working the frisco line
The Amazing Life of William Lee Evans
by T.R. Scott
To learn more about the ministry of the Free Will Baptist Foundation, visit www.fwbgifts.org.
Note: William Lee Evans died July 19, 2007, shortly after he was interviewed for this article.
TWENTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD WILLIAM Lee Evans could have modeled for a U.S. Army recruiting poster when the shooting started in World War II. He brushed six feet tall with a drill sergeant’s voice, and packed 175 pounds of bull-strong American boy behind steel-blue eyes. He expected to carry a rifle and bayonet until the draft board classified him 4-F.
The government declared his Frisco Railroad job vital to the war effort and kept him stateside mending a rail system that transported men and equipment. Then, too, he was married with two children and an “indirect hernia that didn’t amount to much.”
Silver-haired Lee Evans turns 90 next February 13, and has paid taxes in Springfield, Missouri, since June 13, 1948, when Frisco Railroad promoted him to mechanic and pulled up his Alabama roots. The only child of his father’s second wife, he was raised by grandparents who were sharecroppers after his mother died when he was seven days old. He remembers seeing his father one time.
Not School Material
Born in Hazen, Arkansas, Lee shifted with his grandparents to Alabama, on to the boot heel (MO), and back to Alabama by the time he started school.
“I wasn’t good school material,” he rumbled. “Never had a good memory for dates and didn’t get past the eighth grade.”
But something beautiful happened to him at a Free Will Baptist church after he quit school and started farming. Her name was Braxine (no middle name) McDaniel. Lee was converted at 17 and married Braxine two years later. They missed their 50th anniversary by three months.
The marriage produced two children. Daughter Margaret (Mrs. Ralph Hampton) is library manager at Free Will Baptist Bible College. Son Bill (former Bryan fullback and now the Reverend William Evans) retired in July 2007 as general director of the Free Will Baptist Foundation.
Riding the Rails
Times were tough and jobs scarce when Lee and Braxine married in 1936. He farmed a few years, then looked for public work.
“I followed a guy to Lumber City (GA) and worked at a sawmill for a year,” he said. “He lost his shirt, and I took a job with the Hollis Lumber Company in Mississippi. The foreman was difficult and singled me out publicly for criticism. They told us our jobs had been frozen, and we couldn’t quit. But the day I confronted the foreman, I lost the job I couldn’t quit!”
Lee caught a train to the Amory depot, arriving at 3:00 a.m. Seeing men loading materials, he gave them a hand with the heavy stuff. They found out he needed work and sent him to a Frisco Railroad clerk. He had a job by noon that he kept 35 years.
“I started as a welder’s helper,” Lee said. “The welding gang repaired 39-foot rails, building up the ends that wore down. Our job was to prevent railroad emergencies. We worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and lived in bunk cars. They’d hook an engine to our bunk car and haul us where the work was.”
Lee began operating special equipment…driving Ford tractors and doing ditch work with D-4 and D-7 Caterpillars. Then came the 1948 promotion to mechanic with its stipulation that he relocate to Springfield.
Some Memories Hurt
“I was away from home an awful lot in those days,” Lee reflected, “from three to seven weeks at a time. The work never stopped, and we’d rotate men so we could get a few days off. The railroad gave us a pass, and we rode free.”
When Lee gestures with his left hand, he displays a railroad reminder. At age 55, he placed his hand under a forklift belt and triggered the starter. The machine stripped flesh from the first joint of his middle finger. A railroad doctor said the end of the finger had to be removed.
”Looked like he used bolt cutters on that finger,” Lee said. “He sewed that thing up like a sack of oats,andtold me I didn’t have to worry about having soft bones.”
To hear him tell it, Lee’s wife with no middle name was the perfect girl. Braxine stayed home with the children when they were young. Later, she went back to school, became a practical nurse, and worked for a nursing home.
When Braxine was 55, she passed out, tested herself, and discovered that she had diabetes. In time, she required home care, and Lee was her sole care-giver for nine years. It was only after he fell off a ladder and broke an arm, foot, and leg while helping a neighbor pack shingles to the roof that he agreed for
Braxine to enter a nursing home. She lived another 11 months.“Braxine was the most influential person in my life,” Lee said. “She was the brains in our house. She always honored me as a husband, but she was the spark plug in spiritual matters, a prayer warrior. I give her credit for our home and our kids.”
Grant Avenue Deacon
Not long after the Evans family moved to Springfield, the Grant Avenue FWB Church organized, and they joined the church. Lee was ordained as a deacon in 1952 and remembers more than 50 years of pastors.
He sits on the end of the second pew where he greets members by name and listens to the pastor’s sermon. He went on inactive deacon status 10 years ago, because “it was time for the younger men to take charge.”
Pastor Cody Freeman said, “Brother Lee continues to be one of our most dependable members. He is always ready to go visiting, and is a source of inspiration to the whole church. He’s concerned that he may be slowing down at 89, but during an ice storm last winter, I found him on top of his roof cutting tree limbs. He can outwork men half his age. I wish I had 50 more just like him.”
Sold on FWB Foundation
Ten years ago, Lee decided to do something permanent for Free Will Baptist Bible College. He started a gift annuity that provides an annual revenue stream for himself now and will generate funds for FWBBCafterhe dies.
“I’ve always supported FWBBC,” he said. “I was never a big contributor, just a regular one. I wanted tocontinue helping them in the future. Then, too, after Bill started working with the FWB Foundation, I wanted to get on board with them also.”
He has established six gift annuities through the Foundation. The annuity rates get better each year as he ages, plus he has a fixed income for life.
“These gift annuities make me look smarter than I am,” Lee laughed. “I’d advise laymen and preachers, old and young, to invest in the Lord’s work financially with the Foundation. It’s one of the best things I ever did.”
Lee seldom turns on his home air conditioner, and he still mows his yard. He climbs stairs, has sharp vision, and can hear a quarter drop in the offering plate.
“Oh, I like a good Western movie,” he said. “I’ll read the newspaper, and I read The Book. But I do a lot of gardening.”
His 50-foot-wide garden plot with 45-foot rows produces corn, okra, beans, peas, and tomatoes. By late June, he had canned 21 quarts of snap beans.
Asked what he does with the vegetables, he grinned, “Well, I eat some, I can some, I give away some, and I sell some.”
Lee has lived alone 21 years. “One good thing about working for the railroad,” he said, “is that I learned how to be alone. When Braxine died, I was already use to being alone.”
William Lee Evans is an amazing man who says he’s not as ornery as he looks and doesn’t blow his own horn. A church full of people in Springfield love him like a father. The only person who does not understand what a treasure he is to the community is the former Frisco Railroad mechanic…who is never alone.
T.R. Scott is a free-lance writer from Nashville, TN. A journalist for more than 35 years, his articles are featured often in ONE Magazine
“Daddy is very family-oriented. The summer I was to get married, Mother and Daddy talked about going to Canada on vacation. Mother suggested waiting until after the wedding so we wouldn’t be rushed. Daddy said, ‘No, if we can’t all go, then none of us will.’
“Daddy worked for the railroad and was on an expense account when he traveled. He had to pay up front and then turn in his account. Often when he would need to leave town, he was short on cash.
“Bill and I had piggy banks that Daddy fed, so he knew there would be a little money in them. Many times we came home from school to find a note that Daddy had to ‘borrow’ our money. When he repaid, he always paid with interest. We were glad for him to ‘borrow’ our money.
“No, Dad isn’t perfect, but I’m thankful that God sent me to him. He has always encouraged us to do what we thought God wanted us to do. Though he is almost 90, he is still an inspiration to me.”
Mrs. Margaret Evans Hampton (daughter)
“When Dad came home from the railroad, it was a busy time getting all the work done. An annual chore was stockpiling wood for the kitchen stove. We would borrow a wagon, go to the woods, and haul in logs. Dad would cut and split them into stove wood, and Sis and I would stack it. He was a hard worker, always cheerful and happy. He seemed able to do almost anything and do it well.
“Our biggest project was the house expansion. First, we dug a basement. Even though I wasn’t very big, I came home after school and removed small amounts of material each day. We built an addition of three bedrooms and a bath. Dad did most of the work. I was his go-fer and light-holder after dark. During those days, I learned the basics of rough carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. Dad’s approach to most jobs was that he could do it and I should learn.
“We always took two weeks in the summer to travel. By the time I finished high school, we had visited 46 states and Canada. Dad and I had some tension in my teen years but never to the degree experienced by many of my friends. We talk often about those years and rejoice that God gave us mature years where we became good friends.”
William “Bill” Evans (son)