Eli Nachamson Evans was born on July 28, 1936, in Durham. According to his son, family lore had it that Evans was an Anglicized version of Eban, the Hebrew word for stonecutter. (Coincidentally, Mr. Evans was good friends with the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, though they were not related.)
Mr. Evans’s paternal grandfather, Issac, was born in what is now Lithuania and later worked in New York’s garment district. He saved enough money to buy a pack full of wares and headed south as a peddler. As the family story goes, he arrived by train in Fayetteville, N.C., where he saw a building in flames. He got out to help fight it, and in the meantime the train departed.
Stranded, he set up shop as a merchant, a trade followed by his sons Monroe and Emmanuel, Mr. Evans’s father. Known around town as Mutt, Emmanuel Evans was a star athlete at the University of North Carolina; founded Evans United Dollar, a chain of discount stores; and served as mayor of Durham from 1951 to 1963. (Monroe Evans was mayor of Fayetteville in the 1960s.)
Mr. Evans’s maternal grandmother, Jennie Nachamson, founded the South’s first chapter of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s organization. His mother, Sara (Nachamson) Evans, expanded on that commitment as a regional and national organizer; he called her “Hadassah’s Southern accent.”
Mr. Evans excelled at the University of North Carolina, where he was the first Jewish president of the student body and spent a summer on a kibbutz in Israel. He graduated with a degree in English literature in 1958. After two years in the Navy, he entered Yale Law School, graduating in 1963.
He worked for a year as a speechwriter in the White House, and for another year as an aide to Terry Sanford, the liberal governor of North Carolina, before moving to New York to join the Carnegie Corporation.