Summer 2011

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Alumni Life

Willard Evans: An Engineers’ Ethic

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Willard EvansWhen Willard Evans (McC77, KSM81) walked into his core engineering classes as a freshman in 1973, he looked around for another African American face.

He couldn’t find many. “I was one of the few African Americans in the engineering school at the time,” says Evans. “I felt alone.”

Despite the environment, Evans had always wanted to be at Northwestern. The tech-savvy student from Chicago’s West Lawndale neighborhood built his own crystal radio set in his early school years and ultimately decided to work with control systems and computers. The Technological Institute became his home away from home.

While pursuing electrical engineering at Northwestern, Evans interned for Peoples Gas Light and Coke Co. during the summer after freshman year in 1974. He remembers working long shifts at a synthetic natural gas plant for 10 hours a day.

“It was hard,” says Evans. “The class work during my sophomore, junior and senior years totally consumed me. I had very little social time, but they were the most definitive years of my life.”

Evans turned that summer internship into a career. Now he’s the president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, natural gas distribution utilities with nearly 1 million customers in the city of Chicago and its North Shore suburbs.

Despite the challenges as president — balancing interests of shareholders, customers and employees and always being on call — Evans says his four years at Northwestern were harder to endure.

“School was hard, and there was a lot of pain,” he says. “It was like I was on the anvil, constantly being pounded, but that’s what made me successful.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, he continued onto the Kellogg School of Management for a master’s in management, taking night classes while working full time at Peoples Gas.

He’s just one of several African American leaders in the energy industry. As an active member of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, he wants to make sure those numbers keep rising.

For his part, Evans keeps an eye on aspiring engineers through Northwestern’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, an organization Evans helped to found as an undergraduate. The NSBE aims to support and increase the number of minority students in engineering.

“That’s the thing I’m most proud of in my undergraduate career,” Evans says. “To see the chapter still in operation all these years later is remarkable. My degree was for me, but the legacy that we left in NSBE is forever part of the University.”

Evans also serves on the advisory board for the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Masters of Science in Information Technology Program. He is also a member of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association, the Kellogg Alumni Club of Chicago and the NU Club of Chicago.

“My best friends are Northwestern alumni. I am the godfather to children of Northwestern alumni. I have an event full of Northwestern alumni every summer at my house. How can I not remain connected? Northwestern is a huge part of my life,” says Evans.

And that love for the Wildcats is trickling down to his children, too. Evans and his wife, Debra Halbert Evans (McC79), have a teenage daughter and a son, who already made it clear he wants to be a Wildcat. More importantly, he wants to be an engineer.