EVANS, ELI (1936– ), U.S. administrator and Jewish historian. Evans was born in Durham, North Carolina, where his father served six terms as mayor from 1950 to 1962. His grandmother founded the first southern chapter of the Hadassah organization in the pre-World War i period.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1958, he took a law degree at Yale University in 1963. He worked in various branches of government, state and national, as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson, and as a White House assistant.
In 1973, he published The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. The book provided an insight into the Jewry of the southern United States, which had never been studied in depth previously. One of Evans' most revealing statistics was that more than 45 Jews held mayorships and other leading government positions in southern communities. The book generated a new field of study of southern Jewry.
Turning his focus to philanthropy, in 1977 Evans became the first president of the Revson Foundation, the charitable organization started by Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon. He guided the foundation in four specific areas: urban affairs, with special emphasis on New York City; education; bio-medical research policy; and Jewish philanthropy and education.
In the Jewish field, the foundation made a number of significant gifts. The first major grant helped to underwrite the ten-part television series Civilization and the Jews, narrated by Abba Eban. A second gift made possible the production of Sesame Street in Hebrew by Israel Education Television. A further large gift was allocated to the Jewish Museum, New York, for its remodeling and expansion to provide an electronics education center on all aspects of Judaism.
In 1988 Evans published a biography of the Civil War secretary of state Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate. Evans mined previously untapped sources and demonstrated aspects of Benjamin's personality that reflected the continuing strain of his Judaism even though the well-known southerner did not practice his faith. In 1993 he published a collection of essays entitled The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner.
Evans retired from the Revson Foundation in 2003. In 2004 the foundation honored its president emeritus with a substantial financial gift to the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to establish a program in Evans' name to support outreach activities on campus and in communities across North Carolina. The center, which was established at unc's College of Arts and Sciences in 2003, engages in teaching and research to explore Jewish history, culture, and religion in the United States and abroad. Involved with the center for Jewish studies since its inception, Evans serves as chairman of the advisory board.
Often referred to as "the poet laureate of southern Jews," Evans has served as the voice, as well as the heart and soul, of both his fellow southerners and fellow Americans.
[David Geffen /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]