David Rowland Francis was born in Richmond, Kentucky, on October 1, 1850. Educated at a rural girls academy,
he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1870 where he was number one on the rolls of the
Alpha Iota Chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. He entered commercial life as a clerk and was a successful businessman in St. Louis. In 1876, Francis married Jane Perry, a granddaughter of former Missouri State Treasurer James Earickson. They had six boys.
During his undergraduate years at Washington University, Francis was the editor of the Irving Union student publication, president of the tongue-in-cheek "Ugly Club," and president of the young baseball team. Francis planned a career in law, but upon returning home to discuss his 450 dollar college debt, he learned of an opening in the family grain business.
He was known as brash and a plain-spoken man whose political savvy guided him to positions of prominence at all levels of American government.
In 1883 he was elected vice-president of the Merchants' Exchange, and the following year- president, after a bitter
The next year, Francis entered politics in 1884, when he was `delegate-at-large,' to the national Democratic convention at Chicago. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Cleveland.
In 1885, he was elected Mayor of St. Louis, Missouri, and three years later, he was elected Governor of Missouri, thus making Davis R, Francis the only Mayor of St. Louis ever elected Governor of the state by a narrow majority. He was affectional nicknamed- "Our Dave" by St. Louisans.
In 1895 the University of Missouri–Columbia dedicated the David R. Francis Quadrangle (known as The Quad), in honor of the former governor who is credited with keeping the University in Columbia after the fire of Academic Hall in 1892. Francis insisted that the state's land-grant university remain in a central location, (rather than moving to Sedalia as many state legislators desired). To make up for the loss, Sedalia was awarded the Missouri State Fair.
With the resignation of Hoke Smith from the President Grover Cleveland's Cabinet on August. 24, 1896, Francis served as the United States Secretary of the Interior between 1896 and 1897.
Francis was one of the main promoters of the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, He led the effort to award the Fair to St. Louis and secure financing, directed its construction and the gathering of the exhibits. He also served as President of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
President Woodrow Wilson appointed Francis as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia between 1916 and 1917, during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Francis' background in agricultural trade and banking, as well as his experience wooing heads of state as President of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition impressed Wilson. As U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Francis went on to confront the impossible task of hammering out a trade treaty with the country while revolutions and World War I raged on. Francis, a maverick statesman who sympathized with Russia’s poor and sought to stall the Bolshevik uprising.
David Rowland Francis died on January 15, 1927 at the age of 76, after a decade of ill health, and was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery.
At Francis' memorial service, U.S. Senator Harry B. Hawes, said: "He was a big man who had big conceptions, surrounded himself with big men, and did big things... He invited the nation and the nation came; he invited the world and the world came... . They visited our city and they liked it. They found it was a city of homes, of generous impulse, of fine old traditions; a place good to live in, to grow up in, and in which to be buried. Our progress today may be attributed largely to the inspiration of Francis and the wonderful group of patriotic men who ... united with
him in this great enterprise."
A bronze bust of Francis' face sits at the south end of Francis Quadrangle near the steps of Jesse Hall (the main administration building for the University of Missouri). A popular Missouri Universally student tradition is to rub Governor Francis' nose before taking a test in order to get an A.