potential. Plus, my wife’s parents were here, and her grandma and grandpa had the first liquor store and motel in Palm Desert, so there were personal connections as well as business potential that made this area desirable.”

Davis earned his degree in landscape architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

“My dad always said to be in a profession where you can be independent,” Davis said. “I was strong in math and had an artistic flair—I liked to draw. I also had a strong design sense. They had an accredited program, which was hard to find in the Western United States.

“I met my wife, Debbie, at Cal Poly in 1970 at a Three Dog Night concert on a blind date. A friend said, ‘You need to meet this young lady.’ We were married after less than two years. After school, I went to Denver because I wanted to ski all the time, and I worked for a company planning a ski resort.”

Davis worked for a firm while he was in college that did work in Palm Springs.

“They educated me about the interrelationship between the tribe and the city,” he said. “I was originally out here in the desert working the territory and doing collaborative work with (Southern California planning consultant) John Q. Adams—yes, he’s a real descendant. I was the physical planning guy; he was the policy guy. Then he died suddenly, and a friend he worked for told me about the Agua Caliente looking for a planner. That was in 1992.

“The tribe was looking for an outsider, not someone beholden to local politics. The tribe is an extended family that understands the importance of outreach and the need to be connected to all sides politically.

“For six months, I was doing a variety of different things as staff to the Indian Planning Commission. When I started with the tribe, they had only six employees, with me and their general counsel as outside contractors. Then we got involved with Caesars Palace when the tribe was getting into gaming and expansion. Land development is highly political. You have to go through architectural review committees, planning commissions and city councils. I went to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. We all learned a lot as we went along.”

Davis is currently the chief planning and development officer for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. He has built the department to a staff of about 35.

A serious bout with cancer changed Davis’ life.

“I used to be really athletic, but the cancer set me back. I go through life now week by week,” he said. “We bought a house in 2008 on a kind of remote mountain at June Lake in the Eastern Sierras. I hike and go fly fishing. It’s pristine and quiet. I might not see another person for days. For me, a bucket-list item would be to visit with an old friend, sit on the porch, and tell stories … although I would like to make it to Italy.”

For a long time after his cancer treatment, Davis was resistant to make use of a support group. “When I got the bad news from the doctor, I was thinking about all the stuff I’d be faced with. They asked me questions like, ‘Are you worried about your treatment?’ Duh.

“Finally, I went to a support group and I was amazed how therapeutic it is. I could speak frankly, and realized that everybody has something to deal with. That was when I began to talk about what I’d been through. We could all cry and laugh. We could all share our experiences and tell others what works. We talked about lots of simple things we take for granted. I came to realize the positive impact of all that. It’s helpful to share.”

After obtaining a master’s degree in education, Davis has been sharing his knowledge of the tribe by teaching classes, including “Agua Caliente: Then and Now,” through the Osher Institute at California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus.

Davis is also a reader, influenced by Moby Dick and The Godfather, and he is currently immersed in Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, about the building of the transcontinental railroad. “It’s about a turning point in our history,” he says, “and it’s fascinating.”

Tom Davis’ guiding principle is to work hard and play hard. “I want to tell young people, based on my experience, to do something you love. There are different specialties in every era. Find a profession you love to do, and even if one day you wake up with a layoff or disappointment, you’ll just work harder and still enjoy every day.

“I’ve changed a lot in the last several years. Between my cancer and the loss of both my parents within eight months of each other last year, now I wake up, and I’m just happy to be here.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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