Tragedy And Triumph Mark Kenny Evans' Tumultuous Life

Mayoral challenger built an empire, gave it away, now returns to the fray

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It's pretty hard to pick out just one turning point in the remarkable life of Kenny Evans.

Maybe it's the day he finally figured out that living in a car and being barred from stores meant that his migrant farmworker family was dirt-poor.

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Kenny Evans at a recent meeting.

Maybe it was the day the farm he owned and managed hit 12,000 acres.

Maybe it was the day a speeding driver killed his teenaged son.

Maybe it was the day the arch of electricity reached out for him and stopped his heart and charred his hands and knees and blacked out a third of Yuma.

Maybe it was the day he gave away that farm to devote the balance of his life to community service.

Maybe it was the day the guy selling the house in Payson accepted his cash offer, two minutes ahead of the guy in Prescott.

Then again, maybe it was that morning late last year when Payson Mayor Bob Edwards got up in a meeting and said that he'd lined up two council candidates to run on a ticket with him so he would have a block of votes on the town council that could get things done.

"Running for mayor was not something I wanted to do," says Evans, who built a farm that was eight long and three miles wide out of nothing before retiring to Payson, "but when I heard Mayor Edwards' plan to stack the council," he knew he had to run. "Having a block on the council, that's not the Payson way of doing things."

The increasingly contentious race has pitted the domineering and activist Edwards against the tenacious, but low-key Evans. They offer a sharp contrast in style and on a few key policy and philosophical points, although they bring surprisingly similar and outsized life histories to what ought to be a quiet job in a small town.

Both have been tempered by personal tragedy, both have played a leading role on a statewide political stage and both built enormous financial and political success through their own efforts.

So the contrasting life histories and approaches to conflict perhaps reveal more than policy positions in evaluating the two candidates.

The combination of a strong family and crushing poverty shaped Evans' character, starting with his family's migration to California in the midst of a wrenching, national economic dislocation.

"We headed to California to find gold in the hills, but ended up working the mud in the valley," he recalls.

The family lived in their car or in shifting, unheated, waterless migrant housing shacks -- moving with the crops, playing with homemade toys, often barred from stores as "poor white trash." When the children started school, his father decided to settle in Gradsen, Arizona, living in a ramshackle migrant labor camp but finding a way to stay in one place for the sake of the children's education.

His father parlayed an accumulated lifetime about growing things into progressively more responsible jobs running ranches in the Yuma area. Once his son absorbed the lesson of their abject poverty and the indignities that the lack of money had inflicted on his adored father, he developed a consuming ambition that would drive him through a lifetime of 80-hour work weeks, gambler's chances and relentless drive.

His life can be pictured as a slow and relentless flood, swirling up against one obstacle after another -- the level of his ambition overtopping all of the levee walls of circumstance.

So, he started acquiring land as soon as he could, using every bit of profit to gain more land. Heeding his father's cautions, he avoided crops that demanded federal subsidies such as cotton -- and instead grew a daunting array of specialty crops -- relying on luck, shrewd calculation and the Yuma's early-ripening climate to produce labor and capital-intensive crops that provided a high yield per acre.

When a financial crisis severely restricted crop insurance, he joined with other growers to launch what became one of the largest farm insurance companies in the state. When another crisis severely limited bank loans for farmers, Evans helped launch a bank network that specialized in farm loans.

When growers found themselves collecting just pennies on a 40-pound box of grapefruit, Evans helped found an agricultural co-op that could negotiate as a group with the big grocery chains to win a higher cut for growers.

So as Evans' holdings grew to gargantuan proportions, he also became a leading figure in agricultural finance and insurance.

Politically, Evans played a leading role in the Arizona Farm Bureau Association, lobbying tenaciously on behalf of Arizona farmers. He managed to accumulate the distinction of writing ballot arguments for more ballot measures than anyone else in state history, he says.

He also became a fighter in the state's unending water wars, since the ability to secure and protect water rights underlies the paradox of growing vegetables and citrus in a region that gets 5 or 6 inches a year annually. Moreover, the 70,000 acre feet annually Evans needed to grow crops in his 12,000 acres had to come from the Colorado River -- perhaps the most bitterly litigated river in the world.

He maintains that his success as a grower also illustrates his ability to come at a problem creatively -- finding solutions where other approaches produced deadlock. For instance, he was one of the first growers to experiment extensively with methods by which he could increase yields while reducing both costs and the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

He discovered that by leaving as many natural plants as possible in and around his fields, he could nurture populations of hawks, owls, coyotes and other predators to control the pest species that would otherwise consume a big chunk of his crop.

Then he contracted with Los Angeles to pay him to take sludge from its sewage treatment plants. Evans patented a system for testing the sludge for heavy metals and organisms before it reached his fields. Any harmful sludge, was diverted to a landfill -- and the rest provided rich nutrients for his crops.

But personal and family tragedy shadowed this chronicle of success.

One incident should surely have killed him. While inspecting a recently purchased piece of property, he found a large, metal electric company box that had been damaged by a tractor. Evans grabbed a stick to tuck the wires back into the box, but when his hand got close to the wire, a spark of current reached out, grabbed him and paralyzed him so that he toppled over into the nest of wires.

A massive current that had been intended for a housing development that was never actually completed, coursed through his body -- causing massive burns and stopping his heart. His brother ran over and kicked his body off the wires, narrowly avoiding his own terrible jolt of electricity.

To the complete astonishment of the doctors, who restarted his heart in the emergency room perhaps 15 minutes later, Evans survived his massive injuries -- which burned off half of his right hand and required the replacement of both his knees.

But far more crushing losses lay ahead.

In 1995, a nurse gave his hospitalized mother the wrong medicine -- and the allergic reaction to the drug killed her.

Just weeks after that, Evans' son was riding his bike along a rural road when a car drifted onto the shoulder and struck him -- killing the boy instantly.

And a few months after that, his father, heartbroken by the loss of his wife and his grandson, died. The death certificate attributed the death -- literally -- to a broken heart.

Shattered by the losses, Evans agonized and prayed and struggled to understand the purpose in his fierce, 45-year struggle to build an agricultural empire.

That's when he decided to liquidate his holdings and devote the balance of his life to public service. He gave much of his farm to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but also gave large shares to the Boy Scouts of America and other organizations.

He and his wife looked for a quiet place to settle in 1998. They explored La Jolla, California, Payson and Prescott. Trusting to fate -- and seeking to leverage a good price through cash and pressure -- Evans made offers on three properties at the same time, with the condition that he would take the first response. The Payson property owner accepted the bid immediately -- with Prescott about two minutes behind.

And so, by that odd twist of fate and negotiating shrewdness, Evans moved to Payson about four years ago.

He has spent the last decade mostly working quietly behind the scenes, helping to establish a nursing training program, helping to bring a dialysis center back to Payson, supporting the local Boy Scouts -- and becoming a fixture in local groups and charities.

All those turning points had come to this quiet retirement, devoted to public service and avoiding headlines.

"I've decided that there's a message in the things the Lord allows to happen," says Evans now, looking back on all that triumph and loss.

"I'd fought all those battles all those years, I thought I'd take a deep breath and give a calm and rational response. I wanted to help people from behind the scenes."

And then he attended that meeting with Edwards.

And now he's all armored up, making headlines and waging war.

Funny how that works out.

But then as Kenny Evans well knows, the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways.

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