Bright, pretty and lots of fun, Nancy Bell, a grade-school
music teacher, had no shortage of suitors. In fact, two fellas proposed to her on
the same Seattle park bench in the space of a week. One was a handsome engineer
named Dan Evans. That was a half century ago, and although Nancy told Dan she wanted
three days to think about it - "The worst three days of my life," he says - there's
never been a day when she regretted saying "Yes."
Well, there was the muggy day in August of 1966 when she was eight months pregnant
with their third son. Barefoot and wearing a maternity smock, she was scampering
around the yard of the Governor's Mansion, trying to corral their enormous Irish
wolfhound, Peggy, who was in heat. Her spouse and his State Patrol aide, Bill Lathrop,
happened to be driving by. They waved gaily and kept right on going, not realizing
their services were urgently desired. When the governor strolled into the mansion
a half hour later, she was livid. "You saw me chasing that damn dog. Why didn't
you stop?!" Dan stammered that he was oblivious. Nancy tried to keep scowling. Then
they erupted in laughter. What a sight: The First Lady, great with child, in hot
pursuit of the First Pooch. Good thing a news photographer hadn't happened by. They
tell the story with relish because it is a classic slice of the sometimes goofy
lives they led for the 12 years they were governor and first lady. They strived
to be a normal couple - hiking, biking and skiing with their three live-wire sons,
playing Pickleball and Bridge with friends between bouts with legislators and visits
from presidents and premieres. Nancy also welcomed hundreds of townspeople who told
her they had lived in Olympia all their lives and never been to the Governor's Mansion.
During their first six months in the mansion they had 10,000 visitors. Asked how
she mustered the courage to entertain all those people, Nancy says, "Ignorance is
bliss!" (For the record, they did discover later on that five-year-old Dan Jr. had
signed his name in the guest book a dozen times in big letters.)
Nancy and Dan: still best friends after 50 years. Evans family album.
They'd been married for only five years before pulling off one of 1964's biggest
political upsets. In a Democratic tsunami, Lyndon B. Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater,
the hero of the Republican Right. But in Washington State, a Eagle Scout
bucked the tide to defeat two-term Democrat Al Rosellini. Nancy Bell Evans, 31,
the daughter of a spunky suffragist and the pride of Spokane, became the youngest
First Lady in state history. Her husband, Daniel J. Evans, was 39 - the youngest
Dan Evans served an unprecedented three consecutive terms and Nancy became one of
the state's best-loved first ladies. Along the way, she saved the Governor's Mansion
from being replaced by some characterless rambler, championed its renovation and
redecoration and created a Mansion Foundation with a corps of dedicated volunteers.
She was "a vivacious hostess, a serious leader and one hell of a mother, all at
the same time - plus a remarkable wife," her husband says, adding that it's all
still true. After 50 years together, they're still best friends, and Nancy is also
the person Dan most trusts to give him a reality check.
"She really is the ying to dad's yang," says their son Bruce. "The degree to which
they go back and forth on stuff is remarkable - not because they fundamentally disagree
but because they just like to debate things. More than a lot of married couples,
they still communicate in a very open way, which is a testimony to their marriage
and why it has lasted so long."
A few months after Dan was elected governor, the Legislature went into overtime
and Nancy had to go it alone on an important trade mission to Tokyo. She'd never
been away from her children for three weeks, but she dutifully packed her bags.
The trip was a crash course in international diplomacy. "Japan was a very male-oriented
society," Dan notes, but Nancy was a hit with everyone she encountered and made
lasting friends. "It was an enormous boost to her confidence."
The first lady was the governor's not-so-secret weapon, according to campaign workers
and members of his staff. "Nancy is very smart, even-keeled and politically very
savvy," says Jay Fredericksen, who was Evans' press secretary in the 1970s. "As
a bonus, she has this great sense of humor." She met kings and queens, "but never
let anything go to her head. In 1973, we were all back East for the Republican Governors'
Conference, which Nelson and Happy Rockefeller were hosting. It was my first trip
to New York City, and we were staying in an upscale hotel, so I was sort of awe-struck.
I remember Nancy talking about having dinner at Rocky's town house. She said, ‘My
God, there's a Picasso in the bathroom!' "
Dan and Nancy with their namesake immigrant
son, Evans Nguyen. Evans family album.
Back in Olympia, Nancy had bats in her attic, although by then her campaign to make
the drafty old mansion a livable place of pride for the state and its occupants
was finally making real headway. Today, the mansion is the cornerstone of her legacy
as first lady. When Gov. Mike Lowry and his wife Mary welcomed visitors in the 1990s,
he always quipped that they were "really enjoying public housing."
Nancy Evans also sparked new interest in history and the arts in Olympia and was
a founding trustee of Planned Parenthood of Thurston County. Although abortion is
"not something we would ever choose," she says she has "always felt it's a woman's
right, prerogative, to make that decision." She supported the 1970 statewide referendum
to make abortion "legal and safe" in the early months of pregnancy. She also backed
the Equal Rights Amendment and has been a longtime activist for the mentally ill
and developmentally disabled. She and Dan welcomed Vietnamese refugees to Washington
in the 1970s after the governor of California said there was no room at the Golden
State Inn. One young immigrant couple was so grateful for their support that they
named a son Evans.
Nancy at a Whitman College trustees’
dinner, 2007. Whitman College.
Nancy's "retirement" years are devoted to an ambitious array of public service,
philanthropic and cultural causes. She is vice chairman of the board of KCTS, the
Seattle affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System, and active with the Northwest
Parkinson's Foundation. Dan's brother and Nancy's two sisters-in-law, as well as
their friend, former governor Booth Gardner, have suffered from the disease. A cancer
survivor, as is her husband and their granddaughter, Eloise, she helped found the
Friends of Cancer Lifeline in the late 1980s and was its first chairwoman. "She
takes her responsibilities to her family, her friends and her community to the nth
degree," says Barbara Frederick, Cancer Lifeline's retired executive director. "Her
‘community' has reached to every corner of our state. And every single thing she's
involved with she does with all her energy. Her attention to detail is just remarkable."
At Whitman College, her alma mater, she has been an overseer, trustee, fundraiser
and talent scout since the early 1970s.
In 2009, Whitman presented her its Scribner Award for Distinguished Service.
Involved with the Seattle Symphony since the 1960s, Nancy played a major role in
generating support for the world-class Benaroya Hall, and headed the search committee
for a new conductor in 2009. Her husband marvels at her moxie, and willingness to
take on jobs like that. Dan and a throng of others will tell you that if you pass
muster with Nancy, you're bound to be all right. She is financially savvy and a
good judge of character. She makes friends and forges alliances everywhere she goes.
"She's just terrific at making connections and introducing people," says former
Whitman president Tom Cronin.