Eriksmoen: UND Med School dean was a Renaissance man who created one of America's most popular barbecue sauces

Dr. Richard "Rich" E. Davis. Barbecue Hall of Fame / Special to The Forum
Dr. Richard "Rich" E. Davis. Barbecue Hall of Fame / Special to The ForumBarbecue Hall of Fame / Special to The Forum

A "Renaissance man" is defined as "a cultured man who is knowledgeable, educated, or proficient in a wide range of fields." To me, a North Dakotan who clearly exemplified this definition was Dr. Richard E. Davis, the former dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Davis was a "piano child prodigy" who, throughout his life, "composed many blues and jazz numbers," but instead of opting for a career in music, he become a medical doctor and, later, a psychiatrist. While he was establishing a solid reputation as a psychiatrist, he began drifting into the business world as an inventor and marketer of different culinary concepts.

After inventing a barbecue sauce that became a national favorite, Davis spent most of his working hours promoting his products and opening a restaurant franchise. He appeared on numerous national television talk shows, was featured in People, Forbes, Ladies' Home Journal, Playboy, Parade and other magazines, and was invited by two U.S. Presidents to host the annual Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House.

Richard Elden Davis was born April 7, 1926, to Charles and Ruth Davis in Joplin, Mo., where his father was the freight agent for the Rock Island and Santa Fe Railroad. The family later moved to Topeka, Kan., where Rich graduated from high school in 1944. At this time, the U.S. was involved in World War II, and Rich enlisted in the Army.

Following his discharge 18 months later, Rich Davis enrolled in Washburn College, now Washburn University, in Topeka, and also took classes at Columbia University and Colorado College before transferring to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. He received a bachelor's degree in 1950, a medical degree in 1954 and then began his "medical career as a family practitioner."

Later, Davis served four years as a psychiatric resident, receiving "comprehensive training in psychiatric diagnosis, psychopharmacology, medical care issues and psychotherapies" to become a psychiatrist. He decided to specialize in child psychiatry, a division that was just beginning to receive national recognition in the 1960s. Davis was considered one of the foremost authorities of child and adolescent psychiatry, and he co-founded the Family and Child Psychiatric Clinic in Overland Park, a subdivision of Kansas City, Kan.

In 1970, community and business leaders in Norfolk, Va., donated more than $17 million to construct a medical school, and the following year, Davis "was invited to help found the new institution," Eastern Virginia Medical School. The school was opened in 1973, and Davis was named associate dean. The school is now in the national news because of racist photos in the 1984 student yearbook associated with Ralph Northam, the current governor of Virginia.

Meanwhile, the medical school at the University of North Dakota had begun granting the medical doctor degree to students in 1973, even though the final two years of medical school were spent at schools in Minneapolis. The school was in the process of expanding to a four-year medical program and needed someone experienced in this area to help during the transition period. Since Davis had that experience, he was hired in 1975 as vice president of health affairs and dean of the medical school.

After a year at UND, Davis moved to Kansas City, Mo., to open his own family psychiatric practice and to launch a line of sauces that he had created. Initially, his top-selling sauce was muschup, a combination of ketchup, mustard and seasonings.

Davis had traveled much of the country and loved to eat barbecue whenever he could. He noticed that many regions had their own favorite flavoring in making their barbecue sauce. In Texas it was chili powder and cumin, in the Carolinas it was vinegar and in Georgia it was mustard.

Davis was looking for something that would be universally appealing, so he used all of these flavorings in a tomato base that was sweetened with molasses and corn syrup. He liked the taste, but something was missing. After adding a shot of liquid smoke, Davis knew he had created something very good, and he named his new barbecue sauce KC Masterpiece.

Sales for his new creation were very brisk in Kansas City and the surrounding area, yet Davis still had time to devote to pediatric psychiatry. In May 1979, his groundbreaking article "Manic-Depressive Variant Syndrome of Childhood" was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and as a result, he was invited to give a lecture about his findings to the World Congress of Psychiatry in Vienna, Austria. At the conference, he identified how bipolar disorders could be identified in children and that an effective treatment for many children afflicted with this disorder was lithium.

In 1980, KC Masterpiece won the prestigious "Best Sauce on the Planet" award at the American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest, and sales for the product greatly increased. Davis then began to open a chain of KC Masterpiece Restaurants in the Kansas City area. In 1986, Davis sold his sauce to the Kingsford division of The Clorox Co., and his barbecue sauce became available to every food store in America.

Davis became the chief spokesman for his national product, and he appeared on numerous television shows including "Today," "Good Morning America" and "Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee," and he was also a frequent guest on the Food Network. He co-authored two books, "All About Bar-B-Q Kansas City Style" in 1985 and "The All American Barbecue Book" in 1988.

In 1992, a dual piano recording was made of Davis and Blues Hall of Famer Jay McShann. A Davis composition, "Two Piano Sonata on Themes," was performed at White Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri Kansas City, and he also composed the words and music for the anthem of the Youth Volunteer Corps of America.

Davis has received numerous awards and honors for his work and contributions in psychiatry and business. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush invited Davis to host the annual Congressional Picnic on the White House lawn. Twelve years later, President George W. Bush extended the same invitation.

Dr. Richard Elden Davis died Oct. 6, 2015.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at