The generous spirit of Alice Mae Evans will live for generations. Evans fed, bathed, loved and reared neglected children throughout her 87-year life, even as she and her husband raised 12 children of their own.
“She always has been a giver,” said daughter Barbara Evans. “She always had just a love for people and a big heart. She never wanted to see anyone go without or be hungry. She birthed 12 children, but you could easily find 20 people living in our house and calling her ‘Madear.’ ”
Evans died Nov. 1 of pancreatic cancer. She is survived by 10 of her children, more than 200 grandchildren and great-grandchildren and dozens of “adoptees.”
Last week, hundreds of the loved and grateful showed up to say goodbye at the Miracle Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis, followed by a funeral procession that stretched six blocks long.
Beyond her generosity, her flock remembered the former maid, cook and nursing assistant for her famed caramel cakes and sweet potato pies that made grown men tear.
Evans grew up an only child of a sharecropper in Ruleville, Miss. Her mother died when she was 2. Farming, Bible study, church and school were her life until she married high school sweetheart Lonnie L. Evans after graduating at age 16. He joined the Navy, and she moved to New York to be closer to his base. The year was 1944, and World War II raged. When she became pregnant, Lonnie sent her to live with his parents on their Arkansas farm. There she gave birth to their first child, Clem. They went on to have sons Levorn, Monroe, Johnny, Hazel, Terry and Anthony and daughters Alice, Betty, Helen, Barbara and Ethel.
Despite having their own large family, the couple took in others in need. First were Tommy and Robert. “The two boys were young teens when their mother died, so my mom kept them until they were grown. And then [she took in] Melvin and Oliver after them,” said Evans’ oldest daughter, Alice Turner of St. Paul. When three children up the street from their home showed themselves unkempt and hungry, Evans ushered them into her fold. The little boy, a polio survivor, and his two sisters soon found Evans “treating them equal to us. She made no difference,” Barbara said.
Alice and Lonnie Evans sold his family’s farm in 1957 and moved to “the big city” in West Memphis, Ark. They’d deposited proceeds from the farm in the city bank. But a manager absconded with the funds that were meant to buy a house. “They had been banking with him before the farm was sold. We never figured out why the man took the money,” said Turner, who remembers being 6 when her mother and father confronted bank officials but left dispirited and empty-handed.
The family was forced to move in with her in-laws until they found a house to rent. Lonnie Evans found factory and construction jobs. Alice cooked, cleaned and watched the children of the Bills, a prominent local family. Soon, she was cooking two nights a week for the family’s Bill’s Grill restaurant. Repeat patrons from a nearby dog track liked what they tasted and soon demanded more of Evans’ buttermilk biscuits, sweet rolls and fried fish.
“My mama could cook, make everything. She baked and fried and grilled and made filet mignon,” Turner recalled. Evans ran the kitchen, planned the menus and managed every corner of the restaurant until 1969. For a few years, she also worked at the city truck stop, napping between jobs.
In 1970, the Evanses followed several of their children to East St. Louis, Ill., and then in 1974 to Minneapolis. It was here that she took in two baby girls and met Robertha Carrington at Greater St. Paul Church of God in Christ. The two became best friends, cooking for the indigent, leading the church sewing circle, singing in the choir and working together as registered nursing assistants at Stevens Square Nursing Center until they retired in 1995.
“I taught her how to sew, and she picked up real quick. We made our own clothes and dressed alike. Everyone thought we were sisters,” Carrington said. The two opened and ran a dress shop in St. Paul until health issues forced them to close it around 2000.
“I don’t think they ever made a profit, but they sure loved it,” said daughter Barbara.