Elaine Evans couldn’t bear to see a piece of land go unused.
To her, practically every vacant lot in Akron held the potential for growing food.
“Every time she saw a 10-by-10 piece of property, she wanted a garden,” her friend Bonnie Lias of Akron said with a laugh.
The indefatigable Ms. Evans was the founder of Let’s Grow Akron, the grass-roots organization that helps neighborhoods turn unused parcels into community gardens.
Wednesday night, she died at age 75 in the South Akron home she loved. She was diagnosed Nov. 12 with lung cancer that had spread to her bones, and she had suffered a serious fall earlier Wednesday, her son, Eric Evans, said.
Ms. Evans’ interest in community gardening was rooted in her childhood on a North Carolina farm and in her faith in God. She would often say she started Let’s Grow Akron because she couldn’t stand seeing so many vacant lots around Akron that could be producing food for people in need.
“I have a very strong spiritual background and feel that we should be concerned about others,” she once told a reporter. “This is a God-given gift for me, and I feel I should use it.”
The organization also sprang from her longtime commitment to bettering her community.
As a young single mother in the Summit Lake area in the 1960s, Ms. Evans became involved in the Southwest Akron Citizens Council, which worked with the city of Akron to help residents improve their property. That’s how she met Lias, who became her close friend.
The two later became community organizers for the Model Cities program, which made improvements in the area in the early 1970s.
It was while she was working for the city of Akron, though, that Ms. Evans became aware of the large number of vacant lots in the city and got the idea of turning them into gardens.
At age 50, she went back to college to earn a degree in horticulture from Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute and started laying the groundwork for Let’s Grow Akron, which she started in 1988.
She would spot vacant lots she thought would make good community gardens and research the property records to find out whether the owners were delinquent in paying their property taxes. If they were, she’d call in her volunteers to clear the land and prepare it for planting.
She wouldn’t bother to contact the property owners.
“We just do it,” she said at the time.
The program has since grown to include educational efforts and children’s gardening programs. It also turned an illegal dump near Summit Lake into a children’s garden, complete with a pond, vegetable and flower gardens, playful sculptures, a prairie house for children to play in and a 60-foot replica of a canalboat.
Ms. Evans had a knack for recruiting volunteers, Lias said. “She had gardeners all over the place. Gardeners everywhere.”
In many cases, they were willing to help because they knew Ms. Evans respected them, said Lisa Nunn, who met Ms. Evans as a volunteer community gardener and was groomed by her to take over as director of Let’s Grow Akron.
Ms. Evans interacted with people of all ages and stations of life, Nunn said, and she treated everyone the same.
“She didn’t judge or look down on anybody,” she said.
She wasn’t afraid of anyone, either, Nunn said. She remembers Ms. Evans knocking on the door of a Hells Angels clubhouse to recruit the members for some project.
It was all in keeping with her can-do attitude. When someone would say she couldn’t do something, “that gave her the fire and motivation to say, ‘Yes, I can,’ ” Eric Evans said.
He remembers helping his mother plant a tree in their front yard shortly after their house was built in 1971, when he was 9. The yard was just construction fill covered with a thin layer of soil, he said, but his mother persisted.
As they dug, they kept encountering rocks, bricks and other debris.
“It took a while to dig the hole,” he said with understatement.
But the tree survived against the odds, he said, and it’s thriving today.
It is, in a way, a metaphor for Ms. Evans’ life.
Besides Eric Evans, who lives in Port Clinton, Ms. Evans leaves three other children, Suzanne Trimmer of New Philadelphia, Joy Lynn Rose of Orlando, Fla., and Kelly Evans of Akron; a brother, Danny Bobich of Akron; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her companion, Jack Taylor, and a grandson, Joey Riccardi.
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Hummel Funeral Home, 500 E. Exchange St., Akron. Calling hours will start at noon.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.