A native of southwest Virginia, Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans was one of the first women to serve on the board of directors of a major American corporation, the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company. One of the country’s most generous philanthropists, she also set up charitable foundations to share her family’s vast fortune with others.
Early Life and Marriage
Letitia “Lettie” Pate was born into a prominent family, to Elizabeth Stagg and Cornelius Pate, on February 21, 1872, in the Bedford County village of Thaxton, in the far reaches of the Virginia Piedmont. Her father was an enterprising merchant, and she grew up in a community of large extended family. Raised in the Episcopal Church and privately educated, she exhibited early in life an inquiring mind, an acute interest in business, and an empathy for elderly female members of her family struggling financially in hard times.
In 1894 she married an adventurous young attorney, Joseph Brown Whitehead, of Oxford, Mississippi. The couple settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Joseph Whitehead had a law practice. There they had two sons, Joseph Brown Whitehead Jr. and Conkey Pate Whitehead.
The Coca-Cola Bottling Company
In 1891 Asa Candler bought the secret syrup recipe for Coca-Cola from Atlanta druggist John Stith Pemberton and soon thereafter issued shares of stock, established the Coca-Cola trademark, and initiated a massive promotion of the popular soda fountain drink. On July 21, 1899, Joseph Whitehead and his colleague Benjamin F. Thomas signed a contract with the Coca-Cola Company for exclusive rights to bottle the drink for most of the United States. Their new enterprise was called the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. In 1900 Whitehead went to Atlanta to open a second bottling plant. Later that year, Whitehead and Thomas decided to go their separate ways and divided their bottling territories geographically, with Whitehead taking the South (minus the Chattanooga area) and much of the West.
Whitehead promoted the idea of bottling the drink for sales across the country, and he traveled extensively to set up bottlers and transportation throughout his extensive regions. In 1906, at the age of forty-one, he died of pneumonia, leaving behind his young widow and their eleven- and eight-year-old sons. Thus at age thirty-four Lettie Pate Whitehead, already well entrenched in Atlanta as a community leader, took over her husband’s share of the massive bottling business, as well as his real estate interests. She established the Whitehead Holding Company and the Whitehead Realty Company to manage her assets and those of her two sons, and their wealth expanded exponentially under her able leadership.
Lettie Pate Whitehead remarried in 1913. Her second husband was Colonel Arthur Kelly Evans, a retired Canadian Army officer. During their thirty-five-year marriage they made their home in Hot Springs, Virginia, at a large estate called Malvern Hill, and for many years they maintained a home in Atlanta as well.
Ernest W. Woodruff and investors acquired Coca-Cola from Asa Griggs Candler and family in 1919. His son Robert Woodruff became president of the company four years later, and by 1928 bottle sales had exceeded fountain sales. Robert Woodruff became a mentor, close friend, and advisor to Evans. In 1932 Coca-Cola expanded its bottling plants to England, and two years later Woodruff and the Coca-Cola Company bought the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company from the Whitehead family, exchanging ownership for shares of Coca-Cola stock. At this time Woodruff appointed Evans to the board of directors, a position she held for almost two decades as one of the first women in America to sit on the board of a major corporation.
Philanthropy and Focused Giving
A generous philanthropist himself, Woodruff led Evans in setting up three foundations as charitable trusts for focused giving, a relatively new concept among the very wealthy businesspeople of the era. In the three decades after World War I (1917-18), following Woodruff’s example, Evans and her sons gave away millions of dollars. Today the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation, the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, and the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, all administered by the staff of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, continue to grant millions of dollars to individuals, communities, and institutions.
The Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation is dedicated to the support of women in nine southern states through funding to institutions that serve elderly women, and through the Lettie Pate Whitehead scholarship program. These scholarships support women studying at more than 200 institutions. The Lettie Pate Evans Foundation is dedicated to education and the arts in Georgia and Virginia, and the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation provides support to a variety of charitable institutions in the Atlanta metropolitan area, with a particular emphasis on those serving children and youth.
Evans was a trustee of Emory University and Agnes Scott College, both in Atlanta, as well as of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Extending her largess beyond the United States during World War II (1941-45), Evans made personal donations to the Queen’s Fund for air raid victims in England and served on the board of directors for the American Hospital in France.
At Emory University, where her papers and writings are housed at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, numerous buildings are named for Evans. Among other major recipients of significant donations from Evans are Berry College in Rome and the Georgia Institute for Technology in Atlanta.
Evans survived her two sons and her two husbands. Joseph Whitehead Jr. died in 1935; Conkey Pate Whitehead in 1940; and Colonel Evans in 1948. She died on November 14, 1953, having left her estate to the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation. At her death the Coca-Cola Company remembered Evans with accolades: “Endowed with material things, she had a conviction that she held them as trustee for the poor, the meek and the unfortunate.”
In 1998 Evans was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.