One name is all that’s needed for Tom Evans, wisecracking protector
of students and visiting dignitaries alike.
By Christopher Hann
On the wood-paneled wall of his office, Tom Evans has hung two dozen framed photographs of some of America’s most famous faces. The gallery serves as a timeline of Evans’ career at Drew. When you’ve been the university’s public safety director for 18 years, charged with providing security for every distinguished guest, you get to meet a lot of bold-faced names. There’s Evans with Henry Kissinger. And there he is with Bill Clinton. And with Brendan Byrne. And Doris Kearns Goodwin. Alan Shepard, B.B. King, Cokie Roberts, Yitzhak Rabin. You get the idea.
For the 69-year-old Evans, the Zelig-like presentation serves a purpose—as does the opposite wall, replete with plaques, citations, newspaper stories and memorabilia from the 21 years that Evans spent in the New Jersey State Police. “When the Secret Service and other police agencies come, I want them to be aware that we know what we’re doing, that we’re not starting from scratch every time. The minute they walk in the door and look at that,” he says, motioning to the wall of photographs, “and then look at this wall and realize I was a state police officer, they treat you differently than just some guy sitting behind a desk. Putting all this stuff up on the wall wasn’t just to feed my ego—but it does that too.”
The punch line is pure Evans. He’s known to talk straight and crack wise, often at his own expense. His candor helped Evans transition to a job that turned out to be not at all what he’d expected when former Governor and newly named Drew President Thomas H. Kean hired him in 1990.
Life on a college campus was unlike anything Evans had experienced at the state police. Nor did it resemble his 10 years in the Marines, including a year in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief. “I really didn’t know what the hell the job was, to tell you the truth,” he says today. “I thought it would be like a little police department, and it wasn’t.”
But if there was a learning curve, Kean says, “it wasn’t a very steep one. He loved students. That’s not too strong a word.” Evans and his wife, Kay, settled into a house on the edge of campus. He increased training for Drew’s public safety officers. He took part in Drew stage productions, once playing the prosecutor in Ragtime (with a single speaking line). And he earned a reputation among administrators, faculty and students alike as an enforcer who could keep the peace without wielding a big stick. These days most people on campus know him simply as “Chief.”
“My philosophy is that we’re here to get students through four years of college in spite of themselves,” Evans is fond of saying. “It’s like being a sheriff in a small Western town. You’re responsible not only for stopping crime but dealing with people and their everyday problems.”
Senior Michelle Caffrey, former managing editor of The Acorn, has had plenty of back-and-forth with Evans in pursuit of stories. “It was always a fun interaction,” Caffrey says. “Chief is not the kind of guy who makes enemies.” To Caffrey, Evans is as much father figure as authority figure—like the day he spotted her lighting a cigarette outside her dorm.
“Michelle,” Evans intoned, “do your parents know about this?”
“No,” came the sheepish reply.
“They will tonight.”
Did he follow through on his threat?
“Thank God, no,” Caffrey says.
For someone charged with enforcing the rules on some 1,600 undergrads sprung free from the confines of home, Evans has surprisingly few enemies, a surfeit of admirers and loads of stories—like the day, early on, when two male students walked into his office seeking his wisdom in resolving a romantic dispute. Suddenly, Evans says, one claimed the other had mistreated him, using a word that rhymes with witch.
Evans excused himself and walked outside, saying to himself, “You know, this is a much different place than I’m used to.” When his head cleared, he returned and spoke to the students. They left satisfied.
“It’s not police work,” Evans says. “It’s harder. If I was a cop, I’d lock their ass up and worry about what we’re going to do later. But here you had to fix the problem. I really enjoyed that.”
Kean witnessed many such encounters during his 15 years as president—like the day he was watching a Rangers soccer game when a group of Drew students launched into a chant that might be described as less than sportsmanlike. Just as he was preparing to admonish the rowdies, Kean says, he saw Evans suddenly appear in the stands, each arm draped around an offending student.
“All of a sudden it was total quiet,” Kean says. “I don’t think he said a thing.”
In the early 1970s, Evans befriended a fellow state trooper, Philip Lamonaco, whose uncanny knack for sniffing out bad guys would lead to his being named the 1979 State Trooper of the Year. “Phil made detective and hated it—so he came back to the road, which nobody ever does,” Evans says. So revered were Lamonaco’s skills on road patrol that in December 1981 his stern face appeared on the cover of New Jersey Monthly.
That same month, Lamonaco was patrolling a desolate stretch of Interstate 80 in the Delaware Water Gap when he stopped a Chevy Nova. It’s unclear precisely what happened next. What is known is that Lamonaco exchanged gunfire with the occupants of the car. When the shooting ended, the trooper lay dead, shot eight times. He was 32.
Evans was pulling his patrol car into the Netcong Barracks when he heard the news on his police radio. He raced to the scene and didn’t return home for three days.
Thousands of police officers attended Lamonaco’s funeral. Among the mourners was Governor-elect Thomas Kean. The crime made headlines for months. “It really shocked the state police,” Evans says. “If Phil could get killed, anybody could get killed.”
The pursuit of Lamonaco’s killers would become the agency’s most renowned manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping. Evans joined a team of 10 investigators who worked on the case full time. Within 48 hours, they identified the two men as Thomas Manning and Richard Williams, members of a domestic terrorist group known as the United Freedom Front. Led by Raymond Luc Levasseur, one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals, the group was linked to a series of bank robberies and bombings.
Evans and his colleagues followed a trail that led them to a safe house in Marshalls Creek, Pa., to Massachusetts, where Williams and Manning were born and raised, to another safe house in Connecticut, to a rented storage unit in upstate New York, south to Virginia, west to Ohio. The work was tedious, the progress slow. The hardest part was walking into a state police barracks, where everyone had questions. “We didn’t have any answers for three and a half years,” he says. “That was tough. I don’t think we ever thought we would never get them.”
Finally, in November 1984, the trail led to Columbus, Ohio, where they arrested Levasseur. The same day, in Cleveland, authorities arrested Williams. Manning was captured in Virginia five months later. Eventually, Levasseur was convicted of the bombings, Manning and Williams of Lamonaco’s murder.
After the arrests, Evans and his fellow investigators paid a visit to Lamonaco’s grave. “We told him that we finished the job,” Evans recalls. “To me it was a very personal thing that I needed to do.”
As Evans neared his 50th birthday, he learned of a job opening at a small university in northern New Jersey. He’d never stepped foot on the Drew campus and knew little about the place. Kean had just assumed Drew’s presidency, leaving office as the most popular governor in modern history. Evans figured Kean might run for president in a few years and—who knows?—maybe he’d follow along. “But I really fell in love with the place,” he says. “It’s a perfect fit for me.”
Today Evans supervises a 15-person department that receives nearly 5,000 calls a year for assistance—thefts, noise complaints, medical emergencies, students locked out of dorms, students who didn’t call home, you name it.
Drew’s public safety officers are not certified police officers—they do not carry guns—but they train at local police academies and receive additional training in psychological emergencies, gas and electrical emergencies and emergency medical care. “I’m really proud of what the men and women do that work for me and how they interact with these kids at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Evans says. “We teach our kids to question authority, and we’re the only authority around after 5 o’clock, so they practice on us.”
Evans knows something about authority, and about kids. He and Kay raised six of their own. When one of their daughters struggled with a drug problem, they adopted her daughter. Ashley Evans today is a senior attending Arizona State University on a swimming scholarship who competed at the 2008 Olympic Trials. She has fond memories of growing up on the Drew campus—“with the biggest backyard in the world,” she wrote in an e-mail message.
“My parents are two of the most selfless people I have ever known,” Ashley wrote. “When I was a sophomore in high school my parents each wrote me a letter telling me how proud they are of the person I had become. It was not until then that I realized how big a sacrifice raising me must have been. To adopt a child in your 50s could not have been an easy task. So I do my best to show how much I appreciate them by being the best person I can be.”
Ashley’s father had planned to retire from Drew after the current school year and move to Florida. But last winter Kay died of complications from diabetes. Evans reconsidered retirement. “I decided to stay,” he says, “as long as they’re going to keep me.”
Looks like the Chief might have to clear more room on his office walls.
Christopher Hann is a freelance writer based in Lebanon Township, N.J.