Recalling John Evans, a 'gentle' governor, man

The Democrat from Malad 'was cut out to do exactly what he did,' says Sen. Risch.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJuly 9, 2014 

For a man of privilege, John Evans never lost the common touch.

Raised in a prominent ranching and banking family and educated at Stanford, he spent 35 years in office, including a decade as Idaho governor.

"He could have been a plutocrat," said Jim Kerns, the former Idaho labor leader who remains grateful to Evans for multiple vetoes of anti-union right-to-work legislation. "But his first thought was how any policy would impact the working person, the regular citizen and the most vulnerable."

Evans died at 2:42 a.m. Tuesday, surrounded by his wife of 69 years, Lola, and their five children. Suffering from congenital heart disease, his health had been particularly poor since 2007, when a nasty infection followed a third hip surgery.

When the last of the children arrived about 1 a.m., Evans let go.

"He held on until we all got there," said his daughter, Martha Evans Gilgen. "It was such a blessing."

Evans was hailed by prominent Republicans. Gov. Butch Otter described him as a lover of Idaho who kept "himself and his office above the day-to-day political fray." Sen. Mike Crapo praised Evans' leadership during difficult economic times in the 1980s. Sen. Jim Risch called him "one of the most civil and gentle people I dealt with in the political process."

Former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, whose four terms sandwiched Evans' 1977-87 service, called him "a genuinely fine man" and a "strong and capable governor."

BOY WONDER TO LEADER IN CRISIS

An LDS Democrat, Evans was elected to the Senate in 1952 at age 27, becoming majority leader in 1957-58. He then became mayor of Malad before returning to the Senate in 1968 and serving as minority leader. In 1974, as Andrus won his second term, Evans was elected lieutenant governor, succeeding to the top office when Andrus became U.S. secretary of interior.

As governor, Evans often left the door open so people could see what he was up to. He led through a severe drought, the challenges of the 1 percent property tax limitation passed by voters in 1978, and the criminal rise of the Aryan Nations in North Idaho.

When the supremacists bombed a priest's home in Coeur d'Alene, Evans flew north to express outrage on behalf of Idahoans.

"He was horribly offended," said Marty Peterson, Evans' budget chief. "John Evans was a mayor of a small town. He understood the significance of an action like that in a community."

Risch, a top Senate GOP leader, said Evans' modesty was part of the alchemy that helped Republicans agree to raise the sales tax three times in the 1980s to keep education whole.

"He wasn't up there shaking his fists in people's faces," Risch recalled. "He was more, 'Look, we're all in this together. What can we do to make this work?' "

Evans "did the day-to-day gritty work of governing," Risch said, and was "probably underappreciated in that he wasn't a flamboyant person."

When Evans defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Batt by just 4,200 votes to win his second full term in 1982, Batt called to congratulate his former Senate colleague.

"My staff, of course, was very upset," Batt said. "I told them, 'That's just fine. He's a good man and he's my governor, too.' "

Batt said Evans' temperament keyed his success.

"He had a great personality and Lola was a nice lady," he said. "People liked him and they should have."

GO BIG RED

Dealing with a heavily Republican Legislature, Evans hosted weekly breakfasts during the session for lawmakers, with his staff doing the cooking.

"They'd holler and scream and eat waffles and get things done," said Steve Seward, an Evans aide. "It was something to behold."

Evans also outwaited the majority party.

"One of his admonitions was, 'Take it easy, come on, it'll be all right, just wait,' " said Rose Bowman, a Cabinet member.

"He was incredibly patient, which is not a strong suit for most of us in this business," Risch said.

But Evans fully understood the authority of his office and used it to block repeal of the Local Planning Act and, for some years, slow right-to-work laws.

An Evans innovation in gubernatorial power has long been wielded by his successors: a telegenic 4›-by-2fl-inch "VETO" stamp.

"He would apply that veto stamp with gusto, inking every page," said Jan Hammer, a staffer. "It was a warning that he was the governor and he was not going to be rolled over."

In 1986, Evans challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Symms, losing by 12,000 votes. Symms, who famously upset four-term Sen. Frank Church in 1980, calls Evans the tougher opponent.

"He ran a very smart campaign," Symms remembered, including a Capital for a Day program revived by Otter. "I always had a lot of respect for him."

BACK TO THE VAULT

Returning to private life in 1987, Evans became president of the D.L. Evans Bank, a post he retained after retiring about five years ago.

John Evans Jr., his son and the bank's CEO, said he first proposed that Evans Sr. be vice president.

"He said, 'I've been mayor, I've been lieutenant governor, I've been governor. But I haven't been president and that sounds like a better title,' " John Evans Jr. recalled.

"His legacy is customer service," said Evans Jr. "He never met a stranger. He was a handshaker. He like to take care of customers. Everybody at the bank loved him."

As word of his death spread, the family was flooded with calls and emails.

"It's just heartwarming to hear all the stories," Evans Jr. said. "We appreciate everybody so much."

Lola Evans, who shared the Boise townhouse where her husband died, "is just a rock," said Gilgen, their daughter. "She's heartbroken because she's lost her partner of 69 years, but she's hanging in there."

Gilgen said she hopes her father's passing reminds people of a political culture that relies on friendships and compromise.

"Nobody got stuck in politics," she said. "Everybody had to make it work."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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