Now Harvard’s gatekeeper, Evans recalls Arkansas roots
Brian Wright O’Connor
When David L. Evans last visited his hometown along a slack water loop of the Mississippi River, his mother’s house was gone, but the sewer still ran down the middle of the street.
In Helena, Ark., a tough river-port notorious for juke joints, billiard halls and all-night blues, even a kid from the worst corner of the worst neighborhood received enough guidance to raise his eyes beyond an unpaved lane of a Mississippi Delta town and dream of another life.
Now the senior admissions officer at Harvard College, Evans wears bespoke suits and bowties, speaks in clipped consonants and sonorous vowels. Nearly 40 classes of Harvard students have graduated since he first began recruiting and reviewing applicants.
But any conversation with Evans soon makes clear there’s still more Helena than Harvard in his soul — the memories of family that stuck together through death and hardship, teachers who took interest in a bright, bookish child, and the church-folk who looked after you, whether you liked it or not.
“Those days are gone,” says Evans with no trace of sentimentality. “Parents have to be very, very vigilant, very involved in every aspect of the education of their children if they expect them to be successful.”
Evans, the fourth of seven children of sharecropper parents, was 10 when his father died. His mother abandoned tenant farming to become a maid and “literally worked herself to death,” says Evans. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in her employer’s kitchen. His older sister moved home from college to care for him and the younger children.
Intrigued by Sputnik and encouraged by teachers and church ladies alike, he studied engineering at Tennessee State University, earned a graduate degree from Princeton in 1966, and became an aerospace scientist, working in quality control on the Apollo missions — a long way from the cotton rows of Phillips County.
While working in labs from California to Long Island, he volunteered thousands of hours recruiting and preparing poor black students for admission to some of the nation’s top colleges and universities. That experience led to his appointment to Harvard’s admissions office in 1970.
These days, traveling around the country, working to boost the ranks of the “Talented Tenth” proportion of African Americans at Harvard, Evans sees fewer teachers and counselors in poorer communities acting as both educator and parent, smaller circles of extended kin stepping in to rescue the children of broken homes and broken hearts.
“What you see are 2 to 3 percent of the black community doing very well while the rest are in trouble. What you see is a generation that believes the struggles are behind us. Well, things haven’t changed as much as some would like to think. Even today, I can go to a fine restaurant, see a woman sitting across the room look me over, and then watch her ceremoniously move her purse closer to her chair.”
Evans leans forward, his head tilted slightly, and lets forth a small, bitter laugh. “‘Now hold it,’ I want to say. ‘My arms just aren’t that long.’”
The reality of a “prison-industrial complex” that incarcerates more black men than attend college, the accelerating re-segregation of schools, and the lack of meaningful employment opportunities for inner-city men “are issues in our community that will cause folks to look back and say, ‘We should have acted and acted sooner to address,’” adds Evans.
“When you impose mandatory minimum sentences and see one-third of black men coming out of prison, rendered socially and economically dysfunctional for the rest of their lives, then you have to conclude that is at least the equivalent of drinking fountains with signs above them reading ‘No Colored.’”
To rescue the next generation, Evans advocates the return of discipline and tough love to schools, bringing football coaches, ex-correction officers, and drill sergeants into the classrooms.
“You’ve got to acknowledge the success of the Nation of Islam in turning lives around.” Evans pauses. “Of course, when I mention that in certain company, I hear, ‘Ahem,’ and the conversation ends.”
While Evans’ outspoken views on educational policy may not have won many fans in the faculty lounge, he has been very popular among students, whose academic and professional careers he has tracked as they made their way through Harvard and the world beyond the Crimson cloister.
In recognition of Evans’ efforts to broaden the college’s diversity and nurture African American talent, Harvard established a scholarship fund in his name in 2003. The original $250,000 target soared to over $1 million within three years.
During his tenure in Cambridge, 15 times more black undergraduates have studied at Harvard than in the previous 334 years — a significant change in an institution once noted for a student body, in Evans’ words, “largely male, pale, and Episcopale.”
Evans only grudgingly acknowledges the recognition. Earlier this year, an oil portrait of Evans, wearing his trademark bowtie, hand on his chin, was unveiled in Lamont Library by the Harvard Foundation to honor his service to the university.
Asked about the painting, he shrugs. “I guess it’s all right if it helps get out the message that if a young man from the poorest community in the Mississippi Delta can make it, then what about you?”
Evans remembers reading Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” about a life facing tougher hardships than he ever endured. And he remembers the lesson taught by an old man playing checkers in a park he’d pass on his way home from school.
“I guess I was in fourth or fifth grade. The old man stopped his game and looked at me. He called me over and asked to see my spelling book,” recalls Evans. “So I gave it to him.
“He looked it over and read out a few words to spell from lessons at the back of the book. I told him we hadn’t gotten there yet. He said to me, ‘This is Thursday. If your mother or grandmother or someone you trust said there was a million dollars waiting for you in Fargo, N.D., if you got there by Tuesday, would you get there?’ I told him I would.
“‘You’ve just told me that you can spell every word in this book by Tuesday,’ he said.
“I didn’t understand at first what he was saying. But now,” says Evans, “I’ll never forget.”
Due in part to the efforts of admissions officer David L. Evans — shown here in his trademark suit and bowtie — Harvard has seen 15 times more African Americans pursue undergraduate education in the past four decades than it had in the prior 334 years. (Brian Wright O’Connor photo)