Throughout a hardscrabble youth and a storied career as a trailblazing television journalist, Belva Davis seems to have risen to every challenge. But as she prepares to retire this week at age 80, there might be one she just can't meet.
"I don't know if I can make it through that last telecast without shedding any tears," she says.
She's referring to her final appearance as host of the popular KQED public-affairs series "This Week in Northern California." On Friday -- three days after anchoring the station's election coverage -- Davis will leave the program she has hosted for nearly two decades. The installment will feature a taped interview with her longtime confidant, the acclaimed author and poet Maya Angelou.
Davis figures it's the perfect way to go out.
"I wanted my last show to be about friendship because, without friends, none of the successes I've experienced could have happened," Davis said after a recent taping of "This Week" at the KQED studios. "Yes, I was persistent and determined on my own, but along the way a lot of people stepped up to the plate to help out."
She clearly put that assistance to use. In 1966, KPIX hired Davis as a reporter, making her the first black female TV journalist on the West Coast. She went on to cover some of the biggest stories of her time: the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, the birth of the Black Panthers, the mass suicides at Jonestown, the assassinations of San Francisco
Through it all, Davis, who also spent 18 years at KRON, gained a reputation for dogged reporting on politics and racial and gender issues, and built a career that made others take notice.
In his foreword to her 2010 memoir, Bill Cosby spoke of her importance as a role model for the black community.
"(She) was someone who sustained us, who made us proud," he wrote. "We looked forward to seeing her prove the stereotypical ugliness of those days to be wrong."
In order to do so, the 5-foot-1 Davis had to be tough and tenacious, something her childhood prepared her for. Born to a 14-year-old laundress in Monroe, La., Davis spent her early years being farmed out by her parents to various relatives in different cities and states until she rejoined the family for a move to Oakland.
"I learned to survive," she says. "And, as I moved from place to place, I learned to adapt. When I got older, I just figured I could become whatever it was that I needed to become."
It was during the raucous 1964 Republican Convention at the Cow Palace that Davis decided she needed to become a reporter. Then a disc jockey for the soul-gospel radio station KDIA, she accompanied newsman Louis Freeman to the event where they became the target of extremists, who pelted them with bottles and racist slurs.
"I witnessed their anger at us, and at the media in general," Davis says. "I thought, 'Why would you be so angry unless you didn't want your actions exposed to the light of journalistic review?' I realized then (the media) was the team I wanted to be on."
The transition was hardly easy. Davis occasionally got kicked out of news conferences because she didn't look like a "real" reporter, and she was spit on while covering a civil rights march in Georgia. She also found herself constantly struggling to suppress the self-doubt she experienced because she didn't have a college degree.
In 1999, Davis stepped away from full-time work at KRON but continued to host "This Week," in which she leads round-table discussions on politics, culture and topical issues. With her calm demeanor and balanced approach, the show stands in stark contrast to the bombastic shouting matches that now dominate the cable news channels.
It's an approach her audience appreciates, says John Boland, president and chief executive officer of KQED.
"When I ask people what they watch on our station, they'll rattle off titles like 'Antiques Roadshow' and 'Masterpiece,'" he says. "Then they'll say, 'And on Fridays, we watch Belva.' She just has that personal connection with them."
Over the years, Davis has seen dramatic changes in her industry. She's constantly amazed, for example, at how modern technology enables journalists to access information in an instant. But she's not so enamored with some contemporary female journalists.
"I was in the women's lib era and we fought for a lot of things that mean nothing to women today," she says. "We wanted to be accepted for what we knew, not how we looked. These days, there are an awful lot of cutie-pies on the air. ... You've got women sitting in a director's chair in such a way that the camera captures their hemlines."
On the other hand, Davis says, "you have women who are reporting in Iraq and Libya -- smart, brave, driven women who have changed the standards of foreign correspondence. Those women make me so proud."
After Davis departs "This Week," KQED will rely on a series of guest hosts through at least the end of the year, according to Boland, who says the station is in no rush to find a permanent replacement.
Meanwhile, Davis has no firm post-retirement plans. She'd like to travel, maybe take some art history courses and spend more time with her 5-year-old granddaughter.
She's also looking forward to leisurely mornings, reading the newspapers alongside former TV cameraman Willie Moore, her husband of 50 years.
"It would seem that we're running out of time to just kind of mellow out together and not worry about a deadline," Davis says. "I like the idea of reading just to read."
Occupation: TV journalist
Residence: San Francisco
Education: Graduate of Berkeley High School
Awards: She has garnered eight regional Emmy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, among many other honors.
Quote: "I want to keep learning and stay curious (after retirement). I always tell kids thinking about going into journalism that, if you're not curious, go find another business."