Evans, Daniel J. (b. 1925) and Nancy Bell Evans (b. 1933)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/15/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7167

Dan and Nancy Evans have devoted more than half a century to public service, in and out of political office, with a level of commitment matched by few of their fellow citizens. As a three-term governor of Washington and later United States senator, Dan Evans earned the nickname "Straight Arrow." He was so widely admired and his administration so untouched by scandal that a prominent columnist once joked he was "no fun." Nancy Evans served on the boards of innumerable educational and nonprofit organizations, including the Board of Trustees of her alma mater, Whitman College. The Evanses are known for the heft of their Rolodex and their willingness to tap into it in support of various good causes. Together they personify the term "power couple" in Washington. Among their many honors are the First Citizens award from the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors in 2003 and the A. K. Guy Award from the YMCA of Greater Seattle in 2013.

Deep Roots

Both Daniel J. Evans (born in Seattle on October 16, 1925) and Nancy Bell Evans (born in Spokane on March 21, 1933) have deep roots in the Northwest. Evans’ great-grandfather settled in Port Gamble in 1859. His maternal grandfather represented Spokane in the Washington State Senate in 1893. His father once served as King County Engineer. Nancy Bell’s father, a mining engineer and native New Yorker, settled in Spokane after a stop in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Dan Evans grew up in Seattle, Nancy Bell in Spokane. Both had politically active, civic-minded parents who engaged them in the broader world. Nancy once said that one of the lessons of her Depression-era childhood was that even if you didn’t have much money, you could still donate your time, and in any case, you had an obligation to care. “I think there was far more philanthropy than people think back then," she added. "There was not a lot of big giving like there is now, but people helped" (Puget Sound Business Journal).

Evans was a Boy Scout whose early experiences hiking in the Olympic Mountains nurtured a lifelong love of wilderness. He put his toe into politics for the first time in 1942, when he ran for junior class president at Roosevelt High School. He lost. It was the last election he would ever lose.

After graduating from Roosevelt in 1943 -- in the midst of World War II -- Evans served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He studied engineering at the University of Washington after the war, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1948, followed by a master’s in civil engineering a year later. He spent the next two years as a member of the City of Seattle’s structural engineering design team. When the Korean War began in 1951, he returned to the Navy as a lieutenant. At the end of that war, in 1953, he went into private practice as an engineer.

Evans’ political career began in 1956, when he was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives, a Republican in a predominately Democratic state government. He campaigned on a platform that called for better roads, bridges, and “metropolitan planning.” Quiet and unassuming, he showed an early knack for forming bipartisan coalitions, a characteristic that would mark his entire tenure in politics. His fellow legislators voted him outstanding freshman. He was later elected GOP minority floor leader.

Meanwhile, Nancy Bell was studying music at Whitman College in Walla Walla. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in music in 1954 and did graduate work at Eastern Washington University in Cheney before becoming a music teacher and librarian in the Shoreline School District near Seattle. She met Dan during a ski trip arranged by mutual friends. The Spokane girl and the Seattle boy married each other in 1959.

Three-Term Governor

In November 1964, Dan Evans defeated two-term Washington Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) in the gubernatorial race, one of the few Republicans to survive a Democratic landslide led by President Lyndon Johnson. Evans, ever the engineer, offered voters a “Blueprint for Progress.” At 39, he was the youngest governor in state history. He would go on to become the only one (thus far) to serve three consecutive terms. (He won his third term, in 1972, by defeating Rosellini once again, in the latter’s final attempt at a political comeback.)

Dan and Nancy moved into the governor’s mansion with their two young sons, Daniel Jr. and Mark. A third son, Bruce, was born in 1966.

Evans set the tone for his administration in his first inaugural address, when he declared, "This administration is not ashamed of the word conservative and it is not afraid of the word liberal" (The Seattle Times, 1993). Like Teddy Roosevelt, one of his political heroes, he frequently crossed party lines. He once said he would “rather cross the aisle than cross the people,” adding that there are “no Republican schools or Democrat highways, no liberal salmon or conservative parks" (The Seattle Times, 2002).

As governor, he pursued an agenda that has often been described as “passionately moderate.” He championed the cause of education, working with the 1967 Legislature to create the state community college system, launch The Evergreen State College, and provide higher levels of support for four-year colleges and universities. He used his executive authority to establish the Washington State Indian Affairs Commission in 1967 and the Washington State Women’s Council in 1971. He pushed for tax reform, supporting unpopular (and ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to implement a state income tax in 1970 and 1973. He was a strong proponent of legislation to clean up the state’s air and water, restore areas damaged by strip mining, limit development of oil ports in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and protect endangered species. During his administration Washington became the first state to create a Department of Ecology (in 1970) and the first to adopt a coastal management program (in 1976).

Evans held office during one of the more challenging periods in Washington state history. The Boeing Company, then the largest employer in the Puget Sound region, lost several important defense contracts in the late 1960s, triggering what became known as the “Boeing Bust.” Boeing laid off more than 60,000 employees, cutting its workforce from 100,800 in 1967 to fewer than 40,000 in 1971. The unemployment rate rose to nearly 14 percent. Meanwhile, frustrations over the Vietnam War, civil rights, poverty, and other social issues occasionally boiled over into urban riots. Protest became almost a way of life on college campuses. “It was a heady time to be governor,” Evans recalled, wryly (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2002).

A self-described “contrarian,” Evans steered an independent course through those tumultuous times. He responded to a series of demonstrations by black students in 1969 by appointing the first African Americans to the boards of the Seattle Community College and the University of Washington, despite warnings that he was risking political capital by “giving in” to the demands of protestors. He offended some of his constituents by endorsing the legalization of abortion and he dismayed others with his enthusiasm for nuclear power.

When California Governor Jerry Brown said he didn’t want any Vietnamese refugees in his state, fearing they would take jobs away from Californians, Evans invited them to come to Washington. He and Nancy personally greeted the first group of refugees to arrive. Among them were Chuong Huu Nguyen, his pregnant wife, Xuan Hoa Pham, and their five children. The Nguyens were so touched by the gesture that when their son was born a few months later, they named him Evans. When Evans Nguyen graduated from the University of Washington in 1998, former Governor Evans was in the audience to cheer him on. 

During his 1972 reelection campaign, Evans also promoted a group of five ballot measures to support a plan he called "Washington Futures." Four passed. Referendum 27 improved residential, industrial, and irrigation water systems. Referendum 28 financed the development of existing recreational properties and the acquisition of new ones. Referendum 29 expanded public health and rehabilitation facilities. Referendum 31 funded construction at the state's community colleges. The only measure that did not pass -- Referendum 30 -- would have developed new public transportation infrastructure and improved existing systems. Still, with this burst of activity, "Republican Gov. Dan Evans and the Democratic Legislature were launching the environmental movement," political reporter David Ammons recalled, nearly 40 years later (The Seattle Times, 2008).

As First Lady of Washington, Nancy Evans helped oversee the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion and the creation of the Governor’s Mansion Foundation, which decorates the building’s public rooms with furniture and art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She also served as a trustee of the Patrons of South Sound Cultural Activities, the State Capitol Museum, and was co-founding director of the Governor's Festival of the Arts -- all this in addition to raising three young sons.

Head Geoduck

By the late 1960s, Dan Evans was attracting national attention. He was the keynote speaker at the 1968 Republican National convention; chaired the National Governors Conference in 1974; and both Richard Nixon in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976 considered him as a vice presidential running mate. Nevertheless, in 1977 Evans left politics to take on what many thought was a doubtful assignment, as president of the fledgling Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Evans had long had a soft spot for Evergreen. He had supported the legislation that created the school and he had been on hand when its doors opened in 1971. An innovative four-year college, Evergreen emphasized collaborative learning and interdisciplinary studies. Students designed their own academic programs. They received narrative evaluations instead of grades. They called themselves Geoducks, adopted “Let It All Hang Out” as a school motto, and articulated their values in “The Evergreen Social Contract -- A Guide for Civility and Individual Freedom.”

However, neither Evans’ successor as governor, Dixy Lee Ray, nor the Legislature shared his fondness for the school. Ray tried to close it in 1981, and conservative legislators tried to do the same in 1983. Evans helped fend off both efforts. He played a key role in stabilizing the institution and improving its reputation both within the state and nationally. By the time he left, in late 1983, Evergreen was a fixture on various lists of the best liberal arts schools in the West.

While at Evergreen, Governor John Spellman appointed Evans to the Pacific Northwest Electric Power and Conservation Planning Council (later known as the Northwest Power Planning Council). The council, created by Congress to plan for the future of the Bonneville Power Administration, was charged with preparing a regional energy conservation and electric power plan and determining how to mitigate the losses of fisheries due to the federal dams on the Columbia River system, and to enhance fish and wildlife habitat. At the first meeting in April 1981, the council elected Evans its chair. His work with the council was cut short in 1983, when Spellman appointed him to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of Senator Henry M. ("Scoop") Jackson (1912-1983).

Senator Evans

The former engineer, legislator, governor, and college president added another section to his resume in September 1983, when he took Jackson's seat in the Senate. Two months later, he won a special election to complete the remaining five years of Jackson’s term, defeating Democratic Congressman Mike Lowry (1939-2017). The left-leaning Lowry and the centrist Evans differed on a few key issues, but were even more markedly separated by style. As one reporter put it, “The bearded Lowry's eye-rolling, arm-waving, emotional, stump-preacher brand of rhetoric” stood in stark contrast to Evans’ “cool, voice-of-reason speaking style” and “distinguished, senatorial appearance” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1983).

Evans was assigned to two important committees in the Senate -- Energy and Natural Resources and Foreign Relations -- and he also served as vice chair of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs. But as a former governor and university president who was used to decisive action, he found the Senate more frustrating than rewarding. He complained about the lack of real debate, the influence of special interest groups, the venomous infighting, and the need for incessant campaigning. Senators no longer engaged in meaningful debate, he said, but merely delivered set speeches to a largely empty chamber; and committee meetings were often stalled by lack of a quorum.

In October 1987, he announced that he would not be a candidate for re-election. He told one interviewer that he had come to the Senate too late (at age 63) to build up enough seniority to have any real influence. But he was also deeply disappointed with the institution itself. In a lengthy article for The New York Times, he said he had come to Washington with romantic ideas about “the duel of debate, the exchange of ideas,” and had found instead “a legislative body that had lost its focus and was in danger of losing its soul.” Senators were quick to speak out on issues but slow to listen to each other or agree to compromise. “I have lived through five years of bickering and protracted paralysis,” he wrote. “Five years is enough. I just can’t face another six years of frustrating gridlock.”

Home Again

After a brief stint as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, Evans returned to Washington. He and Nancy lived for a while on Bainbridge Island and then built a home in Seattle. He opened a small consulting firm, Daniel J. Evans Associates, with an office on 3rd Avenue overlooking the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He never held elective office again, although he freely shared his political viewpoints, as a commentator for KIRO-TV (from 1989 until 1994) and as a frequent contributor to newspaper editorial pages. Evans continues to write articles and speak out on issues that concern him, from global warming to Indian treaty rights to the “nasty partisanship” that he thinks characterizes politics today.

Evans joined forces with former representative (and future governor) Mike Lowry in 1989 to found the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. The coalition, a non-profit citizen group, works to identify and secure state funding for land that needs to be preserved for wildlife habitat and recreation. In 1990, the coalition "persuaded the state legislature to create the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program," a state grant program administered by the Recreation and Conservation Office and funded by the state legislature to purchase land, restore wildlife habitat, and develop recreational facilities (Coalition website). Since 1990, the program has awarded $620 million in grants and purchased more than 350,000 acres.

In 1993, Evans put on yet another hat, when then-Governor Mike Lowry appointed him to the University of Washington’s Board of Regents. At the outset of what could be considered a sixth career, Evans said, "I have been absolutely blessed to have five different careers. Each one has been absolutely marvelous because you learn new things" (The Seattle Times, 1994).

He quickly began to make his presence known at the UW. “At regents' meetings, where everyone is exceedingly polite, Evans pokes for answers in a booming, made-for-television voice,” The Seattle Times reported in an article published six months after he joined the board. “Administrators noticeably squirm when he's around.” Still, Evans drew wide praise for his contributions to the board. His fellow regents chose him as president in 1996-1997, and then-Governor Gary Locke reappointed him to another six-year term in 1999. The Seattle Times was among the many regional newspapers that endorsed the reappointment. “As a governor, former U.S. senator and one-time president of Evergreen State College, few can match Evans' breadth and depth of knowledge, experience and commitment to public service,” the paper’s editors concluded.

Both Dan and Nancy Evans have maintained daunting schedules during their “retirement” years. Evans’ official biography lists him as a current (2004) member of a dozen corporate, educational, or non-profit boards, from Voicestream Inc. to the National Information Consortium to The Evergreen State College Foundation. Since returning to Seattle from Washington D.C. in 1989, he’s been involved with more than two dozen organizations of one kind or another.

Among his more recent activities, he has joined philanthropist William H. Gates Jr., former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency William Ruckelshaus, and chairman of Global Partnerships Bill Clapp in founding the Seattle Initiative for Global Development, an alliance of business and civic leaders who hope to make the elimination of global poverty a priority for American foreign policy.

Nancy Evans, too, has been involved with a significant number of civic and philanthropic endeavors, including serving on the Board of Trustees of Whitman College, the Seattle Symphony, Seattle’s public television station KCTS, the Friends of Cancer Lifeline, and the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation. Former Seattle Symphony executive director Deborah Card credited her with building critical support for the construction of Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998. As a trustee at Whitman, she has been an active fundraiser, and she also served as a member of the search committee to find a new president for the college. "She's just terrific at making connections and introducing people," said Tom Cronin, outgoing president of Whitman (Puget Sound Business Journal). (Cronin retired at the end of the 2004-2005 school year and George S. Bridges, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education at the UW, replaced him.)

Their long years of community service earned Dan and Nancy Evans a veritable bushel of awards and honors over the years. The University of Washington memorialized their names by renaming its Graduate School of Public Affairs the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs in 1999 and establishing the Nancy Bell Evans Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the school in 2004. The school became the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance in 2015. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle made the couple one of its Business Alliance honorees for 2001. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors honored them with its First Citizen Award in 2003. Other accolades included a Legacy Award from the Rainier Institute in 2004 and the A. K. Guy Award from the YMCA of Greater Seattle in 2013.

Announcing the Rainier Institute award, Booth Gardner, Washington governor from 1985 to 1993, and Sid Morrison, Fourth District congressman from 1981 to 1993, wrote:

"Thousands of civic and corporate leaders entered public service through the Evanses' model of leadership, one that aspires to greatness through discourse, wisdom and respect ... Many of us don't remember a time when the Evanses weren't prominent voices in our community. ... Both Dan and Nancy have been known to roll up their sleeves to help -- whether it's for local charities, higher education or a family friend. ... It is that kind of diligence and commitment that has made this community a better place to live" (The Seattle Times, 2004).


Daniel J. Evans, “The Goal Is To Govern -- Revival: A Manifesto For The GOP -- Cut Loose the Fringes and Hold On Tight To Party's Old Values,” The Seattle Times, May 16, 1993, p. A-15; Lily Eng, “Dan Evans: A Rookie Regent on a Mission -- Ex-Governor Makes Presence Felt at UW,” Ibid., April 10, 1994, p. B-1; Daniel J. Evans, “Problem-solving Begins with Involved Citizens and Leaders Willing to Listen and Inspire,” Ibid., October 12, 2002, p. C-1; Carol Tice, “First Citizen(s): Dan and Nancy Evans, Service with a Passion,” Puget Sound Business Journal, May 16, 2003, p. A-4; Daniel J. Evans, “Claiming Our Future,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 13, 1995, p. A-11; Daniel J. Evans, “Former Governors' Ties to State Remain Strong,” Ibid., August 18, 2002, p. G-1; Neil Modie, "Evans Wins," Ibid., November 9, 1983, p. A-1; Daniel J. Evans, “Why I’m quitting the Senate,” The New York Times Magazine, April 17, 1988, pp. 48, 90; “Leaders for Higher Ed,” The Seattle Times, April 21, 2000, p. B-4; Booth Gardner and Sid Morrison, “Dan and Nancy Evans: a Legacy of Leadership and Service,” Ibid., June 16, 2004, B-7; Cassandra Tate interview with Nancy Bell Evans, Seattle, November 22, 2004; Joni Balter, "$450 Million Effort Urged for Wildlife, RecreationsL Evans, Lowry Head Washington State Group,"The Seattle Times, July 31, 1989, p. A-1; Lyle Burt, "5 of 6 'Evans' Bond Issues Pass," The Seattle Times, November 8, 1972, p. A-9; Lyle Burt, "6 Bond Issues Tag Along on Evans' Campaign Trail," The Seattle Times, October 8, 1972, p. E-16; Bill Dietrich, "Environmental Plan for the State Revisited," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1989, p. D-2; Ron C. Judd, "Bridging the Gap: Bipartisan Coalition Provides Funding for Projects That Are Hard to Fund," The Seattle Times, February 13, 1997 (www. seattletimes.com); Bob Lane, "Evans Backing Efforts to Restore River Salmon," The Seattle Times, January 12, 1984, p. D-3; Bob Lane, "Evans is Chairman of Energy Council," The Seattle Times, April 28, 1981, p. C-4; Bob Lane, "Members of Regional Power Agency Picked," The Seattle Times, April 7, 1981, p. C-2; "Northwest Power and Conservation Council Briefing Book, January 2007," Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed March 29, 2011 (www.nwcouncil.org/library/2007/2007-1.pdf), 50-51; Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition website accessed March 29, 2011 (www. wildliferecreation.org/); "Worthy Appointees to Power Council," The Seattle Times, April 16, 1981, p. A-14; David Ammons, “Swan Song: Bowing Out After 27 Years Watching Olympia,” The Seattle Times, April 26, 2008 (www.seattletimes.com); "Serving Without Limits: Dan and Nancy Evans," Northwest Prime Time, November 2014, p. 1; "Public Affairs School Named for Gov. Dan Evans," Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine, June 1999 (https://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june99/evans.html); "UW Regents Approve New Name for Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs," UW Today, May 14, 2015 (http://www.washington.edu/news/2015/05/14/uw-regents-approve-new-name-for-daniel-j-evans-school-of-public-affairs/); "About the Nancy Bell Evans Center," University of Washington Evans School website accessed March 7, 2016 (http://evans.uw.edu/centers-projects/nbec/about-nancy-bell-evans-center).

Note: This essay was updated on February 23, 2007, expanded on March 30, 2011, and updated on February 12, 2015, and March 7, 2016.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You