Mr. Evans lived alone, quietly, at the end of our street. It was the house all the kids were afraid of with the old man who would come out on occasion to hand mow his small lawn or pick weeds on occasion. We skipped his place on Halloween, despite the light on the porch being on, inviting us to come up the stoop. No one did.
We had moved into the neighborhood when I entered fifth grade, new school, new kids, new community with a much different feel than where we moved from. On my street and those neighboring them, in my old Chicago suburban neighborhood, everyone knew everyone else, a combination of largely Czech, Polish and Slovak second and third generation families in a working-class neighborhood of “Bohemian bungalows”. Cermak Road provided easy walking access to grocery stores, restaurants and movie theaters. I remember seeing Rocky at The Olympic Theater just a block from our house. Current Yelp reviews are not so favorable to the theater today, but at the time, it seemed magnificent. The Czech style décor was prominent.
The new neighborhood was much more “pasteurized” and homogeneous. Grandparents of the children did not live with their families as they did in the old neighborhood and no one spoke Polish or Czech as they did in the old neighborhood just a few miles away. The homes and schools were older, but better maintained. Roads and parkways were in much better shape with more open areas to play football after school. Everyone had a Bears #34 jersey. Everyone wanted to be like Walter before we wanted to be like Mike.
Before I knew better, I knocked on Mr. Evans door one day, about 4 months after moving into the neighborhood around this time of year, during the school’s annual canned food drive for the holidays to donate to local food banks.
Mr. Evans answered the door. I would later learn he was in his late 80’s but appeared much younger than that. He was thin and stood upright. His eyes appeared to look through you as much as at you. I still remember that. He had a full head of hair and a pleasant smile. He welcomed me into his home after I gave my spiel about collecting cans of food while he went off to the kitchen to collect some food to donate. I added those cans to the others in the pillow case and got back on my bike to go call on the next house.
I continued to visit Mr. Evans if I saw him in his study or working in his yard. Over time, and I don’t remember how or why he proposed doing so, if he did at all, he would invite me in to talk about school, family, friends, life. As a junior high student and with 70 years between us, Mr. Evans became a surrogate grandfather of sorts.
I don’t recall if his wife had passed or if he never married. He had no children. Prior to retirement, he was an executive with U.S. Steel, arguably in better days for U.S. Steel. He split his time between working in an office downtown and at Gary Works in Gary, Indiana. Mr. Evans could tell you more about flat-rolled steel than anyone else in the neighborhood, having spent 40+ years in the steel business. He was born on the East coast but raised in Chicago, the details of how that happened, also forgotten although I am sure he told me a number of times. Not that he repeated himself, he would just frame discussions with historical relevance before telling you another story.
About this time, I became interested in geology and fossils. I mentioned this to Mr. Evans on one of our visits. It turns out he too appreciated geology and collected a number of different rocks and minerals, including from several trips overseas he had taken as a younger man.
He taught me about rock cycles and sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks. And about earth structure and relative dating versus absolute dating and petrology and much more. Much of this too, unfortunately, has been deleted from my memory banks. He was a treasure trove of information on a number of subjects but the cabinets with trays filled with rocks would really get him going. I decided to do my seventh grade science fair project on geology and Mr. Evans kindly provided dozens of rocks for my “board” that I would display and write about. He would have provided hundreds if I asked him for them.
The science project made a grade of “C” which infuriated Mr. Evans. He even offered to storm the teacher’s office. I told him it wouldn’t be necessary. In sixth grade I made a grade of “D” for my book report on “The Human Heart”, confusing which vessels carried oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood to and from the heart. I think I confused the pulmonary circulation with the systemic circulation and didn’t make the adjustment. The drawings were really good though. Anyways, I felt like going from a “D” to a “C” on my science project was progress. In eighth grade, history would repeat itself, and I would make another “D” for my science project on “Evaporation”. That project was entirely hypothesized, completed and concluded during an episode of “St. Elsewhere”. I hypothesized that a drop of milk would take longer to evaporate than a drop of water and about halfway through the show it looked like that would eventually be the case, all other things being constant, and concluded that the milk took longer to evaporate than the water “because milk had more “stuff” in it to evaporate”. I didn’t tell Mr. Evans about my procrastination and laziness but that television series continued to pique my interest in medicine, so the project wasn’t a complete loss.
By high school, Mr. Evans health had deteriorated and his study was turned into a makeshift hospital room. On my way to deliver the daily Chicago Tribune on my newspaper route to Martin Marty, the Lutheran religious scholar at the University of Chicago, I would pass by Mr. Evans house and see him in his hospital bed. Our visits became less frequent and he could no longer dig through draws and cabinets for rare rocks and the occasional fossil.
He passed when I was away at college. I had a geology final on the day of his funeral, an elective I had taken as part of my pre-med curriculum.