James H. Evans ’43, one of the nation’s most respected corporate executives and former chair of Centre’s board of trustees, died May 11. He was 94.
Poised, unflappable and debonair, with movie-star good looks and an irrepressible optimism, he enjoyed a varied and wildly successful career in law, banking and management that had him moving effortlessly through the nation’s highest circles.
He was born in Michigan, but grew up in Louisville after his Baptist preacher father moved the family southward in order to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was the height of the Great Depression, and from a young age Jim Evans delivered the Louisville Times and, later, the Courier-Journal, work that would take on greater significance than just the $8-10 a week the paper route paid.
As he noted in accepting the Outstanding Alumnus of Kentucky Award in 1987, it was because of his paper route—and the three Centre families he met while collecting each week—that he first began to dream of attending Centre.
He went on to develop “a strong interest in the College,” he said. “Because it was a private college with a substantial tuition charge, I didn’t see how I could possibly afford to go. But, miracle of all miracles, . . . in the last half of my senior year at Male [High School], several Louisville businessmen who were Centre alumni —Elbert Gary Sutcliffe [Class of 1917] being the most significant of that group—informed me that their close friend in Mount Sterling, Robert Trimble [Class of 1913], had authorized them to designate me as the recipient of Mr. Trimble’s full-tuition scholarship to Centre if I could mange to scrape up the money for the room and board. I jumped at the chance, and with a job in the College library and the bookstore, I enrolled.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the single most important event of my life,” he continued, “because from it flowed every future event in my life and in my career.”
Mr. Evans took pride in being a “generalist,” which he felt was far better training and preparation for success in life than a narrow focus too early on. He also placed a premium on enjoying one’s work.
“We at Centre try to educate leaders,” he told the Courier-Journal Magazine, for a long profile in 1979, “and so you have a broad background in literature, economics, history, the arts and philosophy without attempting to specialize. What’s leadership? I can’t possibly define it. But some part of it has to be enthusiasm and a belief in what you’re doing. I don’t think any chairman of any major company can do his job unless he has a very high degree of enthusiasm about what he’s doing, likes what he’s doing and the people with whom he’s doing it.”
Pearl Harbor was bombed during his junior year and he almost immediately joined the Navy, although he was allowed to first finish his senior year at Centre. Returning from service, he earned a law degree at the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill, then joined Harris Trust & Savings Bank in Chicago as a lawyer and loan officer. Over the years, he held a series of increasingly senior leadership positions with what became Dun & Bradstreet and with the Seamen’s Bank for Savings in New York City.
In 1965, he joined the Union Pacific Railroad as a director, eventually serving as chair and CEO of the Union Pacific Corporation. During his two decades with Union Pacific, he helped the company undergo a complex merger that created the nation’s largest railroad system and diversify into energy and natural resources.
A Centre trustee for 54 years, he first joined the board in 1961 and was named life trustee in 1986. During his seven-year tenure as board chair, 1979-1986, Centre achieved increasing national visibility as a pre-eminent liberal arts college and nearly tripled its endowment.
“Jim felt a lifelong indebtedness to the College for what it did for him,” recalls David Grissom ’60, who succeeded Evans as Centre’s board chair. “He came there as a young, green person on scholarship. . . . I think he spent the rest of his life trying to pay back that debt. His love for Centre is almost indescribable.”
Grissom adds, “He was the most positive, optimistic individual I’ve ever known, and he was an enormous success in business. At one time, he was the chief executive officer of the Union Pacific Railroad, and, at the same time, he was on the boards of directors of AT&T, General Motors and Citibank. That says it all right there.”
Evans also served on the boards of the University of Chicago, the Central Park Conservancy, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American National Red Cross and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, among many others. He was a member of the Business Roundtable, a pro-business lobbying group made up of CEOs of leading corporations.
Over the years, Centre presented him with just about every award and honor possible: an honorary degree at the 1987 commencement (the year that former President Jimmy Carter gave the commencement address), a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1990 and the Isaac Shelby Medallion, conferred by the Centre board, in 1999.
“Jim Evans was remarkable in every way one might imagine—an outstanding alumnus, a visionary trustee and chair of our board, a brilliant businessman and leader, an American success story,” recalls John A. Roush, Centre president. “What Susie and I will remember most about Jim, though, is that he had the gift to make everyone his friend, to make everyone feel important.”
Always charming and gallant, Evans could also be irresistibly persuasive, especially if he thought it would help his alma mater.
In 1984, he participated in a conversation with Walter Cronkite on the Newlin Hall stage as part of ENCOUNTER, a student-run lecture series of high-profile speakers held every other year. The two had met at a program in California. During the six-hour return flight to New York City, Evans managed to convince the former CBS news anchor to speak at Centre.
“Henry Kissinger was on the plane, too, and he talked about politics, Central America, and the Middle East,” Cronkite told the ENCOUNTER audience that night. “Jim talked about Centre College, Centre College, Centre College.”
His survivors include two daughters, Carol E. Jepperson and Joan E. Madsen, and stepchildren Marcy Benson, Eric Head and Paul Head. His beloved wife, Mary, died in 2014. His son, Eric, died in 1996.
A memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20, 2 p.m., at Brick Church, Park Avenue and 91st Street.
by Diane Johnson
May 14, 2015