Silliman Evans: Newsman, Newsmaker

His life was as varied as the news he reported and later published over a half-century in journalism.

Silliman Evans was the sixth son of Columbus Asbury Evans and Alice Silliman Evans. Columbis Evans was a Methodist preacher. In 1892 he and a congregation of thirty-six founded Polytechnic Methodist Episcopal Church South on the campus of Polytechnic College.

But the Evanses moved from church to church, from town to town. In 1894 Silliman was born in Joshua.

Silliman recalled his father: “He rode all over the eastern part of the state on a horse, and, in the tradition of the Methodists at that time, went without purse and carried his Bible on his horse . . . He preached hell and brimstone.”

Silliman’s sister, too, recalled the family’s transient lifestyle: “The years had their hardships and their joys. Moves were long and difficult. I remember some when mother and the youngest of us would go by train while Papa and the older boys went overland with the horse and buggy. Our household things were loaded in a borrowed wagon.”

Sometimes the Evanses would arrive in a new town practically penniless. At first they would live on “poundings”—gifts of clothing, food, and other necessities, originally in one-pound lots—donated by the congregation.

Silliman recalled: “I peddled papers as a kid in knee pants and solicited subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post . . . and sold the Pennsylvania Grit.

By the time Silliman was thirteen, the Evanses were living in De Leon.

“At thirteen years of age in an era in which there were no limitations on child labor, I went to work as a ‘printer’s devil’ [apprentice] on the De Leon Free Press, a little weekly paper in Comanche County, Texas. The department of journalism of the De Leon Free Press consisted of four fonts of type, an imposing stone, six galleys, and a press that was one of the most stubborn pieces of machinery any kid ever had to wind. I learned to set type by hand.

“My reporting duties consisted of going to the train every day and finding out who came in and went out. I also went to the Pittman hotel, the only transient boarding house in town, to find out who was registered, and I reported the meetings of the De Leon Chamber of Commerce, which was principally concerned, at the time of my reportorial career, in how and where the [city] water tank should be erected.”

From De Leon the Evanses moved to Fort Worth, where Silliman’s father became pastor of a church in Riverside. Silliman enrolled at Polytechnic College, walking three miles to the campus, sometimes stopping to rest at a shelter at the Tandy stop on the interurban.

Evans recalled: “It thrilled me as a boy to see the [Crimson] Limited go streaking by and to see the sputtering of electricity as the trolley wires fed current into the motors of the cars and just to think that there is the fastest interurban line in the world and how grand it would be if sometime I could ride it to see the State Fair at Dallas way over there in east Texas.”

Silliman was an associate editor of the 1911 Polytechnic College yearbook.

He and other students would congregate across Rosedale Street at S. S. Dillow’s grocery store to eat “rat cheese” and crackers and sardines.

But after Silliman’s second year of college, his father’s health failed, and Silliman dropped out of college to help support his family.

Silliman Evans early on combined his father’s calling with his own interest in journalism: In 1912 he worked for the weekly publication X-Ray, which Reverend J. Frank Norris of First Baptist Church occasionally used to attack people such as Mayor William Davis and capitalist Winfield Scott. (Norris in 1926 would use a different publication, Searchlight, to attack merchant H. C. Meacham before killing Meacham’s friend Dexter Chipps.)

After Norris’s First Baptist Church building and parsonage burned in February 1912, Evans the young newsman became Evans the newsmaker for the first time. After the fire Norris showed investigators  anonymous threatening letters that he had received. Nonetheless, Norris was suspected of starting the fire himself and was charged with arson. After repeating his claim about the threatening letters under oath to a grand jury, he was charged with perjury after handwriting experts testified that Norris himself might have written the threatening letters. (Note the headline about the Sneed murder trial.)

Norris went on trial for perjury first.

Silliman Evans, age eighteen, testified that he had been at First Baptist Church on the day before the fire and had seen Norris with windmill manufacturer F. W. Axtell. Later, Evans said, he told a private detective that he had seen Norris and Axtell together the day before the fire. The detective, Evans testified, had offered to pay him $1,000 ($27,000 today) to testify that he had overheard Norris and Axtell discussing a plan to set fire to the church.

Evans’s testimony strengthened the defense’s contention that someone had tried to frame Norris.

Norris was acquitted of perjury and later was acquitted of arson.

In 1913 Evans went to work for William Capps’s Fort Worth Record, where he covered local church news in the beginning. However, the Record was an anti-prohibition newspaper, and it rankled Reverend Evans, a staunch prohibitionist, that his son worked there. So, father Evans invested $100 in a pro-prohibition newspaper being organized in Waco and got his son hired as managing editor.

Years later a feature on Evans in the Saturday Evening Post wrote: “Silliman soon found himself the sole reporter, news writer, and copyreader for the new sheet, whose ministerial backers were much more interested in battling the liquor traffic than in getting local news. When he was able to get some specially juicy item into the presses, he would pull an old cap over his eyes, grab an armful of papers, and hurry out into the street selling them, just for the fun of watching people read his own stuff.”

Journalists are wont to be rolling stones. After a short time at Waco, Evans rolled on to the Telegram in Houston and in 1915 to United Press and International New Service syndicates in Chicago.

When he complained to his boss at INS that he could not get along on his salary of $22.50 ($470 today) a week, his boss said: “Well, see if you can get along without it. You’re fired!”

That brought Evans back to the Fort Worth Record in 1916, where he was city editor at age twenty-two—at $35 a week.

But Evans continued to report.
J. Frank Norris of First Baptist Church probably had appreciated the testimony of Evans that had helped to acquit Norris in 1912, but after Evans came back to the Record, Norris did not appreciate the Record’s insinuations that Norris knew more about the 1912 fire than he let on. Norris carried a pistol, and the rumor spread that he was gunning for Evans. The newspaper assigned a bodyguard to Evans.

In 1917 the wrath of Germany saved Evans from the wrath of Norris. When the United States entered the war Evans enlisted in the Texas National Guard. At Camp Blair in Dallas Evans established The Reconnaissance, one of the first military newspapers of World War I. (Note the photo of General Hulen of Camp Bowie.)

But after Evans fainted three times on the drill ground, Army doctors found that he had an “enlarged heart.” He was honorably discharged. So, he went to Washington and applied for a job in the diplomatic service. Soon he was on his way to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he became a clerk in the code room at the American legation.

After Evans fainted two more times, in 1918 the American minister sent Evans back to the States.

Where he was promptly arrested as a smuggler.

See, the U.S. government had been tipped that Germany had somehow gotten possession of the Russian crown jewels and would try to smuggle them into the United States to finance spies and terrorists. The jewels were to be transported by two or more men sailing from Copenhagen on the Helgoland, which happened to be the ship Evans sailed on. As U.S. agents on the ship watched, Evans unwittingly befriended one of the two men whom the United States suspected. That made Evans, too, a suspect.

Agents became more suspicious when Evans, upon arriving in America, used his diplomatic credentials to breeze through customs without agents examining a package he was carrying.

When he reached Dallas, federal agents moved in. They arrested Evans and confiscated his package.

When agents opened the package they found a china plate that one of Evans’s co-workers in Copenhagen had asked him to take back to the States.

Cleared of international smuggling, later in 1918 Evans realized a childhood ambition: He went to work for Amon Carter’s Star-Telegram

After William Knox Gordon struck oil at Ranger, Evans covered the oil boom.

But Evans’s forte was political reporting. He covered the 1920 Democratic national convention, which was a contentious affair. Emotions ran high. One day Evans was on the convention floor. As he passed the New York delegation, one delegate attacked another, hitting the delegate on the back of the neck. The attacked delegate—a big man—fell against Evans, and both men fell to the floor.

After the two men struggled to their feet, the wounded delegate seemed dazed. Evans led him to a washroom, where the delegate’s nose began to bleed. After the flow of blood was stanched, the delegate thanked Evans for coming to his aid and introduced himself:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy.

In 1921 Evans became the Star-Telegram’s Washington correspondent. Evans became a friend of two other Texans in Washington: House Speaker John Nance (“Cactus Jack”) Garner and Representative Sam Rayburn.

By late 1922 Evans was back in Fort Worth but still covering politics. That year incumbent Texas U.S. Senator C. A. Culberson was in poor health and unable to campaign for re-election. The Texas Ku Klux Klan was at the peak of its influence. Four of the KKK’s most powerful men, including Brown Harwood of Fort Worth, decided to field three candidates in the Democratic primary against Culberson. The Klan would endorse in the general election the Klansman who had made the best showing in the primary.

One of those “Klandidates” was Earle Mayfield. A non-Klan candidate was James (“Pa”) Ferguson, who had been impeached as governor in 1917. Evans traveled with the candidates as they campaigned. So did Edward Musgrove (“Ted”) Dealey, then a reporter for the Dallas Morning News.

Dealey later recalled: “Near the end of the campaign some of us were having a little get-together on the fourteenth floor of the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. In walked one of Mayfield’s supporters—six feet two inches and 220 pounds. He had been drinking heavily and started berating Silliman for one of the stories he had written about Mayfield. Without warning, he picked Silliman up in his arms, walked out on the grilled balcony with him, and held him out over the street fourteen floors up!”

Then, Dealey recalled, just as suddenly the Mayfield partisan turned around, brought Evans back into the room, and put him down.

Dealey recalled that Evans later told him: “I never pleaded so eloquently in my life.”

Earle Mayfield won the Democratic nomination and election to the Senate in the general election.

In 1923 Silliman Evans married Lucille McCrea. Evans was a great admirer of Amon Carter, calling him “the most remarkable man I have ever known.” Carter also was one of the few men Evans continued to address as “Mister” all his life. Silliman and Lucille Evans would have two sons: Silliman Evans Jr. and Amon Carter Evans.

Evans in 1925 broke a scandal during the administration of Governor Miriam (“Ma”) Ferguson. After her husband, Pa Ferguson, met with the state highway commission, the commissioners awarded no-bid contracts to two asphalt companies. The two companies pocketed huge profits by paying other pavers to do the state jobs at a fraction of the fees paid by the state. But Texas Attorney General Moody, using Evans’s research, sued to recover the wasted taxpayer money from the two no-bid asphalt companies. Ma Ferguson defended the highway commission and protested Moody’s lawsuit. Moody’s handling of that case helped get him elected governor in 1926.

Evans’s reporting again ruffled feathers. One day in the Driskill Hotel in Austin, a highway commissioner attacked Evans, resulting in a slight skull fracture.

Evans also covered the infamous Santa Claus Bank Robbery, including the trial in which Marshall Ratliff was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison for armed robbery in 1928.

By 1928 Silliman Evans had been at the Star-Telegram ten years. He, like C. L. Richhart, had become one of Amon Carter’s go-to guys. Carter sent Evans around the state to cover areas where the newspaper wanted to build circulation. Evans visited every county in the state.

But in 1928 Evans was lured away from journalism by Fort Worth entrepreneur A. P. Barrett, who had bought Texas Air Transport airline from R. C. Bowen. Barrett made Evans a vice president in charge of public relations for TAT. Among Evans’s duties was selling tickets for $5 “thrill flights” at Meacham Field on Sunday mornings. When Barrett formed a new airline, Southern Air Transport, Evans handled PR for SAT. SAT soon became a division of Aviation Corporation’s American Airways.

In 1931 Evans became assistant to the president of Aviation Corporation and moved to New York City, although he retained his home at 2622 Waits Avenue near TCU. (In 1934 American Airways became American Airlines. Amon Carter was the biggest stockholder. Silliman Evans remained on the board of directors the rest of his life.)

Evans had moved to New York, but he remained executive secretary of the Trinity River Canal Association. Canalization of the river was one of Amon Carter’s pet projects.

In 1932 Evans left the aviation industry to became assistant manager of friend Cactus Jack Garner’s presidential campaign. Friend Sam Rayburn was manager.

Garner’s campaign failed, but in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by then president, at the urging of Amon Carter appointed Evans as fourth assistant postmaster general.

The Post Office Department was in the midst of an ambitious nationwide construction project begun in 1926. The department was building about four hundred new post offices—including Fort Worth’s—and annexes at a cost of $322 million ($4.8 billion today). Evans helped oversee what was called “the largest real estate company in the country.”

Meanwhile capitalist Jesse Jones of Houston had become chairman of the New Deal’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which was pouring money into financial institutions and businesses to stimulate recovery during the Depression. Among the businesses in which the RFC had invested was the Maryland Casualty Company of Baltimore, which was burdened with bad loans. Cactus Jack Garner suggested that Jones name Evans to run Maryland Casualty.

Jones offered Evans the job.

Evans responded: “But I don’t know a thing about the insurance business.”

Jones: “That’s what we need. Nobody who knows insurance would take this job.”

Evans took it.

But by 1937 Evans had been out of journalism almost ten years. He missed it.

So, Evans got back into journalism in a big way: He bought, at public auction, the Nashville Tennessean, which was nearly bankrupt. As publisher, within forty-five days Evans had the newspaper back in the black. In 1941 he also became the first publisher of the Chicago Sun, commuting between the two cities.

Silliman Evans became known as a publisher who stood behind his editors and reporters and encouraged them to have the courage of their convictions.

And he retained his admiration for another publisher: Amon Carter.

As publisher of the Tenneseean, Evans sponsored special trains to take Tennessee fans to bowl games across the country, including the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

But out of deference to Carter, Evans had the train bypass Dallas and go on to Fort Worth, where the passengers stayed in hotels.

On one trip to the Cotton Bowl some Tennessee women passengers complained because the train wasn’t going to stop in Dallas. They had wanted to shop at Neiman Marcus.

Evans arranged for the train to stop about ten miles from downtown Dallas.

“I’ll give you gals two hours to do your shopping,” Evans told the women.

The women, so the story goes, hitchhiked to Neiman’s, did their shopping, and returned to the idling train by taxi.

Fast-forward to 1955. Amon Carter died on June 23. Silliman Evans, with a long history of heart disease, against his doctor’s advice traveled (with son Amon Carter Evans) to Fort Worth to attend the funeral of “the most remarkable man I have ever known.” (Photo from the Nashville Tennessean.)

A few hours after Amon Carter’s funeral, Silliman Evans died in his room at the Fort Worth Club. He was sixty-one years old. (Photo from the Nashville Tennessean.)

Silliman Evans is buried in Nashville.

The name of Silliman Evans, newsman and newsmaker, lives on. In 1961 a bridge in Nashville was named for him.

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