When Susan Evans was a high school senior, she was given a key to the gymnasium so she could put in extra hours honing her basketball skills whenever she wanted. It wasn’t enough just to practice with the girls’ team, which she co-captained. It wasn’t enough to practice with the boys’ squad sometimes as well. This drive to improve herself was recognized at the end of the season with the team’s most valuable player award.
“Athletics has always been a huge part of my life,” says Evans, whose parents nurtured a strong work ethic and attended every game she and her brothers played. “Athletics taught me to always be the one who turns the lights out at the end of each night. The lessons and skill sets you learn participating in sports, they carry you through your life. You practice, practice, practice then you perform, perform, perform. You never rest on your wins, just look at the next game or the next project as another opportunity to raise your game. That certainly has carried over into my work life.”
As Evans turns out the lights on her work life at Florida Gulf Coast University, she reflected on her run as part of FGCU’s five-person starting lineup — its power forward, if you will — since Oct. 1 1993, over more seasons of growth and change than any other Eagle ever. She backed up four center-playing presidents and three interims as well as countless trustees, while pivoting between offense and defense with the media. Concurrently, this FGCU alumna (master’s in public administration) has served as one of the Green & Blue’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders, especially during the Dunk City phenomenon. It’s a role she seems likely never to relinquish whatever path she takes now.
Those who’ve worked closely with Evans in her various roles offer MVP-worthy tributes to her diligence, loyalty and attention to detail.
“Susan’s long service to FGCU can only be described as outstanding,” says President Mike Martin. “Her dedication, her expertise and her relentless energy have been central in the creation and development of this university. Her impacts will be long lasting!”
Martin’s predecessor, Wilson G. Bradshaw, says Evans is “woven into the fabric of FGCU — every part of it. She has been an invaluable force to the institution and to every president she has served.”
In addition to vice president and chief of staff, Evans served as corporate secretary to the FGCU Board of Trustees, keeping members informed of pending issues, maintaining connections with the Board of Governors and ensuring smoothly run, transparent meetings. Trustee Robbie Roepstorff, who served two terms as board chair, calls Evans “the queen of multitasking,” who also jugged roles as a media relations liaison, crisis communicator and, informally, institutional historian.
“There were so many more things that were offshoots of these functions that she would take ownership of, all in the best interest of the university,” Roepstorff says. “In all my years of business, I have never seen anyone come close to wearing so many hats so proficiently.”
With that skill, Evans has been able to build bridges of understanding — between presidents and trustees, between trustees from non-academic backgrounds and faculty, between university leadership and students — according to former trustee Ken Smith. He worked closely with Evans during the last presidential search, and says she always emphasized that students and the educational mission come first.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize all she has done to represent students and faculty,” he says. “She cares tremendously about people. She’s given scholarships to kids in extraordinary situations. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and doesn’t look for accolades.”
The early years
Aug. 25, 1997. The date that Founding President Roy McTarnaghan circled for opening the new FGCU campus to students, and toward which he marshalled the original faculty and staff single-mindedly, is a red-letter one in Susan Evans’ mind.
“I think of that date almost like my birthday or Christmas — it’s elevated to that status,” she says.
The day was the culmination of a dream Evans was proud to be part of since McTarnaghan hired her away from the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce in 1993 as FGCU’s first spokesperson and lobbyist — one of the first five employees. To see buildings standing and students walking to classes where once the duo had encountered swamps and vegetation so dense that machetes were used to clear a path through the site, the memory still inspires awe.
“There was just land and the promise of opportunity,” Evans recalls. “People were really excited about it. FGCU is a great example of what can happen when people put their whole heart and hard work into something.”
One of the reasons for that widespread early excitement: Southwest Florida was the only region at the time without a state university. Like her classmates, Evans left Punta Gorda to go to college, earning an English degree at Stetson University in DeLand. Unlike most of her peers, she didn’t stay away after graduating.
“I was one of the few in my class who came back,” she says. “That’s why we fought so hard to get a state university here. We were exporting one of our most valuable resources — our young people. Very few of them would come back to the area.”
Evans and McTarnaghan barnstormed the region in the early days, promoting FGCU to community organizations and potential supporters before the institution had a name, programs or a developed campus. McTarnaghan quickly saw her value to the cause and recalls the time fondly.
“I found out she knew most of the people that I would want to know, and she knew the newspaper and publicity business and had been following legislative actions in the area for several years,” he says. “It became a wonderful opportunity to get to know her. She has told me a number of times how much it meant to her to be part of the family here, how much working together meant. Basically, as we started, it was a family-type situation. Like watching a child grow. We didn’t have a history; we were creating a history together.”
At the first FGCU employee Christmas party, Evans recalls, the staff all fit around a single round table at a local restaurant. She has stories galore, of course. Like the pulse-pounding panic that ensued at the 11th hour on the final day of the 1994 Florida Legislature session, when it was discovered that the two chambers had differently spelled names for the new university in bills about to be voted on to christen the school: Florida Gulfcoast University and Florida Gulf Coast University. Evans and a local delegate ran back and forth until an agreement was reached.
“That would have been enough to not make it become law, and we needed a name,” Evans says. “It was a true heartstopper.”
The importance of learning
In spite of close calls like that, crisis communications is an area that Evans approaches with the same “raise your game” mentality that served her well on the basketball court. A self-described news junkie, she studies wide-ranging real-life crisis situations across the country, sees them as learning opportunities: How would FGCU manage this? How can I prepare?
Then came 2020, for which there was no modern precedent to research.
“A global pandemic was not among the events I have studied and considered over the years,” Evans makes clear. “The COVID-19 crisis was different from any others I’ve handled, although many operational and foundational tenets related to crisis communications were the same.”
In a way, Evans’ studious pursuit of understanding crisis situations harkens back to a curious childhood. “One of the nerdy things I did when I was younger,” Evans says, was to reach randomly for a volume of her family’s Encyclopedia Britannica, shuffle through some pages with her eyes closed, and poke her index finger blindly at a page. Whatever topic her fingertip landed on, she would research and write a paper on. And read it to her family.
“They just rolled their eyes,” she says, chuckling. “I always liked reading and writing.”
She still does. A vast expanse of volumes fills a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in one room of her home just down the road from campus. Art books, photography books, cookbooks. Prized possessions that reflect her many interests outside of work — hobbies she’ll have much more time to indulge in soon. Like spending hours baking and decorating cakes with hand-piped flowers. Or focusing her photography skills on landscapes, and macrophotography — detailed images of flowers and food. Or perfecting her signature shrimp and grits recipe.
After her last day as a full-time FGCU employee on March 5 , Evans took a week off to unwind at her favorite beach destination, Boca Grande. The one-bridge barrier-island town has long been a favorite getaway for her family, which moved to nearby Punta Gorda from Perry, Georgia, in 1977, when Evans was in high school. An avid angler since her youth, Evans learned to throw a cast net to catch her own bait — or mullet for cooking — and has even competed in team fishing tournaments. Her roots are so strong in the riverfront town in Charlotte County that in 2004 she hunkered down at home and road out Hurricane Charley, which devasted several communities as it buzz-sawed up Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River.
The week after her beachgoing breather, Evans started a two-month stint as a consultant to FGCU. She’s not using the R-word when she talks about her departure from the university. Nor is she planning to write a book about the place that gave her 27 years’ worth of material. She has been sort of writing a story in her head for years, she says, but it has nothing to do with FGCU or higher education.
“I will take some time to figure out what the next chapter will look like,” she says, referring to her life, not her novel. “I will be looking for something I can pour the same kind of passion into that I did with FGCU. It’s been a really interesting ride. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to be there at the start and be there all this time.”