The idea to send a few pizzas to soldiers serving overseas came from his teenage son in 2008 during dinner in their Elk Grove Village home. But the seed for Mark Evans' "Pizza 4 Patriots" campaign that has fed almost a half-million fighting men and women was planted long ago by his parents, Bob and Clara Evans.
During World War II, Bob Evans saw heavy combat action on Pacific islands with the 96th Joint Assault Signal Company Army Division. Clara took a job with Douglas Aircraft in the "Rosie the Riveter" campaign, making bombers in a massive hangar at what is now O'Hare International Airport.
"I really respected my dad for what he did. I wanted to be like him," says Mark Evans, 53, explaining how his "Greatest Generation" dad and mom got married after their service in the war and raised seven kids. "My parents are responsible people. Do your duty and then think about yourself."
After graduating from Elk Grove High School, Mark Evans enlisted in the Air Force Reserve in 1978.
"I served 26 years in the regular reserves and met three presidents," he says, recalling how he shook hands with Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
In his civilian life, he worked with various telephone companies and is still a veteran cable-splicer for AT&T.
When called to active duty, he was a master sergeant with a reputation for being able to get things done. Working in communications construction, Evans served in far-flung places including Africa, Central America, Japan, Area 51 in the Mojave Desert and the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea, where he could see the sun glinting off the weapons of nearby snipers.
He knows what it is like to be far away from family, home and anything familiar. In the 1990s, he shipped 50 pizzas to troops in Bosnia with the generosity of Lou Malnati's Pizzeria.
So in 2008, when his son Kent asked if the soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq had pizza, Evans, still the guy known for being able to get things done, emailed then-Gen. David Petraeus in June with his plan to ship 300 pizzas for July 4. Within hours, Petraeus emailed back, "Nothing's more important ... than the support of those at home."
The idea blossomed and DHL, the international logistics and delivery company, donated its services to deliver 2,000 pizzas packed in dry ice that first year. Since then, the not-for-profit Pizzas 4 Patriots and DHL have delivered pizzas every Fourth of July and expanded the program to include Super Bowl Sunday and some other events such as Veterans Day at military hospitals.
The latest batch of 21,000 pizzas will leave Chicago on Tuesday during a festive send-off featuring Evans, Gov. Pat Quinn, the Pipes & Drums of the Chicago Police Department and officials from DHL Express and veteran organizations. Since the program began, Pizzas 4 Patriots has worked with DHL Express to send more than 122,000 pizzas and feed approximately 488,000 U.S. military personnel overseas.
"We don't put a dollar sign on it. It's more about the personal value," Mike Taylor, DHL Express' global senior manager for U.S. government operations, says of the pizza delivery to troops. "There is no other morale-booster around that is like that. It is very emotional for them. It reminds them of why they are there. It reminds them of the family back home."
While the delivery is unique and can face challenges including extreme heat and cold, sandstorms and unexpected military action, "we have not lost one single pizza," says Taylor, who adds that DHL Express makes deliveries to that area of the world every day of the year. The pizzas go from Chicago to the DHL Express hub in Cincinnati. Packed in dry ice, they are loaded onto a direct 17-hour flight to the island nation of Bahrain, where they are repacked to ensure they stay frozen, Taylor says. Most pizzas are delivered within 20 hours, and even the most remote outposts have the pizzas in less than 36 hours, Taylor adds.
Attempts to let Evans see the end result of his efforts hit snags for various reasons at home and abroad. Once scheduled to eat pizza with Gen. Petraeus and Vice President Joe Biden and the troops in Iraq, Evans got stranded in Bahrain because of a sandstorm.
He remembers thinking, "I'm 53. I don't want to go to a desert on the other side of the world to eat pizza."
Then he spent a July 4 at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
"I shed many tears. I couldn't believe it," Evans says, recalling an emotional moment with a young soldier from Chicago who was about to board a helicopter when he spotted the pizza. "He stood there: 'Oh my, God! Oh my, God! I'm home!' He was crying."
Many of the soldiers are just a couple of years removed from being teenagers who celebrated everything from football games to school plays with pizza. "After everything they did, it was, 'Let's have a pizza party,'" Evans says. "When they get a pizza, it says, you did a good job."
Evans' mom says her son has done a good job.
"He is so happy doing that," says Clara Evans, 85, who still lives in Elk Grove Village and remembers how her son always managed to make a dream come true. A shy boy, Mark Evans wanted a dog. He worked jobs and saved money.
"He paid $50 for Daisy (a Belgian Malinois)," says the mom, who remembers her happy son coming home on his bike, cradling the puppy.
His father died on Jan. 7 at age 89, but Mark Evans and his wife, Gail, remain a military family. Their oldest daughter, Air Force Capt. Melissa Evans, 25, has flown 47 missions in the Middle East, her dad says. Daughter Samantha, 21, is a student at the University of New Mexico and wants to become a veterinarian. Kent, 20, attends the Illinois Institute of Technology on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and will join the service when his schooling is done.
And Mark Evans is a celebrity on certain days of the year.
"I go on 'Fox & Friends' and CNN and limos pick me up, and the next day I'm in a snowy backyard working on a can," Evans says, using the slang term for those boxes that hold all the communication wires for suburban homeowners.
The operation has grown into such a major enterprise, Pizza 4 Patriots now has its own pizza-making operation. It also has plenty of corporate sponsors and individual donors, and shows no signs of stopping.
"God gave this to us," Evans says with an appreciative chuckle. "How do you tell God to shut it off?"
Pizza: Group now has its own pizza-making operation