When former Gov. Cecil Andrus said he was troubled about having to miss John Evans’s memorial service, I knew exactly how he felt.
The July 11 service gave those who knew and admired Evans, who succeeded Andrus as governor, a chance to acknowledge him for a life well lived. Andrus was unable to attend because he was recovering from surgery. I couldn’t be there because I had to be in eastern Idaho that day. And though I didn’t know Evans nearly as well as Andrus did, I did know and like him well enough that it bothered me not to be able to pay my respects.
Evans wasn’t exactly a household word in parts of Idaho when President Jimmy Carter made Andrus his Interior Secretary, vaulting then Lt. Gov. Evans from the serenity of small-town eastern Idaho to the fishbowl of the governor’s office. Many of those he was about to govern didn’t know much about him, so The Statesman sent me to his hometown of Malad City to do a profile of him. It was a daunting assignment for a young reporter, but one remembered fondly.
The three days I spent in Malad City, population 2,000, was like traveling back in time. Or maybe to Mayberry. Everybody knew everybody. People smiled and spoke in passing. Farmers tipped their hats to women on the streets. It was picturesque, old-fashioned.
There was a restaurant just outside town – I think it was called the Deep Creek Cafe – that served some of the best down-home food in Idaho. The year was 1976, but the prices were straight out of the 1950s. You half expected to look up and see Aunt Bee baking an apple pie in the kitchen.
This was the sort of place where our governor-to-be was born and had spent most of his life. He grew up there, impressed the people there enough that they elected him to the State Senate at age 27, and made him the mayor of Malad City for six years. He went on to become Idaho’s Senate Minority leader, lieutenant governor and, defying the odds in Republican Idaho, a Democratic governor who served for a decade. A small-town success story.
Evans was the first Mormon to be elected governor in Idaho. It would have been surprising, given his roots, if he’d been anything else. Then as now, Malad City was one of the most predominantly Mormon towns in the state. I’ve forgotten the percentage of its residents who claimed membership in the church, but it was over 90 percent.
So it came as something of a surprise to find several bars in town. I popped into each of them, purely for journalistic purposes, and they all were doing a nice business.
The patrons did not include the future governor, however. I don’t know whether he was a model Mormon, but you wouldn’t have caught John Evans staggering out of a bar with a six-pack of Moose Drool under his arm. He was unquestionably a model citizen.
He proved to be a good governor as well. He helped guide the state through a nasty recession, supporting both budget restrictions and increased taxes to maintain essential services. He negotiated a landmark water-rights agreement, championed important environmental legislation and consistently vetoed right-to-work laws he saw as negatively affecting incomes. The laws were later passed, and our wages remain among the lowest in the nation.
Evans remained a force in public life after leaving the governor’s office. While president of D.L. Evans Bank, he supported numerous local, state and national organizations. And, reflecting both his rural roots and his stewardship of the environment, he used his influence to help defeat a proposal for a mega-hog farm his rural neighbors and others saw as an environmental nightmare.
Despite his achievements, he was never stuffy or self important. I interviewed him a number of times during his years as governor, and not once did he come across as anything but a nice, down-to-earth gentleman – an impression irrevocably confirmed in an unlikely setting – a chili cookoff in McCall.
He and I were judges. We sat beside each other at the judges’ table, and my son, then a toddler, sat on my lap from time to time while my wife socialized. You always hope that your kids will be well behaved and not do anything to embarrass you – particularly when you’re sitting six inches from the governor.
It had to happen, of course. The Woodward luck. We were doing just fine until the kid in my lap spilled a bowl of steaming hot chili in the governor’s lap. He was wearing a beautiful suit, which I stammeringly offered to have cleaned.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied, laughing. “This makes me feel right at home.”
That was John Evans, who came out of Mayberry to rise to the state’s highest office and serve with distinction. A good governor and, more important, a good man. Idaho was lucky to have had him.