Dallas is known for its organizations and Evans started many of them
Jack Evans made international news a year ago when he and his partner of 54 years, George Harris, legally married, the first same-sex couple to do so in Dallas County. Their wedding picture, taken at the Dallas County Records Building, appeared on the front page of the New York Times and in People magazine, Paris-Match and other newspapers around the world.
Evans died June 24, just two days shy of his and Harris’ one-year legal wedding anniversary. He was 86 years old.
At the time of his death, Evans had been in a rehab facility for several months. He went in to recover from a fall that left him with a broken hip, but then began having lung problems that led to his death.
Earlier this year, on Jan. 19, their 55th anniversary as a couple, Sweethearts Candy named Evans and Harris the company’s “sweethearts” for 2016, and released a video featuring them talking about their more than half a century together.
The couple have been members of Northaven United Methodist Church since an incident in 1989 at Oak Lawn UMC caused many of that church’s LGBT members to look for a new church home. In 2014, when Northaven’s retired minister, the Rev. Bill McElvaney, said he wanted to perform a same-sex wedding, he asked Evans and Harris to be the first couple he married.
Because of a prohibition within the Methodist Church, the ceremony was held at nearby Midway Hills Christian Church. But a large reception for the couple took place at Northaven.
Northaven’s senior pastor, the Rev. Eric Folkerth, called Evans a large figure with a gregarious nature who took his role as a mentor to the LGBT community seriously.
Folkerth said Evans was always looking to do more. After the wedding at Midway Hills, that included a whirlwind local media tour and the exhausting work of setting up two churches for the event, the couple showed up early in church the next day. Folkerth asked him how he was doing and Evans said, “Doing great. So what’s next?”
Evans often ushered in church.
“He was incredibly gifted at meeting new people and making them feel comfortable,” Folkerth said.
When he heard someone had lost a job or had been ill, he would check up on them to make sure they were doing alright.
“He loved being around younger people,” Folkerth continued. “On Sundays, when younger gay men would come, you could see the admiration in their faces that Jack and George would talk to them and care about them.”
In a 2011 interview, Evans said he was 32 before he admitted to himself he was gay. He said then he had been with men before, but always told himself he wouldn’t do it again. Before coming out, Evans served in the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed first at USCG headquarters in St. Louis and then in Honolulu.
Evans met Harris on Jan. 19, 1961 at the Taboo Room, a bar across the street from where the Oak Lawn Whole Foods now stands. Evans had recently moved to Dallas after being fired from the Houston Neiman Marcus store for being gay. He had managed the antique furniture department for the high-end department store, and he became department manager for a Dallas savings and loan, where he worked for 14 years.
Evans and Harris bought their first house together in Oak Lawn in 1964. When they bought another house, Evans approached their broker about sponsoring him to get his real estate license.
In 1976, Evans and Harris opened an office in a small building facing Lemmon Avenue, in the same shopping center as the Taboo Room where they had first met 15 years before. Within a few years,
Evans-Harris Real Estate became one of the largest real estate companies in Oak Lawn.
In the early 1990s, the couple regularly had lunch at Wyatt’s Cafeteria, across the street from their office, with John Thomas, executive director of the agency now known as Resource Center. Other community members began to join them.
Tavern Guild Executive Director Michael Doughman commented once, “Now this is a power lunch.”
Prompted by that comment, Evans suggested the group become the Stonewall Business Association.
Stonewall Professional and Business Association met monthly for more than a decade until Evans, Harris and Leo Cusimano, then advertising director for Dallas Voice and now the publishing company’s publisher and co-owner, suggested they form an LGBT Chamber of Commerce and affiliate with the national LGBT chamber.
A group of seven community leaders — including then-Stonewall Professional and Business Association President Mark Shekter — met and decided to form the chamber. They appointed Harris to the new organization’s original executive committee.
“Jack offered the stability and experience we needed as a board,” Cusimano said. “We chose Jack because he was one of the most trusted people in the community.”
Evans also served on the board of the Turtle Creek Chorale in the 1990s and on the founding board of the Fort Worth Men’s Chorus, which performed from 1993 until 2006.
Turtle Creek Chorale Executive Director Bruce Jaster said unlike his involvement in other organizations, Evans wasn’t a founder of the chorale; he became involved during season 14.
“He was incredibly reliable, supportive and irreplaceable,” Jaster said.
He described Evans’ board role as mentor, fundraiser and support for the staff. But he was best, Jaster said, at talking about and promoting the chorale.
“He excelled at that,” Jaster said. “Jack and George strongly supported whatever they threw their support behind.”
Evans’ most recent project was The Dallas Way.
After telling stories about gay life in Dallas in the 1960s to Dallas Voice for an article celebrating their 50th anniversary, Evans suggested an organization should collect the history of North Texas’ LGBT community.
He sent an email to community members explaining the idea and asked, “Will it fly?”
Harris’ reaction to the email was, “Oh, no, not another group.” But Evans brought the right people together, and The Dallas Way took off.
“That’s what Jack was best at,” said Robert Emery, a founding board member of The Dallas Way. “He knew how to bring the right people together to fulfill his vision.”
Emery said Evans would take an incredibly simple idea — like collecting Dallas gay history or having a monthly business community lunch — and turn that into a powerhouse organization.
The Dallas Way connected the right people, Emery explained. The archives are now stored at University of North Texas’ cold storage facility. Photos and other artifacts are being digitized. Copies of all issues of Dallas Voice and other LGBT publications have been made available online. Resource Center’s Phil Johnson Collection has been added.
The archives have been used for everything from background research for films such as Dallas Buyers Club to academic research by students in UNT’s LGBT studies program.
All of that resulted from a simple email Evans sent that put the right people together, Emery said.
Evans and Harris received a number of honors for their work together in the community. They received the Texas Human Rights Foundation’s Robert Schwab Memorial Award in 1996, given to community members who worked toward equal rights in Texas. In 1997, they were the first men granted the Extra Mile Award. Black Tie Dinner honored them in 1998 with the Ray Kuchling Humanitarian Award. And in 2008, DIFFA named the couple Legends in the Fight Against AIDS.
But it was their power as a couple, rather than their role as a power couple, that made perhaps the biggest impact on the people around them. Their love for each other and their love for their community helped transform that community into one known nationwide as a bastion of successful organization and progress toward LGBT equality.
Evans’ death prompted Mayor Mike Rawlings to issue a statement mourning the loss.
“Dallas mourns the loss of Jack Evans, a former bank employee, real estate agent, gay rights activist and, most of all, a loving husband to George Harris,” Rawlings wrote.
“Over the course of their 50-plus years together, Jack and George went from losing their jobs and being forced to hide their love to celebrating last year as the first same-sex couple to legally marry in Dallas County,” Rawlings continued. “I consider it an honor to have spent some time with Jack and I hope it gives George some comfort to know that his city and many across the country are mourning with him.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 2 at Northaven United Methodist Church, 11211 Preston Road. Donations may be made to the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce, The Dallas Way or the Northaven Youth Fund.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2016.