A low-key but decisive leader in war and peace, a tough-minded public servant and an accomplished member of the Nashville bar, J. Clarence Evans died Wednesday. He was a few weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.
Evans, co-founder of the Nashville law firm Evans, Jones & Reynolds, was the son of Giles Lincoln Evans, law partner (in the off-season) of legendary Vanderbilt football coach Dan McGugin.
After graduating from Hume-Fogg High School and attending Vanderbilt University for two years, he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy, graduating in 1939. He then completed two years at Harvard Law School.
On his 25th birthday, June 30, 1941, Evans flew from Boston to Nashville, took and passed the Tennessee bar examination, drove to Tullahoma's Camp Forrest, and reported for active duty in the army. As he finished flight training with the U.S. Army Air Forces, he married Elaine Chittick, a graduate of Nashville's Ward-Belmont College, who survives him after 66 years of marriage.
As a squadron commander in the strategic bombing campaign of the Eighth Air Force, Evans took part in the creation of the 445th Bombardment Group in 1943. Late that year, he relocated with the group to an airfield in the east of England.
Evans recounted his wartime experience for author and former WSMV-Channel 4 News Director Alan Griggs in the 2008 book Flying Flak Alley: Personal Accounts of World War II Bomber Crew Combat.
He remembered when a new officer was assigned to his group as a fellow squadron leader – actor Jimmy Stewart, whom Evans remembered as "a doggone good fellow."
Stewart, he recalled, "mixed well with all the boys, playing the piano at the officers' club, for example. He was also very efficient. I had the top squadron as far as bombing records, maintenance, and performance were concerned, but it wasn’t long until Jimmy was giving me a run for the money."
In the midst of a massive Allied campaign known as "Big Week," designed to deliver a knockout punch to German war industries, Major Evans led a 24-airplane attack on a factory in the central German city of Gotha on February 24, 1944. He had no fighter support, and the area was well-defended by the Luftwaffe.
After his squadron struck the target, gunfire raked his B-24, killing the navigator and severely wounding Evans. He recalled drifting in and out of consciousness as a crewman hurled him from the plunging aircraft and his parachute deployed. While he dangled from his chute, a German fighter fired another burst of gunfire at him, leaving a bullet that remained lodged in his back for the rest of his life.
Evans came to, lying in a snowbank on the side of a steep hill in the German countryside. Before him stood a child of perhaps 12, holding an ancient gun that looked to him for all the world like "Miles Standish's blunderbuss," he later said. Under the cover of this curious weapon, he was taken captive and conveyed to a prisoner-of-war camp.
As recounted in this excerpt from Griggs' book, Major Evans was freed by the advancing troops of General George S. Patton's Third Army late in the war. He returned home to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. His unit, the 445th, received for its actions over Gotha one of fewer than 100 Presidential Unit Citations awarded in all American conflicts since December 7, 1941. That award recognized a degree of heroism equal to what would warrant award of the Distinguished Service Cross to an individual.
Evans would eventually retire as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
Completing his law degree at Harvard in 1946, Evans began practicing law in Nashville with the firm of Williams, Cummings & West. In 1948, he became Davidson County campaign chairman for Gordon Browning, who had served as governor for one term in the 1930s but been ousted through the machine politics of Memphis-based kingmaker E.H. "Boss" Crump.
Soon after the newly re-elected Browning made him Tennessee's Commissioner of Finance and Taxation, Evans told the Memphis Press-Scimitar why he became involved in politics.
"I got mad," he said. "The state government just wasn't treating everybody alike. You had to have the proper connections before you could get anything done." He did not need to say with whom one needed connections – any informed reader would have known he meant Crump.
Evans showed a flair for wielding sharp elbows in his time in state politics, then as now not a field for the shrinking violet. He did battle with Clifford Allen, later an influential congressman but then a Democratic rival of Browning. Evans once stormed out of a public meeting after telling Allen: "I'm not going to let you use me for cheap publicity and political demagoguery."
When the attorney general who was part of the same administration with him refused to sue over the issue of whether aviation fuel stored in Tennessee was subject to taxation, Evans hired counsel and pursued the matter himself. An eventual decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in his favor sent a windfall of $4 million into state coffers.
In 1952, when gubernatorial candidate Frank Clement was challenging Browning, Evans publicly claimed Clement had used connections to dodge combat duty in both the Second World War and the Korean War. Clement won the nomination and the eventual election.
Later that year, when Evans was a Democratic member of the Davidson County Election Commission, he created a firestorm by announcing his support for his former commander, the Republican nominee General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in the presidential race. He continued to support all local and statewide Democratic candidates, but elements within the party mounted a concerted campaign for his ouster, without success.
In private practice from the early 1950s onward, Evans was counsel to coal companies on a number of important labor cases and represented co-founders Jack Massey and John Y. Brown Jr. when they created Kentucky Fried Chicken Corp. as a fast-food franchise. He was among the original directors of that company.
Evans was a founding member of the American Law Institute. He created Evans, Jones & Reynolds in 1986 with son Winston Evans and other partners, remaining active in the practice until ill health forced him to become less involved in 2007.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by sons Trevor Martin Evans (Stefanee) of Newport, Vt., and Winston Sturdevant Evans (Kaye) of Nashville; grandchildren, 1st Lt. Giles Lincoln Evans II (USAF) and Laine Pearman Evans (Washington, D.C.); and sister Frances Evans Popham (Chattanooga); nephews John Popham, George Evans and Brian Evans, and nieces Hillary Popham, Majorie Rios, and Carol Evans.
Visitation will be at the family home, 940 Tyne Blvd., on Friday from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A funeral service will be held at First Presbyterian Church at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 23, 2009.
Burial will be at Harpeth Hills Cemetery with full military honors. Pallbearers will be Lieutenant Colonel Tom Pardue (USMA ’46); General Jerry Brophy (USMA ’53); Major Marion Seaton (USMA ’78), 1st Lt. Giles Evans II (USMA ’06); John Atterbury (Colonel, USAF) and Richard Jones (Captain, USAF).
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Association of Graduates West Point Fund, 698 Mills Road, West Point, NY 10996.