Former English Department chair Martin Evans dies

Professor of English John Martin Evans, a staunch defender of the humanities who taught at Stanford for almost 50 years, died on Sunday night at his on-campus home, according to an email sent to English majors by department chair Gavin Jones on Wednesday morning.

“He was a wonderfully warm and generous person,” Jones said. “I remember him for his energetic affection for literature, his dedication to undergraduates, his wry humor and general good spirited love of literature and also his great dedication to the department and to the University.”

Evans was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1935 and earned a B.A., M.A. and D.Phil from Oxford University. He moved to Stanford in 1963, becoming an Assistant Professor of English.

From 1977 to 1981, Evans served as the Associate Dean of Humanities and Sciences. He became the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English Department in 1981, a position he held for five years, and served as Chair of the English Department from 1988 to 1991.

“He had strong views and let them be known, so I think he shaped the department over the years in many, many ways,” said Professor of English John Bender, who met Evans in 1967. “He was a Welshman, and full of the kind of energy and spiciness that people associate with Wales.”

Evans wrote a piece for Stanford Magazine in March 2009 titled “What Good Are the Humanities,” in which he argued that the humanities remain relevant while encouraging students to try to understand different perspectives.

“Both kinds of knowledge, the objective knowledge of the sciences and the social sciences and the subjective knowledge of the humanities are necessary, I believe, if we are to achieve even an approximate understanding of our fellow human beings,” Evans wrote.

Other faculty members and students said that Evans was known for his vibrant personality and commitment to undergraduate teaching.

“There has never been a time when Martin Evans was not at the center of the English Department, and I’ve been here for a long time,” Professor of English Kenneth Fields said in a statement to The Daily. “He filled the room with his crisp voice and laugh.”

Miles Osgood ’11 audited one of Evans’ classes as a high school senior, an experience that persuaded him to attend Stanford and pursue an English major. Evans eventually became Osgood’s major advisor, with Osgood describing him as “very sweet, very fun-loving and very much loving what he did.”

“I remember having a conversation with him a couple of years ago where he said the school had been trying to offer him more and more generous retirement packages over the years,” Osgood said. “[Evans] said ‘Nope, I’m going to stay here forever.’”

Osgood said he was particularly impressed by Evans’ knowledge of the poet John Milton, a sentiment echoed by Kyle O’Malley ’13, a student advisor for the Department of English who took a class taught by Evans last fall and who served on several committees with him.

“Milton was kind of like his bread and butter,” O’Malley said. “If you wanted to learn about Milton at Stanford, you took a class from Martin Evans. He was this incredible master of Milton that we had the privilege of having for so long, somebody who really became a jewel in the diadem of our department.”

O’Malley said that Evans was an extremely popular choice for English students looking for a major or thesis advisor.

According to Bender, Evans was also involved in some of the administrative aspects of the English department as a former chair, including searching for faculty and guiding promotions.

“One of the things that was so striking about him was that he was so inclusive, so welcoming,” said Professor of English Michele Elam, who described Evans as very supportive of female faculty members to the extent of encouraging them to take leadership positions.

Elam said that Evans served as her “unofficial mentor” when she first began teaching at Stanford. One afternoon shortly after she joined the faculty, Evans invited Elam to his office for a casual conversation that ended up lasting two and a half hours.

“We sat down and just talked about his classes and my classes, and he was so unpretentious and so welcoming,” she said. “He knew so much about not just his field, but about the profession and the department, and he was willing to share that knowledge with me. That kind of intellectual generosity is rare.”

Evans was also an active volunteer, and received the Richard W. Lyman award for faculty volunteer service to the Stanford Alumni Association and Stanford University in 1990. He also won the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1985 and the Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1988, and was named an Honored Scholar by the Milton Society of America in 2004.

“He was a University citizen,” Bender said. “He wasn’t just a member of the English Department.”

Jones said that Evans had been ill for several months, and that his illness prevented him from teaching any courses this year.

Evans is survived by his wife Mariella and his two daughters.

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