July-August 2018 | TOP BRASS




Snow Hill Police Chief Tom Davis is a highly decorated law enforcement officer who recently rekindled his passion for the trumpet

Written By: Brian Shane | Photographer: GRANT L. GURSKY

When Tom Davis was nearing retirement from the state police in 2014, he thought about going back to school and finishing his college degree. He thought for sure that he’d be done with law enforcement. But what else would he do? Two decades earlier, he had been a music major studying the trumpet; now it was calling him back. 

“I was in my car, driving — I don’t remember what I was listening to — but there was something somebody was playing that was very complex,” Davis said. “Whatever it was I listened to really inspired me.”

Davis was accepted into the music program at Salisbury University. He dove headfirst into being a full-time student of music performance — picking up where he had left off as a younger man, with dreams of a career as a professional trumpet player.

He practiced every day, honing his chops and relearning breathing techniques. He played small gigs before joining the Delmarva Big Band as lead trumpet. “That’s pretty much my favorite thing to do, because it’s high, loud, and fast,” he said.

Davis spent his no-frills childhood in a modest rowhouse outside Baltimore. He was in the fourth grade when he first picked up a trumpet, “and pretty much haven’t stopped playing since,” he said. “I saw Louis Armstrong on TV and kind of had a natural attraction to it. Then, in elementary school, they had some of the kids come through the classroom and play. That got me interested in trying it out.” 

He loved the trumpet and dreamed of building his career around it, but there was another calling that was competing for his attention.

“As a boy, I remember seeing police officers and was impressed by them,” he remembered. “I was brought up to respect my elders and authority figures, so the police were like knights in shining armor to me.”

As a young man, Davis studied music at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County but dropped out in favor of full-time trumpet performances because the money was really good. But he needed benefits, like insurance — especially since he had just married his sweetheart, Stephanie, who today is his wife of
32 years. 

A friend who was a trooper convinced him to enlist, saying he had the right disposition for the job. That was the start of a distinguished 26-year career with the Maryland State Police. But being a trooper effectively squelched any shot Davis had at a music career.

He enjoyed a highly decorated career as a trooper, starting and ending at the Salisbury barracks, except for seven years as the commander of a criminal interdiction unit. One of his fellow troopers on that detail — where they chased bad guys and seized record amounts of cash and narcotics along major highways — was Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis. Sheriff Lewis said Davis “saved my butt on more than one occasion.” There’s one case in particular, Lewis recalled, that may have cost Lewis his life, had Davis not intervened.

“Some guy had a fully loaded machine gun on the bypass during a traffic stop. He was ready to take me out. Davis was behind me and well-hidden in the shadow. It was dark, around 5 a.m.
The guy went to grab the gun. Davis was screaming and hollering. The guy later admitted he was going to kill me,” Lewis said.

Though Davis was done with the state police in 2014, law enforcement was not done with him.

His former state police coworker James Pilchard had taken a job as police chief in Snow Hill. Pilchard asked Davis to join him as an assistant chief. “I promptly told him no, because I was done with law enforcement,” Davis said, “but after several more phone calls, I gave in.”

Davis agreed to stick around for a year or two, but not even that much time had passed when Chief Pilchard departed the job. Town leaders tapped Davis to take over as acting chief before he was offered the job permanently. He’s now in his third year serving as Snow Hill’s top law enforcement officer. 

Police work has allowed Davis to use his trumpet not only onstage but as a part of peoples’ most personal moments. He’s played solos for wedding ceremonies and “Taps” at police and military funerals. When Senator Jim Mathias lost his wife, Kathy, to cancer in 2011, Davis played at her funeral. The solo Davis performed, the theme to CBS Sunday Morning, had been one of Kathy’s favorite melodies. 

Lee Knier is a Salisbury University trumpet instructor who worked with Davis on his music performance degree for about two years.

“He really is the real deal,” Knier said. “Here’s a grown man, a professional with grown children, he’s successful — and he comes to class on time and prepared. You can’t get any better as a role model for students. And he was always very encouraging to my other trumpet students. He was an inspiration to them.”

Davis was already a good player when they met, Knier said, so he tried to help him by finding some corners of the trumpet world that he wasn’t as familiar with.

“He’s very competent; he’s one of the best jazz players in the state of Maryland,” Knier said. “If you put him in a situation where there’s no [sheet] music and we’re just playing, put him in a black T-shirt, he’s perfectly at ease. And, here’s a guy who, as a police officer, has had someone try to get his gun from him, and he handled it.

“But,” he added, “put him in a coat and tie, and tell him to play this piece by Bach, and his knees start shaking. Nerves are all about what your comfort zone is.” Ultimately, Davis sees parallels between the brotherhood of police officers and that of musicians. He’s cultivated a personal network of musician friends, some of whom are world-class players, and “they care because you care.”

“They want to make you a better musician,” he said. “They look out for each other — just like the police. It’s a true brotherhood.”

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