By Gail Jennes
July 28, 1975 12:00 PM

I’m reminded of Henry James asking, ‘What is the cash value of an idea?’ ” says Professor Dick Davis. He answers: “The cash value is the difference an idea makes in your life.”

His own life is an example. In 1971, having just won tenure as a professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Davis decided that “education was going back to the mediocre.” So when an old college friend came around to recruit faculty for the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, Davis and his wife, No-rah, were ready to pack up their cats and tomato plants and leave their 40-acre farm in the Smoky Mountains.

At the college, which offers only one degree, a B.A. in human ecology, Davis, 34, found himself teaching an all-purpose course that covers everything from science and philosophy to semantics. “We educate people,” says Davis, “so they are equipped to create their own jobs and do not necessarily have to fit into one already there.” The college—three years old—now has 70 students, seven full-time faculty members and 2,000 inquiries from prospective students for 30 to 40 openings in next fall’s class.

After living for a while in a rented house, the Davises decided to build their own. When they found seven acres bordering on Acadia National Park, they saw a chance to put into practice what he was preaching in class. Scavenging some materials from torn-down houses nearby, the Davises built an attractive 1,300-square-foot house in six months for $34,000. Students and faculty from the college helped with the design and construction, but Norah did most of the foundation work, carpentry and plastering, and Dick installed the wiring and plumbing. The most innovative step was the heating system—a commercially available solar-energy collector. It works this way: sunlight pouring through fiber glass-impregnated plastic warms a sheet of corrugated aluminum, painted black. Water is pumped over the aluminum, absorbs the heat from it and is kept hot in a 2,000-gallon underground tank. Electricity from a windmill-generator is used to circulate the heat throughout the house by a forced-air system.

Though the Davises occasionally have had to fall back on a wood-burning furnace and a gasoline-fueled generator, their unusual house has attracted the attention of Maine energy officials and the National Science Foundation. Not to speak of curious passersby. “People drive by and then back up for a second look,” Norah says. “A woman with a baby came right up and peered through the window.”

Though he is director of the summer session at the college, Dick and Norah hope to get in some backpacking now that their house is finished. They are also encouraging others to develop energy self-sufficient housing, though Dick always points out the disadvantages when the system goes blooey during a storm. “You may think you want to have a windmill,” he says, “but if you can’t climb a 30-foot tower in a heavy gale, forget it.”