For a while after he became governor in 1977, John V. Evans became known among some Idaho political writers as the Rodney Dangerfield of governors: He couldn’t get no respect – and that was the headline of a column at the time.
Anecdotes flew around. He was the lieutenant governor who put gas in his car tank, forgot his wallet at home, and promised the attendant he would run right back and get it and pay. Not good enough: The lieutenant governor had to leave his watch as collateral. (Evans had a good enough sense of humor that none of this seemed to bother him.)
As governor, there was an optics issue too. He took the office not by election but by elevation, after the charismatic Cecil Andrus had been named interior secretary. Evans had a lot to live up to, and he lacked Andrus’ magnetism.
But by the time of Evans’ passing this week, perspectives changed – a lot. He gets a good deal of respect now and for good reason.
John Evans held office during one of Idaho’s tougher economic periods, and when much of the bigger picture of Idaho politics, on partisan, social and philosophical levels, was turning against him. He still won election to the job twice, the second time over a man (Phil Batt) who more than a decade later did become governor; he came very close to winning a race for the U.S. Senate. (All that followed a closely contested run for lieutenant governor in 1974.)
Evans could fairly be considered one of Idaho’s strongest governors. He was a highly skilled politician (first elected to the state Senate in the Republican year of 1952 from Republican Oneida County), a far better campaigner than many people credited him for, and he could be a partisan leader when occasion arose. Republicans long remembered how many previous governors would simply sign a veto of legislation, but Evans brought out a big red veto stamp to make his point.
My memories of his time in office come from another angle: Alongside the self-confidence (which any successful politician must have) was an evidently genuine humility and kindness. Few major public offices I have ever seen were as open as his; the door of his office was nearly always open, allowing for inquiring reporters or anyone else to see exactly what the governor was up to at any given moment.
One day I asked to spend a day with the governor, from breakfast until he got home from work. That sort of story isn’t totally unique, but what was unusual was this: I wasn’t kicked out of anything, any meetings or deliberations at all, all day. That was not the kind of openness you saw in just about anyone else’s administration.
When he left the governor’s office, he did something else unusual. He didn’t retire or work as a lobbyist or do many of the things you usually expect ex-governors to do. Instead, he moved to Burley and took over the family business – the D.L. Evans Bank – and over the years exploded it from a small, reasonably successful business to Idaho’s largest locally-owned bank, with rapid growth year over year. It grew even more just a week ago when it swallowed another Idaho banking operation. After years as one of Idaho’s most successful political leaders, he worked his way up to become one of its top business leaders as well.
One more word, speaking as a publisher: John Evans is the only governor in the long reach from Len Jordan to Phil Batt whose story hasn’t been told in biography or memoir. Someone should get about it, soon. It would make a good story.
Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide, edits the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Share on Facebook