Robert George Evans Jr..jpg

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO—Robert George Evans Jr.

Robert George Evans Jr., a businessman and education reformer, died of pancreatic cancer on March 16. He was 62.

Evans was founder of Con-Tech International, based in Gretna, which sells steel drum parts and related items to industries throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Con-Tech is just one degree of separation from his family's steel drum business, Evans Cooperage, where he began working at age 12. After high school at Archbishop Shaw and college at the University of New Orleans, where he earned a bachelor's degree in management in 1976, Evans became vice president of the company his father founded, eventually serving at Evans locations in Louisiana, Texas and Missouri.

Con-Tech developed a reputation for innovation and risk-taking in an industry rooted in the ancient craft of cooperage, or making barrels with wooden staves, according to Paul Rankin, president of the Reusable Industrial Packaging Association for 26 years. "They were willing, always, to try the next best thing," Rankin said. "As it happens, they were almost always right."

Evans was devoted to the culture, food and people of New Orleans, but was frustrated by the shortcomings he saw in its education system, which he felt was falling short in helping children reach their potential. As he did in business, he felt the answer was in trying something new. When businessman James M. Huger founded the Choice Foundation in 2004 to promote school choice in Louisiana, Evans agreed to serve on the board.

After Hurricane Katrina, the foundation received a Recovery School District Charter and opened Lafayette Academy in 2006. The foundation has since taken on management of the Esperanza and McDonogh #42 charter schools.

Evans' vision for education reform extended beyond the foundation's three charter schools. He used his position as a member of the Education Council of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry "as a platform to be very involved in state policy regarding public schools," Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said. "If there was a time that principles of high standards were going to be compromised, he wanted to have something to say about it."

White said Evans was a key supporter of his campaign to have Louisiana students take the Common Core tests that allow state-to-state comparisons of their mastery of reading, writing and math. The tests were based on standards approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2010.

"What he cared about was this idea that when we set high expectations for students, that they can accomplish it," said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Those high expectations extended to his colleagues as well. Roemer recalled being "grilled" on her qualifications and plans during her first meeting with Evans and the late Hal Brown, a founder of New Orleans College Prep.

"Actually, it wasn't that pleasant," Roemer said. "Robbie was rightfully suspicious of me. I think I moved him from suspicion to being an ally and a friend. Together, they kept me on my toes and questioned me about everything."

Evans was a longtime member of the board of the World Trade Center and was slated to be its next chairman. He was also a member of the executive committee of the Horizon Initiative, which was organized to study and implement the best practices for regional economic development.

Evans is survived by his wife, Barbara Ryniker Evans; a daughter, Kathleen Ryniker Evans of New York City; a son, Robert George Evans III of New Orleans; a twin brother, Ronald James Evans of Gretna; and a sister, Janice Evans Hamilton of Gretna. 

A Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 1802 Tulane Ave., New Orleans. Visitation will begin at 8:30 a.m.