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Nancy Evans, Washington’s former first lady, dies at 90

By Lauren Girgis, The Seattle Times
Published: January 29, 2024, 8:33am

Nancy Bell Evans, former first lady of Washington and wife of Gov. Dan Evans, died Friday. She was 90.

Evans devoted much of her life to public service during and after her husband’s three terms as governor, which ran from 1965 to 1977. She had broad experience in public service, both in the arts — which she was fiercely passionate about — and with health organizations.

Evans died at home with family by her side just before midnight Friday, said her son, Dan Evans Jr. After several tests this month, Evans learned last week her breast cancer had returned — for the fourth time — and metastasized to her bones.

“In talking to family, friends and community about Mom, the phrase that comes up repeatedly is ‘force of nature.’ She was exactly that,” read a statement to The Seattle Times from her sons, Dan Jr., Mark and Bruce Evans. “She convened and connected people, she propelled causes forward, and she offered sage advice of both the welcome and unwelcome variety. And she did all that while raising a family and holding up her end of the unique and loving partnership she had with Dad.”

Evans was a founder and chair of the Friends of Cancer Lifeline, national chair of the First Ladies’ Mental Health Month, founding trustee of Planned Parenthood of Olympia, and founder of the Governor’s Mansion Foundation.

“Mom liked nothing better than to be at the head of a sparkling dinner table conversation and I think that’s how we boys will always remember her,” the statement from her sons read.

She was born Nancy Ann Bell in Spokane on March 21, 1933. Her father was a mining engineer and native New Yorker who settled in Spokane after a stop in Vancouver, B.C.

Evans was devoted to music. In high school, she played piano for an orphanage in town. She earned her bachelor’s degree in music from Whitman College in 1954. She later became a music teacher and librarian in the Shoreline School District.

She met Dan Evans, who had by then been elected to the Washington State House of Representatives, during a ski trip arranged by mutual friends, according to an entry in HistoryLink.org. The couple married in 1959 — Nancy, she later recollected, took three days to say yes after he proposed.

Just five years later, Dan Evans became Gov. Dan Evans. Nancy reflected on the gubernatorial election in 2009 during an interview with historian John C. Hughes: “I had a feeling that this may happen. I began thinking ‘But what if it does? What will I do then? What’s going to happen to us?’”

At 31, she was the youngest first lady in Washington history. The couple moved into the governor’s mansion with their two sons, Dan Jr. and Mark. A third son, Bruce, was born in 1966.

As a moderate Republican governor and later United States senator, Evans is often viewed as an elder statesman of Washington politics.

As first lady, Evans helped oversee the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion and the creation of the Governor’s Mansion Foundation, maintaining and enhancing the furnishings, art and library collection in the mansion’s public rooms.

“From experience, I can say that Nancy Evans was a significant part of the successes of the Evans administration,” read a statement from Gov. Jay Inslee. “We are particularly grateful for her leadership in saving the Governor’s residence from demolition. All the while she was a mainstay of the Evans family. Trudi and I send our deepest condolences to her family, and thank her for her dedication and years of service to the Evergreen State.”

Evans also served as a trustee of the Patrons of South Sound Cultural Activities and the State Capitol Museum, and was a co-founding director of the Governor’s Festival of the Arts.

“We always considered it a privilege,” Evans later said of living in and raising her three sons in the mansion.

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Toward the end of the Vietnam War, when California Gov. Jerry Brown said he didn’t want Vietnamese refugees in his state, Gov. Evans invited them to come to Washington. He and Nancy greeted the first group of refugees to arrive — including Chuong Huu Nguyen and his pregnant wife Xuan Hoa Pham. The Nguyens named their son Evans when he was born a few months later.

“It has just been such a joy for Dan and me to watch this family grow and mature and become wonderful citizens,” Evans later said of the Nguyens.

After his governorship and stint as a U.S. senator, Dan Evans and Nancy lived on Bainbridge Island before building a home in Seattle.

Former Seattle Symphony executive director Deborah Card credited Evans with building critical support for the construction of Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998.

The University of Washington established the Nancy Bell Evans Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the school in her honor in 2004.

“Nancy was a true civic leader who dedicated her life to helping others, including UW students and the state we all serve,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce in a statement. “She was not only a supporter of the UW’s Evans School, she was an inspiration to the many students who will follow her footsteps into public service.”

Evans was a member of the UW Foundation Board and the Dean’s Council at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance. She also was on the visiting committee of the School of Public Health and was an honorary co-chair of the Evans School’s campaign.

“As a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest, Nancy welcomed me with open arms and shared poignant stories about nonprofits and politics, here and in D.C. She and her family represent the best tradition of deep dialogue and discussion that helps us work across our differences for the good of us all,” said Jodi Sandfort, dean of the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

In October, Nancy Evans appeared alongside Gov. Evans before the Metropolitan King County Council in celebration of the former governor’s 98th birthday.

She is survived by her husband, sons Dan Jr., Mark and Bruce, and nine grandchildren.

Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.