by Ward Mullens, Published January 17, 2011
YPSILANTI - When he was trying to figure out what to do with his life, Gary Evans got some advice from his father.
"He said never be a teacher or a preacher," said Evans.
Thankfully, for Eastern Michigan University, Evans didn't take that advice.
Evans, a professor of communications and theatre arts, is retiring this month from EMU after 45 years of distinguished service.
"I was struggling with what I wanted to do with my life when I got a call from the department head at EMU," said Evans, 72. "His name was John Satler. He spent two hours telling me he couldn't hire a person with (only) a bachelor's degree. Then he handed me a text book and told me to show up for class. I was paid $1,100 to teach six classes."
"I spent the first year and a half thinking that my students will find out I don't know what I am doing. While I wasn't satisfied with what I knew, I realized that compared to what they knew, I was doing okay," said Evans.
Some of the highlights of Evans' teaching career cover one large wall of his office in Quirk Hall. Teaching excellence awards, both national and local, and many others mark the significant impact Evans has made in the classroom.
But it is the small carnation that he wears in his lapel every day that gets noticed the most, especially on the rare occasion he has been seen without it.
"I just came back from lunch and the waiter asked me where it (the flower) was," Evans said. "He said, 'Are you Doctor Evans?' and then asked why didn't I have the flower on. I told him because it was so cold that it would wilt before I put it on for school."
Evans said the flower serves as a constant reminder to enjoy life. It took on even greater significance several years ago when he suffered a ruptured aorta.
"I am grateful to be alive," Evans said.
That zest for life is evidenced by the giant map of the world that hangs over Evans' desk. Small orange stickers cover the map, marking the destinations where Evans has been. There is at least one sticker in almost every continent, except for Antarctica.
"I'll get there," said Evans with a smile. "I have always wanted to see the polar bears."
In the places that he has visited, Evans has always sought out places of learning, usually tied to social revolt.
"When I went to Cuba, I went to where the revolution started and saw the bullet holes in the wall," Evans said.
Those people and places epitomize the human spirit and what can be accomplished if someone gets involved, said Evans.
Evans has been one of those special teachers who gets involved, not just with his students, but with all students.
He was actively involved with the black students group when efforts were being made to establish a black studies program at EMU.
He also was involved with students' groups during the Vietnam War.
"A former administrator told me not to come to work if I was going to attend a meeting with the students (about Vietnam). I came and I stayed for the meeting," said Evans. "People who get involved do things we can't even conceive."
One of Evans' classroom exercises with students has been to have them make a list of 10 things they want to happen in their lifetime.
"It doesn't matter if it's important to anyone else or what anyone else will think. If it's important to you, then make it happen. Don't let life happen. You decide what's going to happen in your life," Evans said.
Evans has seen many changes at EMU in his 45 years. But it's a current trend that, in part, has led to his departure from the classroom.
Technology is depersonalizing the classroom experience. Texting during lectures and e-mail exchanges are not the types of classroom experiences that Evans enjoys.
"We tend to depersonalize life quite a bit," said Evans.
So much has happened to Evans during his time at EMU, but he said it all comes down to people.
"The only thing that makes it worthwhile is the people with which you make a connection. We need to remember that, every single day, we need to help each other," Evans said.
That's one of the reasons Evans created the Evans-Strand Peace Prize, a $1,000 annual award given to a student who advances diversity. The award is named for Evans and his wife, Katie, who he met at EMU and who also retired from the University.
Evans said he will miss the energy of the classroom, but isn't ready for the rocking chair.
He talks about writing a book about classroom experiences, using his pilot's license more and taking his grandchildren to Isle Royale in northern Michigan.
"What a great life it has been, and I feel like I should be thanking the University," Evans said. "I look with gratitude at my career here at EMU. I could have worked for a living and got to do this instead."