She takes the winter and she makes it summer
And summer could take a few lessons from her;
Picture a tomboy in lace: That's Nancy with the laughin' face!

- Phil Silvers & Jimmy Van Heusen

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 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 governor ever.

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."

Not-so-secret weapon

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 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 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.

    Nancy, Dan, and the boys with Peggy, their Irish wolf hound, at the Governor's Mansion in the early 1970s. Evans family album

    Nancy, Dan, and the boys with Peggy, their Irish wolf hound, at the Governor's Mansion in the early 1970s. Evans family album.