John Evans and Thom Gencarelli walked in the Quad area of Manhattan College last week sharing one final conversation about the speech Evans was set to deliver at the school’s graduation ceremony.
Evans, a graduating senior at Manhattan, was set to receive the school’s Carty Valedictory Medal — an award he competed with 25 other classmates in order to win.
The competition, said Gencarelli — the school’s communications professor, and chair of Manhattan’s “Next Generation” communication program — determines who would be the best person to speak at graduation without saying something cliché.
“I have been chair of the committee for six years, and this was the first time that it was an instantaneous and unanimous decision.” Gencarelli said about Evans. “It’s his ability to present, but it’s also the nature of the speech.”
Evans previewed that speech ahead of the May 19 graduation, recounting his challenges and achievements during his years at Manhattan.
“What is original about my speech is it’s a story,” Evans said. “And, I wanted to convey that as well as I can. If I am to share my life, I want to do so with honor.”
Evans’ story begins after losing his eyesight at the age of 5 in what doctors at the time thought was a rare genetic disorder. But he learned the real cause in 2014.
After friends and family had commented that one of his eyelids appeared to droop, Evans underwent an MRI and doctors told him his blindness was actually the result of a brain tumor that required surgery. He wouldn’t trade in school tests for medical ones, however, instead choosing to remain at Manhattan during treatment and recovery.
Evans didn’t want anything delaying his plan to become a professor of medieval history. He credited his family and Catholic faith for keeping his spirits up and focusing on his goal of finishing school.
“Through that experience, in which most of the tumor was removed, it was discovered the aneurysm was not an aneurysm,” Evans said. “I became deeply steeped in Biblical scripture philosophy and was sort of able to emerge from that flood and fire a much more soulful human being.”
Those traits of determination and his can-do spirit are what impressed Jennifer Edwards, a history professor and chair of Manhattan’s history department. She praised Evans for his “tenacity and commitment to his education.”
Edwards worked with Evans on his presentation as part of the Branigan Scholars Grant, where students show their work through a poster and paper presentation.
“Both of these opportunities pose enormous challenges to John because presenters typically rely on sight to read their paper or to create the poster,” she said.
The two created the materials together, Evans memorizing every piece of the presentation and still chatting with people who came by to discuss his findings while answering questions about his work with ease.
“The presentation itself was one of the top three research presentations I have ever seen, period, not just from undergraduate students,” Edwards said. “It was clear, beautifully constructed and paced, with a solid and convincing argument. And John delivered it completely from memory.
“I knew that paper in and out, and I was still blown away by the research presentation’s power and persuasiveness.”
Evans called his graduation from Manhattan a “watershed moment.”
“It’s out of one academic journey and into another,” he said. “I came to Manhattan College to take my first step on my road to being a professor. I leave the Manhattan College having taken my first steps on my road of being a man. And, I do so with the hope that my hope can give peace and light to others.”
During his years at Manhattan, Evans published five literary works, including two poetry collections. He made the Dean’s List every semester and even performed frequently at open mic nights at An Beal Bocht Café near the campus.
One of the last things Evans saw before losing his sight was a film from the Lord of the Rings series. It inspired in him “a love for the epic, a love for the spiritual, and a love for medieval literature.”
In the fall, Evans — an English major with a history and medieval studies minor — will enter the doctoral program at Fordham University.
“I believe for those people who are reading my story and they say to themselves, ‘I wish I could have that type of optimism in the face of adversity,’ it is never too late for success to creep into your life,” Evans said.
“All you need to do is embrace it yourself.”