In Memoriam: Muskegon legal community loses loved and respected member Thomas J. Evans (1952-2018)


By Diana L. Coleman
Legal News

Attorney Thomas J Evans passed away peacefully on the morning of Sunday, April 15, 2018, after a long and valiant struggle with a terminal illness. Evans was highly respected by his friends and associates in the Muskegon area legal community – and beyond. He has been described as highly skilled in his practice area, but also possessing a gentle manner, with compassion and kindness to those he served.  

In September 2011, at the State of Michigan annual bar association meeting held in Dearborn, Tom was honored as the recipient of the prestigious “Respected Advocate Award.” Respected Advocate Awards are presented annually by the Michigan Association for Justice (MAJ) and the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel (MDTC) to attorneys who have a history of success in civil litigation matters, unfailing adherence to the highest standards of ethics and candor in dealing with the court and other attorneys, and the respect and admiration of counsel on the opposite side of the bar. MAJ chooses one admirable attorney from the defense side and MDTC, who chose Evans, from the plaintiff side.

Evans and partner Roy Portenga limited their practice to serious personal injury cases, workers’ compensation claims, and social security disability. Both went the extra mile while practicing together and did a large amount of pro bono work on a referral basis from Legal Aid of Western Michigan.

Evans also served as a board member of Family Promise of the Lakeshore, a charity that was dear to his heart. He spent many years working in and developing the organization, selflessly and freely giving his time to this non-profit organization dedicated to finding permanent housing for homeless families.

Tom, as he was known to family and friends, was preceded in death by his father Tom and his brother Bill. He is survived by his wife of 37 years – the love of his life – Isabel; his sons Ben and Blake (wife Marissa); his mother Joan; and his brother Jim (wife Kim). The son of an athletic director (Thomas) and a school principal (Joan), Evans was born and raised in Walled Lake, Mich., where he played varsity football, baseball, and basketball for Walled Lake High School. 

Upon graduating, Evans attended Central Michigan University where he earned his teaching degree. He subsequently returned to Southeast Michigan and began teaching and coaching football at Farmington Hills Harrison high school with his friend, mentor, and 13-time state champion, coach John Herrington. After two years Evans left his job at the high school and drove to Florida to pursue his ambition of golfing professionally. While in Florida, he lived frugally, playing one season on mini-tours throughout the state before returning to Michigan to become the assistant golf pro at Shenandoah Country Club in West Bloomfield. Shortly thereafter, Evans enrolled in Lansing's Thomas Cooley Law School, where he met his future wife and began to discover his true calling as an attorney. 

While at Cooley, Evans clerked for another of his mentors, U.S. District for the Eastern District of Michigan Judge Robert Holmes Bell, now retired. He received the second highest score on the Michigan Bar exam in his graduating class, and after a short stint working for Dart Oil and Gas in Mount Pleasant, moved with his wife to Muskegon where he joined the law firm Libner, Van Leuven, and Kortering as a personal injury attorney. A member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, the Michigan Association for Justice, and the American Bar Association, Evans was soon made partner at the firm that, over the course of the next 30 years, became Evans and Portenga. 

Attorney Roy Portenga, his dear friend and last practicing partner, said this of Evans’s law career: "Tom had a sterling reputation as a highly ethical attorney who zealously fought for his clients, but with great civility. His Martindale-Hubbell rating was AV Preeminent, which meant his peers ranked him at the highest level of professional excellence for legal knowledge, communication skills, and ethical standards. Indeed, in 2011, the State Bar of MI honored Tom with the Respected Advocate Award, a statewide award given to only one plaintiff's lawyer and one defense lawyer a year… Tom was beloved by fellow partners at his firm. He worked extremely hard, could always be counted on for assistance, and had a fabulous, dry sense of humor that brightened many days. Moreover, Tom always took extra time with his clients and they very much appreciated his help and care." 

When not practicing law, Evans's greatest passions were watching his sons play sports and spending time at the cottage he had built in Michigan’s Les Cheneaux Islands. He never missed a chance to play golf. A family man in the truest sense of the word, Evans loved being with his wife and two boys, and was never more happy than when he was watching Michigan State football with the three of them. Evans was, and continues to be, loved and respected deeply by his family, all of whom were heartbroken when he was diagnosed with a progressive and fatal mitochondrial disorder in the summer of 2012. With grace, dignity, and great courage, Evans faced his illness, remaining active and refusing to succumb to it almost to the very end.

His family would like to thank all of the extended family and friends who showed them love during what was the greatest and most harrowing challenge they had ever encountered. That support made all the difference in the world. Evans will be profoundly missed. If ever there was a good man, he was it.

A funeral service will be held to honor Evans at 4pm on Saturday, April 28, at Temple Methodist Church (2500 Jefferson St., Muskegon Heights) with a gathering at the Muskegon Country Club to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to the newly established Tom Evans Memorial Athletic Fund, which can be accessed by visiting the Community Foundation for Muskegon County's website (