By Kathryn White
The anthropology courses that Richard “Dick” Evans (‘69 B.S., Industrial Engineering) took at Oregon State University taught him things that he has applied to many aspects of his life. He learned that tribes are not only groups of people linked by family, culture, religion, or economic ties; they can also be smaller bands of people who share a common language or ideology.
The Mission District in San Francisco is a microcosm of colliding tribes and cultures, and home to some of the largest concentrations of urban murals and street art in the world.
Evans has mastered the camera to observe and document his surroundings. His lens captures slices of the landscape, the present, the people, the culture, and the human struggles.
“Photography became an appealing medium for me to record my frequent travels,” he said. Evans spent his 50-year career in the global aluminum and mining sector, living in North America, Africa, and Europe. Work took him around the world and gave him an appreciation for the multicultural richness of diversity.
When Evans semi-retired in 2009, he and his wife, Gretchen (’69 B.S., Elementary Education), settled in San Francisco. As they began exploring new surroundings, they found that SF City Guides walking tours provided a useful way to learn about the history and culture of the local neighborhoods, and that led him into the Mission District.
For more than 2,000 years, the Bay Area was home to Native Americans, the Yelamu branch of the Ohlone tribe, until the arrival of Spanish missionaries in 1769. In the years following the California Gold Rush, the Mission District saw the arrival of European immigrants primarily from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland. A massive number of Mexican immigrants arrived in the 1950s to 1970s; a surge of refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua brought thousands more newcomers to the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. This decade has seen an influx of younger middle-class professionals as well as a more gender-diverse population, including a greater percentage of LGBT residents — all living side by side in a densely populated melting pot.
“In the 1970s, the mural movement was becoming a local and global phenomenon,” Evans said, “particularly in Mexico.”
The passion for street art had spread into major cities and flourished in San Francisco. The Mission District murals began as a community beautification project, but artists discovered their paintings were a symbol of solidarity that could be used to reach and mobilize people.
“Today, the Mission District suffers from many of the ills seen in other San Francisco neighborhoods: immigration issues, gentrification, lack of affordable housing, police-resident conflicts, and the squeezing out of the local culture,” Evans said. “It seemed like a good subject for a photo documentary.”
Evans had already self-published a book in 2011, “San Francisco and the Bay Area: The Haight-Ashbury Edition,” and decided that he wanted the proceeds from this new book to go toward supporting local organizations. The concept was to respectfully document the diversity and evolving culture of the modern Mission.
“We hoped that by highlighting the neighborhood in positive ways it could raise awareness of the ongoing efforts to preserve the art and culture, and encourage people to support it. We wanted to involve the entire community, so we solicited help from a long-running, community-based organization, Precita Eyes Muralists Association,” he said.
Evans spent four years documenting the neighborhood, taking over 6,000 images during both random walks and planned photo shoots capturing the daily life of residents, Victorian homes, community festivals and events, local heroes, and the murals. “The Mission” book was published in 2017. The book distills these photographs into 167 pages, interspersed with poetry and quotations from Mission residents, including United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. The book, now in its third printing, was a 2018 finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards (Art) and has received praise from the community. Profits from the book support Precita Eyes and Heyday Books.
Evans did not grow up in a city but on a ranch located near Junction City, Oregon, on land originally owned by his grandfather. A prior owner had logged the property for the timber, and the family made a living by raising free-range cattle and sheep. Although his two siblings were interested in agriculture and keen to take over the family business, Evans had other ideas. He enjoyed academics and sports. There was no question he would go to college, and he looked up the road to Oregon State — setting his sights on a degree in industrial engineering. Earning a 4.0 GPA in his freshman year opened doors to scholarships and summer internships from Alcoa and Kaiser Aluminum. He also earned a track scholarship for the hurdles. The scholarships helped pay his way through school and the internships gave him early-career experience in the aluminum industry.
While attending Oregon State, Evans met his future wife, Gretchen, who was pursuing a degree in education. Just prior to graduation in 1969, Evans received two job offers, one from Kaiser and the other from Alcoa. Because Gretchen especially wanted to travel and see the world, he accepted the job that took them the farthest away from Oregon — to Spokane, Washington.
During their time in Spokane, Gretchen went on to earn a second bachelor’s degree in art history and ceramics, worked in the Spokane school system, and later was director of the YMCA arts program.
Evans spent the next six years working for Kaiser, first as an industrial engineer in the rolling mill plant. Then, at age 24, he was offered an opportunity to become the chief industrial engineer at its smelter plant across town.
“It was something unheard of at my age,” Evans said. “I couldn’t resist. Most of my peers were in their 40s or 50s — we were like their kids.”
The fellowship he developed with co-workers from the two plants was enough to put him on a short- list of corporate talent, and three years later he was invited to join the corporate strategy and planning team at its headquarters in Oakland, California.
“They wanted someone who had actually worked in a plant and understood the process,” said Evans. “Most of the people on that team held a master’s or Ph.D. in operations research — really smart people who had never worked in a plant.”
After a few years, Evans felt it was time to go to graduate school and was accepted into a one-year master’s program at MIT. When he asked Kaiser for the time off to complete the degree, they instead offered to sponsor him to go to Stanford University, for the Stanford Sloan master’s program and keep him on full salary.
“Given a choice between depleting all our savings and leaving California, or staying in the area? That was a no-brainer,” he said.
Just as he was completing his business degree at Stanford, Kaiser asked him to go to Africa to help them revive a failing plant that had been shut down. They were assembling a brand new management team, “the best and brightest,” and they wanted Evans to go to Ghana and become the operations manager.
“So, I thought, ‘if we win, it will be big,’” he said. “And Gretchen and I wanted to travel, here was our chance.”
Within weeks of graduation, they set off for Ghana with their two daughters, Christin and Carrie, ages 5 and 2.
After a year, he was promoted to works manager. His job was to train the Ghanaian engineers and managers to be able to run the plant. The workforce consisted of 2,500 Ghanaian professionals and 50 expats. Evans learned a great deal about managing people during this time. The management team experienced numerous challenges, which included dealing with government coups, a crumbling infrastructure of supply chain shutdowns, and severe power and water outages.
“The anthropology classes I took at Oregon State were extremely valuable in helping me understand the tribalism in Ghana,” Evans said.
To overcome the challenges, Kaiser provided its own hospital, commissary, and lunch center for employees. It ran a laundry and transportation system. It was a totally integrated infrastructure built to overcome all the crises.
This is where Evans’ career really took off, because through his work, Kaiser made record production and profits from the plant.
“We were able to recruit some of the best people for specific jobs. It was management fundamentals at its best, and we didn’t try to fix everything in the first six months but built a solid management team while hiring and developing Ghanaian managers,” Evans said.
Meanwhile, Gretchen also took full advantage of her time in Ghana by enrolling in the graduate program at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies, with a concentration in art.
“I wanted to learn more about the culture and really enjoyed it. I even had a potter’s wheel on our porch,” she said. Gretchen continues to draw on her experiences in Ghana by teaching African art classes part- time to African-American kids (K–8) in the Oakland-based Northern Light School.
“The time we spent in Ghana really opened our eyes and gave us a different view of the world,” Evans said. The Evans family lived there for four years.
Evans spent 28 years with Kaiser, holding a variety of senior-level, national and international postings, before taking a position with Alcan, a Fortune 500 mining company and aluminum manufacturer based in Montreal, with more than 75,000 employees in 63 countries.
Evans at different times oversaw each of Alcan’s four business groups, participated in the company’s strategic governance and managed company mergers and acquisitions. From 2002 to 2006, he served as executive vice president and chief operations officer. He became president and CEO in 2007.
“I found that tribalism not only exists in Ghana, but also within organizations and corporations — among the engineers, the lawyers, and accountants. People belong to different tribes and have their own way of viewing the world,” he said. “And, a key to general management at that level is being able to understand how engineers think, how accountants think, how human resources people think — understand how their models and systems work, and then facilitate everybody working together for the global goals of the company.”
Since semi-retiring in 2009, Evans has been a senior international business advisor and director of several companies, including the non-executive chairman of both Constellium, a Europe- based producer of advanced aluminum-engineered products, and Noranda Aluminum Holding Corporation, a regional aluminum producer in the United States. He currently is an independent director of CGI, Canada’s largest IT consulting and outsourcing company, and continues to serve as chairman of Constellium.
A MISSION THAT MULTIPLIES
“It was through our travel experiences that Gretchen and I became such big fans of encouraging students to travel and explore the world, particularly to see developing countries. There is so much difference between how business gets done in Africa, the Middle East, India, or even Canada or Europe, compared to the U.S.,” Evans said.
Dick and Gretchen Evans made several contributions to the College of Engineering that have enabled students to gain international experience. They’ve supported female track athletes who study engineering and, in 2015, the couple seeded the Humanitarian Engineering program with $1.5 million. Kendra Sharp, professor of mechanical engineering, is the founder of the program and was named the Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor of Humanitarian Engineering — creating the nation’s first and only endowed professorship in this emerging field.
“One of the things Kendra and her team do well is to develop strong connections with colleagues in developing countries and prepare students in advance; when they go to Guatemala, Uganda, or Pakistan, there are people on the ground to support them so they can be immediately productive,” Evans said.
Evans explains how the Humanitarian Engineering program prepares students to become vital resources for future employers.
“So often, if you look at the efforts going on to help developing countries, you see many well-meaning people, with little technical expertise. They have the heart, but they don’t know how to build a fuel-efficient stove, water pasteurizer, or filter,” he said. “Our thought is that students who experience these opportunities, whether or not they stick with that field or go on to work for Chevron, Intel, or someone else, will be better employees. Big multinational corporations need and value people who are willing to work in developing countries, particularly in the resource sectors.”
Catherine Mays, a master’s student in environmental engineering, is one of five current recipients of the Evans Family Fellowship and is traveling to Uganda in summer 2019 to test a high-efficiency, low-emission water pasteurizer in a community that currently boils water over open fires. Mays will analyze the microbial contamination in the water both before and
after using the pasteurizer in efforts to improve human health and reduce contaminated drinking water. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn through these projects,” Mays said. “I know I’m going to gain some invaluable experience, and it’s really opening doors for me to continue my postgraduate work.”
What is the Evans’ mission for the Humanitarian Engineering program?
“Our vision is to develop more globally and socially sophisticated engineers — people who are more aware of the social divides, the needs, and the global issues,” Evans said. “Not
only will graduates be able to contribute more effectively, they will make better candidates to be hired and promoted.”
Just as Evans has effectively utilized his camera to capture the multicultural tribes living in the Mission District of San Francisco, he and Gretchen are fueling new opportunities for students to learn and appreciate the tribal differences that exist within communities, countries, and companies.
For more on “The Mission,” visit missionbooksf.com.
Photo credit: Dick Evans