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The quiet voice that’s shaped nearly every ag publication

Slideshow: What is it to train leaders, inspire excellence and build professionals? Here’s how Jim Evans did all that and more for ag communications, shaping publications and radio waves all along the way.

We’re settling into a cheery afternoon at Jim and Marlene Evans’ cozy prairie home outside Philo, Ill., lovingly described as the “center of the universe,” if you believe the village water tower. A chill in the air signals the onset of winter. The conversation, though, is warm and upbeat — it always is when you’re engaged with Dr. Evans.

After a few stories about his beloved popcorn business, I ask him to share some personal history. He pauses thoughtfully and responds with a question straight out of Ag Comm 101: “Who is the audience?”

Touché, Dr. Evans.

Some 25 years after retirement from a fabled University of Illinois academic career, the 87-year-old continues to ask the strategic questions he taught countless student communicators to ask. He still works with the university’s Agricultural Communications Documentation Center, home to some 45,000 documents involving 212 countries. And he does so despite an ongoing battle with Merkel cell carcinoma. Fortunately, an experimental immunotherapy has kept it in check. A voice disorder, spasmodic dysphonia, has reduced Evans’ voice to a near whisper, but not his spirit or his thinking.

Even today, that quiet voice reverberates throughout the ag comm profession.

“It is almost immeasurable the effect that Dr. Jim has had on ag communications in the country,” says Lyle E. Orwig, a former student and co-founder at advertising-marketing agency Charleston Orwig. “Not only did he bring prominence to the [University of] Illinois ag comm program, he tirelessly shared his curricula as well as teaching aids with many other universities who wanted to start ag comm programs. Then, he would mentor many of those instructors. He went beyond our borders and shared internationally as well.”

For four decades, Evans educated and inspired young people to become journalists, broadcasters, marketers, photographers and public relations specialists, here and abroad. His teaching legacy still echoes through the countless students he mentored, the groundbreaking programs he helped build, and the influence he’s had on the profession. Even today, you will find mentor tributes to Evans sprinkled across social media as professionals young and old lovingly recall how this educator helped them find their calling.

“Jim’s greatest contribution is the impact he’s had on each of our lives,” says John Volk, a ’67 ag comm grad who spent the better part of his career running the Chicago-based ad agency John Volk Co. “Most of Jim’s students would take a bullet for him. He has consistently been a positive, encouraging force in our lives, even to this day.”     

But how does a curious, rail-thin Iowa farm boy become one of the most influential voices in modern agricultural communications?

Depression days

Born during the Depression in Monmouth, Ill., to college-student parents, Evans embraced literature, language and education from the get-go.

“Reading was a big part of our family,” he says. “Our parents read stories to us kids. My dad farmed for most of his life, but he would say hardly a day goes by that he didn’t use some of his Greek degree from college.”

In 1938, his family moved to Winfield, Iowa, renting land and a farmhouse with no electricity. “It was so filled with dirt and junk, we had to clean it out with a scoop shovel,” Evans recalls. By fourth grade, Evans’ interest in language blossomed thanks to some good English teachers. He memorized and recited poems, mainly from Edgar A. Guest, the “people’s poet.” This was one of his first experiences speaking before a group, but certainly not the last.

When World War II erupted, a young Evans got involved in community war efforts like saving scrap metal. He also worked on English assignments. With some help from his father, the 10-year-old Evans penned a limerick: 

“In Europe a city named Aachen, the Germans the Yanks were a stalkin’; they let out a yell, as clear as a bell, saying we’re comin’ in without knockin’.”

“It’s my first published work,” Evans says now with a laugh. “Did I even know where Aachen, Germany, was? It’s too long ago to remember, but I think Dad somehow got involved.”

Lifelong love

Anyone who knows Evans also knows the woman who has been by his side since early high school days. In 1946 he met Marlene, who would become his girlfriend, bride, confidant, lifelong companion and constant supporter. Evans was in high school when a pal asked him if he was interested. The same hushed discussions were happening in her clique. 

“I don’t think I even looked at him until one of our mutual friends told me about him,” Marlene recalls. The two met, and sparks flew. What kept her interest? “He kissed well,” she says, laughing. They’ve been married 65 of the 75 years they’ve known each other.

Evans became a high school cheerleader and excelled at FFA public speaking. He began listening to ag broadcasters like Herb Plambeck on WHO radio. He enrolled in Iowa State University’s upstart new ag journalism program, joined FarmHouse Fraternity, and in 1954, earned a bachelor’s degree. He and Marlene were “pinned” in college and got married two days after graduation.

He headed to a promising job as assistant farm director at WBAY-TV, Green Bay, Wis., an ag TV and radio station where he met Orion Samuelson, a young dairy farmer trying his hand at broadcasting.

“Jim was very professional, and I learned several things from him that I still use,” says Samuelson, who went on to a storied career at Chicago-based WGN and continues today as an anchor at the weekly RFD-TV show “This Week in Agribusiness.” “‘If a story is worth doing, then check your facts and make sure you do it right,’ Jim would tell me,” Samuelson says. “I firmly believe Jim's teaching of broadcast journalism has influenced today's farm broadcasters more than any other teacher we have had.”

Breaking new ground

Evans’ time at Green Bay was shortened when he was called to active duty in the Air Force as a career counselor and assistant information officer. He then took a job with Chicago-based ad agency Aubrey, Finlay, Marley and Hodgson, focusing on ag advertising. He helped launch the Farmall 300 and 400 model tractors. He also worked on campaigns for the Illinois Farm Supply company, which later became Growmark.

These were the early days of a practice that became standard in ag marketing: readership studies.

“I was looking for what attracts attention in these ads, visually, or content. It really helped open my mind,” Evans says. “That’s when I began to understand the dynamics of readership, and I became convinced, you have to start with the audience members — what do they like? What are the real benefits?

“It was a lesson for advertisers: Let’s not focus on ourselves in a headline. That sounds so logical, yet, even today, advertisers can easily miss the focus when they create ads.”

A teacher is born

After completing a master’s degree in 1961, Evans faced an uncertain future. He even considered going back to the home farm to raise purebred chester white hogs.

Instead, he followed up on a job lead: part-time teaching in a new agricultural communications major at the University of Illinois.

“I had never taught a course and had never taken an education course,” he recalls. “But I had enjoyed working with a junior high Sunday school class. I loved it.” Evans moved his young family to Champaign, Ill., and began teaching two agricultural journalism courses.

“I didn’t know if I had anything to offer, but I loved the students,” he reflects. “It’s a vicarious pleasure, feeling like you’re making a difference.”

In his early teaching days, Evans found himself concentrating on three areas: understanding the subject matter; understanding the teaching-learning process; and developing empathy.

“It’s about caring,” he says. “That student is someone, so you try to get to the level of not just talking to a class but talking to them as individuals, tuning in to what they hope to achieve, where they hope to go.”

For many an insecure new student, Evans was someone who believed in them when they didn’t believe in themselves. That connection resonated with thousands of students long after they began successful careers in the profession.

Unlike most college professors, Evans would write letters to prospective students; he would even get in his car to go meet them face to face. In 1977, Sam Meers, a farm boy and high school junior in Olney, Ill., attended some University of Illinois introductory sessions in agronomy, animal science and ag economics, along with other departments.

“I remembered hearing Dr. Evans talk about ag communications and in just one 30-minute session, I realized this is what I want to do, so I checked the box on the form,” Meers recalls. A few weeks later, Meers got a call; Dr. Evans wanted to come visit. Meers and his parents spent a pleasant July afternoon talking about ag communications careers over lemonade and chocolate chip cookies in the farm family living room.

“My fiancee was so irritated that I got recruited and she didn’t,” Meers says, laughing. The 1982 ag comm grad had a 38-year career in advertising.

Focus on ag media

A few years into teaching, Evans realized he needed a doctorate. Prairie Farmer editor Paul Johnson wanted someone to document the magazine’s history. Evans made it his dissertation, and that’s how his first book, “Prairie Farmer and WLS,” came about. Evans’ book details the history of the magazine, the radio station WLS, and the company’s famed one-time owner-publisher Burridge D. Butler.

By the early ’70s, rural populations were in decline and the general assumption was, “You don’t need all these farm magazines,” Evans recalls. He set out to research commercial farm publishing. His team analyzed variables from 300-some publications and came up with some eye-opening conclusions.

“Specialization in ag, which didn’t kick in until after WWII, brought specialized farm periodicals for beef, hogs, soybeans, corn and other enterprises, because organizations were increasing their communications all the time,” he says. “As a result, we found no correlation between numbers of farmers and numbers of periodicals — in fact, farm publications were growing in number and kept growing, even with fewer farmers.”

Evans says this period was a turning point for the ag communications profession. “It made me think, there is a greater future in this field,” he says. “The research told me farmers needed more specialized information, more frequently, and at a higher level. It would take communicators to do this job.”

And it wasn’t just farm periodicals but also radio, TV, and then public relations and special interest communicating. New communications tools didn’t necessarily kill off old ones.

“When radio came along, for example, the farm periodicals focused more on analysis, practices and outlook,” Evans says. “Even in this digital era, when people say, is print disappearing? I don’t expect that.”

Female power

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Evans took students on field trips to publishers, broadcasters and agencies. When a female student asked about career possibilities, one host said, “We don’t have any women, and we never will.”

The University of Illinois program reflected that unfortunate bias with a student organization called BYMAC: Bright Young Men in Agricultural Communications. Returning home from one trip, a co-ed confided, “I’m not going into that field because it’s so male-oriented.”

But that would soon change.

Evans explains that Susan Rademacher was the first woman to complete the ag comm course requirements and graduate with an ag comm degree. She took a job at Farm Progress Cos. and never looked back, spending her career working in editorial. Other early female grads such as farm broadcaster Colleen Callahan, who became the first female agribusiness director for WMBD Radio and Television in Peoria, Ill., and award-winning writer Pamela Cole Smith, who has worked as an editor for several farm publications, blazed trails for thousands of women. Today women make up a majority of professional ag comm roles.

Evans’ genuineness could sometimes conceal his playful sense of humor.

“When I was a student, Jim and Marlene were advisers to 4-H House,” Volk recalls. “Near finals, 4-H House girls would invite the BYMACs out for coffee at the Pancake House. Jim would hand out ‘awards’ to each of the students. One was a candle mounted horizontally on cardboard, lit at both ends. I got it because I worked my way through school and always had multiple jobs. Jim always enjoys a good laugh.”

Evans helped BYMAC transform into ACT: Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow.  Through his academic network, he worked with other universities to develop the new national organization. The group was officially founded in June 1970, with 18 university chapters. Illinois served as national headquarters for the first 25 years.

Evans passionately shared his curriculum ideas with universities across the country and the world. Colleagues and he helped interested universities develop their own academic programs in agricultural and rural communications. This effort, the international Program in Agricultural Communications Education (PACE), involved universities in Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan and the Philippines. In Australia, he helped form the first international student exchange program in rural communications with what’s now Curtin University, near Perth.

Mutual dependence

Evans watched independent ag media fall under increasing commercial pressure, something he began to document in the late ’90s. He and fellow ag comm researchers Owen Roberts, Karen Simon and Steve Banning conducted a survey of farmers, ag advertisers and publishers. That project revealed two concerns:

  • Farmers were seeing examples of advertisers trying to influence editorial content.
  • Publishers need to support editorial to maintain credibility, but also need to serve the bottom line.

The solution — a mutual dependence “triad” — became a model for modern ag publishing.

“Advertisers won’t be effective if they aren’t surrounded by strong editorial,” Evans notes. “If publishers weaken or abandon strong editorial, they risk losing the credibility and trust of the readers; then they’re done. Advertisers will abandon them.

“In this triangle, farmers, publishers and broadcasters, and advertisers are mutually dependent on each other. Advertisers respect editorial integrity; it’s vital. Without it, they are going to lose their market. If publishers and broadcasters don’t pay attention to content and let it downgrade, it will play out through loss of reader trust, and advertisers will be lost.

“We need to keep that role of strong independent journalism in our independent ag media.”

Still teaching

While most retirees might leave the office and never look back, Evans continues to be a tireless campaigner for the ag comm profession.  

“Jim never really retired, he just stopped taking a paycheck,” Volk jokes. “He’s continued to work professionally, publish research, support students and the program, all without pay.”  

Evans began advocating that ag comm curricula teach students more than professional skills. They should, he suggests, also learn foundational concepts, including that of the honest-broker journalist or special-interest communicator. In that role, they work broadly in the spirit of mutual goal-seeking and problem-solving.

“They operate to hold respect by both their audiences and the organizations or interests they represent,” he says. “The role can extend beyond providing news or other information. It involves serving as eyes, ears and sometimes a conscience within the communicator’s organization. It emphasizes interaction. It often involves identifying, convening and listening to voices around a topic or issue, helping search for common ground, and finding avenues to mutual goal-seeking and problem-solving.

“It’s very tough, but it can add power and value to the communicator’s efforts,” he adds.

Generations of leaders

Australian educator Stephen Brown once said, “You are not a leader until you have produced another leader who can produce another leader.” For every profession, there is a family tree of leaders that trails back generations; Jim Evans helped seed the ag communications leadership tree.

“One of the true legacies of this man is not just who he taught, but how the people he taught brought up others,” Meers says. “Think of the people Dr. Evans mentored, and then consider the mentorship he provided to so many others at other universities, here and around the world. Then think of the thousands of his former students who went on to teach others.”

Orwig agrees, adding: “His reach touches more than the hundreds of Illini who graduated from the program. He helped train thousands of ag communicators around the world, many who never knew he helped them.”

The hours fly, and we barely touch the questions in my notebook. Questions that, some 40 years ago, one Jim Evans helped me learn to write in a class on interviewing techniques. Like so many, I feel a deep appreciation for this man’s guiding hand on my career.

It takes a special person to make you believe you can do more and become more than you ever dreamed you could become.

Even now, as the sun outside fades, the light in this nearly 90-year-old man shines brightly. Always selfless, sincere and dedicated to the craft — you can hear it loud and clear, even if the voice is a whisper.

“Ag communications is more than just feeding the world,” Evans concludes. “It’s helping people live fulfilling, satisfying lives.”

Just as Jim Evans has. Could we all be so lucky.

Wilson is a director of content at Farm Progress. Katie Knapp is a freelance photographer and contributing editor at The Furrow. Both are graduates of the University of Illinois ag communications program.

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