In Memoriam: Dr. William Eugene Evans

By von Zharen, Wyndylyn | The American Midland Naturalist, April 2011 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: Dr. William Eugene Evans

von Zharen, Wyndylyn, The American Midland Naturalist

Oct. 11, 1930-Oct. 12, 2010

Last year, many of us lost a valued mentor, a delightful colleague, and a dear friend with the death of William Eugene Evans or "Dr. Bill," the moniker used by many of his students. For my own part, all of my emails to him began with: "My Mentor." And indeed he was: his work exemplified the twin goals of basing environmental law decisions on sound science and encouraging scientists to participate in the legal process.

How did Dr. Evans get from Elkhart, Indiana, his birthplace, to Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG)? As he noted in the title of his most recent publication, it was due to a series of flukes and flippers. I beg to differ with the former part although happenstance always plays some role in life's events. From hours listening to my friend's witty and interesting diatribes and reading his writings, I think his love of science and, in particular, marine science, began when he was six or seven, with a combination of small, but significant events including frequent visits to museums in and around Ghicago; spending his formative years in rural areas where nature fascinated him and dominated his thoughts; and, in what he ultimately described as the two experiences that provided the impetus for focusing on marine mammals in particular: His community was visited by a type of circus that included an 80 ft preserved fin whale followed, the next year, by a preserved 60 ft sperm whale. As he wrote in his memoire, Fifty Years of Flukes and Flippers: Personal Adventures and History of Marine Mammal Science- 1958-2007: "For 25 cents I could walk up the steps on the specially designed railroad cars and stare in wonder at these enormous beasts.... The smell of formalin was overwhelming, but it was surpassed by the greatness of these special creatures. My interest in whales and oceans was locked in by this amazing boyhood experience."

Where did this interest lead him? The route was circuitous, from fish monger to water boy for the railroad; and, when he turned 18, he joined the Ohio National Guard. Soon after, he enrolled in Bowling Green State University and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech pathology/ audiology and since audiology was related to psychoacoustics, the door opened for broad opportunities. This is the period in which he met and married his beloved Phyllis, truly a soul-mate for the rest of his life.

Bill's pursuit of graduate degrees and parallel work with the Navy provided unique opportunities: With a research grant from the Office of Naval Research Voice Communication Laboratory, he worked with John Black, "a noted experimental phonetician," an experience which started his career as a researcher and received his Master's of Science degree in audiolog)' and psychoacoustics. At the end of his tour of duty with the military, he worked as an acoustic science specialist with the Douglas Aircraft Company to study the impact of aircraft jet engine noise on non-human animals. During this time, the cardiologist for President Eisenhower wanted to measure the electrocardiogram reading (EKG) on whales to compare their EKGs with the human EKGs of divers and swimmers; and because Bill Evans' background was as close to biology as anyone in the research group, he was selected to learn everything he could about gray whales in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, an assignment that allowed him to network with leaders in the field of marine mammalogy such as Ken Norris, Ray Gilmore, and Carl Hubbs.

Bill then joined John Dreher's newly formed psycho-bioacoustics program at Lockheed Aircraft until he pursued his Ph.D. at University of California - Los Angeles under Ken Norris. During these years, he became one of the first scientists to work with the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, analyzing dolphins' unique whistle vocalizations. Subsequent adventures took him around the globe on multi-disciplinary projects; to name but a few: serving on the U. …

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