Jim Evans – 50 Years at Michilimackinac

It would have been very easy for Jim Evans to take a victory lap during the 2020 season.

2020 was his 50th season at Colonial Michilimackinac (as in, half a century), and he made the decision during the 2019-20 offseason that it would be his last. He’d be turning 70 after the season, and he wanted to get out and take some well-deserved time to fish, hunt, and be outdoors.

He could have announced his retirement early, took that victory lap, and rode off into the sunset. But, despite possibly being the most photographed man in Michigan, he wanted no part of the spotlight. He just wanted to be part of the team, like he has every summer since 1970.

So, in typical fashion, Jim worked the season and then quietly announced his retirement to staff in November, effective January 22, closing the book on an incredible career of teaching, entertaining, and being a stabilizing and welcoming presence at Colonial Michilimackinac.

In addition to being a constant at Colonial Michilimackinac, Jim was also one of the driving forces of the award-winning and Mackinac Associates-funded Historic Mackinac on Tour educational outreach program that has visited classrooms across the state for more than 30 years. Oh, and those cannon, mortar, rifle, and musket firings that are as much a part of the Mackinac tradition as anything else? Jim spent his winters making the powder charges for them.

It’s estimated that Jim saw nearly 6,500,000 visitors during his time at Colonial Michilimackinac. Additionally, it’s estimated he saw more than 250,000 kids in classrooms across the state in the winter months. The numbers are truly staggering.

“It went pretty quick,” Jim says. “I’ve worked with a lot of great people. You remember your coworkers, supervisors. You really think of the people. I truly did have the best job, and I mean that seriously. It is truly a hard job to leave, which is why I worked here as long as I did.

“This was a hard decision,” he continued. “Things got a little harder as I got older, and I want to have a little quality for a few years. I didn’t want to say goodbye on my last hurrah, I really wanted to enjoy that last season, and I did, immensely.”

“Jim has been an example and leader for the interpretive staff at Michilimackinac, as well as an important part of the Michilimackinac experience for visitors,” said Craig Wilson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Chief Curator. “People ask if he’s at work all the time because he has been such an important part of a visit to Michilimackinac for so many people over the years.”

Jim grew up in Mackinaw City and volunteered at the Michilimackinac Pageant every summer from 7th grade through high school. After his freshman year at Lake Superior State University, he came home for the summer and got a job as a seasonal interpreter at Michilimackinac. He’s been back every summer since. He was promoted to lead historic interpreter in 1977.

“I believe I was meant to do public service,” he says. “It’s rewarding to give an interesting, educational, but making it real, program. When I first started, as a young college student, it wasn’t where I’m at now. As I got older I think I got better. You have to try to feel out how much they (the guest) want to know, then give it to them. Craig (Wilson) made us a lot better. We know so much more, and we gear it to the people that I’m talking to.”

The Historic Mackinac on Tour program started going on the road in 1989. Along with Dennis Havlena, who served as Lead Historic Interpreter at Fort Mackinac, Jim spread Michilimackinac’s history to thousands of classrooms around Michigan.

“To do that program was a joy,” he says. “I had the chance to work with Dennis until he retired, which was pretty special. We did a lot of hands-on stuff. Dennis would do a dance, we’d do activities. To see those kids’ eyes light up…it was pretty neat stuff.

“Those teachers, who are gifted at what they do, they thank us, even now, and I thank them for what they do and allowing us in,” Jim continued. “It’s really special to get thank-yous from teachers when we appreciate so much what they do.”

Any conversation with Jim about his career usually moves toward talking about those that worked with him. While he’s loved that he’s been able to meet and interact with so many people, he worries that the interpretive staff gets too much attention because they’re the most public face of the organization. “It’s a team. I never tried to lose that. It’s a team. I sometimes feel bad that I’m the one they recognize, because there are lots of others,” he said.

“A skilled and dedicated interpreter, Jim has always provided our guests with outstanding programs and presentations,” said Phil Porter, Director Emeritus for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “He used those same assets to serve students throughout Michigan in our Education Outreach Program, Historic Mackinac on Tour. Hundreds of thousands of visitors and students have a better appreciation and understanding of Mackinac history as a result of Jim’s great work.”

Jim is comfortable with the state of the organization and Colonial Michilimackinac, which is another factor allowing him to retire comfortably. He mentioned the entire staff at Michilimackinac, with Wilson and Interpretive Assistant LeeAnn Ewer mentioned in particular.

The other reason Michilimackinac is in good hands is the presence of Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology, and Jim’s wife. She’ll be in the fort overseeing the archaeological field season. Jim and Lynn met in 1989 and were married in 1997 – at Michilimackinac, of course.

“The fort has done everything for me – I even met my wife, Lynn,” Jim said. “She’s the best thing to ever happen to me. I owe the park more than the park owes me.”

“Through all of the decades his love of this place remained evident,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director. “His great legacy, the wonderful thing about working with him is his changeless-ness, in that he was always so positive and always so committed to this place. He will truly be missed.”

So, what’s next for Jim Evans? He actually has a pretty strict schedule that will feature some variation: first it will be ice fishing, followed by steelhead fishing season, then turkey season, then walleye fishing, followed by goose season, then small game with his dog, followed by bow season, and then firearms season.

“I’ll have to pace myself,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll have the opportunity to rest up and do activities, do the chores, have some more responsibility with cooking. It’s a cycle.”

Jim was leery of trying to start giving names of people he’d like to thank or remember, as he was nervous he’d miss some. He did reach out and call Keith Widder, who originally hired him. “I thanked him, and I need to thank him more.” He also very fondly remembers the time working with Havlena on outreach, and thanked Porter, especially for his support with education outreach.

Jim was also very appreciative of Mackinac Associates, especially for support of the education outreach programs. “I thank them so much for their support. They need to know that a lot of those students come to our sites, and we build on that history when they come. We make these great connections with these groups that come from across the state. Thank you, Mackinac Associates, for helping us educate these young people in a fun, entertaining way.”

While Colonial Michilimackinac will open next spring as it always does, it will, undoubtedly, be different. There is no easy way to replace someone like Jim Evans, and his legacy will not be forgotten.

“It’s nice to be remembered – I guess you’re doing something right if they do remember you,” he said. “It truly has been a joy, and I’m leaving with no regrets. It’s been such rewarding work, and I really mean that. I’ve been blessed.”

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