During the summer of 1969, a young Lester Evans could hear the music from his bed in the barracks of the Reserve Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.

Nearby, the Newport Jazz Festival was under way and Evans distinctly remembers listening to the band Blood, Sweat & Tears, who capped a seven-song set list with the encore, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”

Half a century later, a hint of that refrain still lingers within the former Navy lieutenant and PT boat skipper. He has devoted significant time to eliciting smiles, first over 28 years as a Kora Shriner Clown. More recently, he’s served as a volunteer with Vet to Vet Maine and as a volunteer trainee with the Travis Mills Foundation, which provides free family vacations at its lakeside retreat in the central Maine town of Rome for post-9/11 veterans injured in active duty or as a result of their service.

A portrait of Lester Evans from 50 years ago. Evans served in the Navy aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and later as a PT Boat skipper in San Diego. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

And what does Evans get in return?

“Joy,” he said. “Just being able to connect with these people. See how their life is better because I spent time with them. Give them a chance to relax and feel good.”

Born in Bridgton and raised in Waltham, Massachusetts, Evans was part of the last all-male class at Bowdoin College. In the summers sandwiching his senior year he trained in Newport and upon graduation in 1970, signed up “for the biggest ship with the most schooling that went the furthest.”

The Navy assigned him to an aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, as an engineering supervisor in charge of 120 sailors. Stationed off the coast of North Vietnam, the Kitty Hawk took turns with other nearby carriers sending aircraft on bombing runs.

Although never attacked, Evans recalled twice going to GQ, or general quarters, also known as battle stations.

“That’s when some Russian Bears came over,” he said, referring to the giant, propeller-driven Soviet bombers. “The first time we went to GQ. The second time we went to GQ. The third time we all went up on deck and took pictures.”

Evans laughed as he recalled the story.

“They cast a big shadow over the ship,” he said. “It was kind of like the start of Top Gun. We were waving at them. They were waving at us. But we didn’t know the first couple times.”

In the summer of 1972, the Navy sent Evans to San Diego as the skipper of PTF-21. His job was to train other sailors in patrol torpedo boat warfare. He remained in California until February 1974, a little more than a year before the end of the war in Vietnam.

“They were shrinking down and gave a lot of junior officers early outs,” he said. “I was a reserve officer. I wasn’t career minded.”

A biology major at Bowdoin, Evans returned to the family business, Harris Evans Associates, which owns apartment houses. He earned a real estate license, got married and, at 71, still dabbles in real estate. He and his wife, Nikki, live in Cumberland.

Looking back on his three years in the military, Evans realizes his good fortune. He spent many boring hours on watch duty, but the Navy also brought him to Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Five years ago, inspired in part by concern over the alarming number of suicides among veterans, he became involved with Vet to Vet.

“What happens with vet services is a mixed bag,” Evans said. “I’ve heard some horrible stories and I’ve heard some fantastic stories. I can tell you about as many people who have done well with the (Veterans Administration) as there are stories out there that aren’t.”

The Vet to Vet program matches able-bodied veterans with those facing challenges – physically, emotionally or both. The first match for Evans was with a World War II veteran in his 90s.

“It’s all about listening, about being able to connect with the good stuff and make us feel good about the time we put in,” Evans said. “Just seeing people moving to a positive experience with their military past.”

Although he served in leadership roles in the Navy, Evans prefers to keep a low profile in civilian life. He doesn’t serve on boards and doesn’t want his name on plaques.

“If I’m going to take an evening and spend some time, I want to be with another vet, or doing something for vets, rather than sitting around dealing with policy,” he said. “I’m a support-type person. I like being in the trenches. I help.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: