In 1953, Coca-Cola board member Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans died at the age of 81. She was the first woman to hold a leadership role in the Coke system, and she left behind a fortune that, to this day, supports two foundations that award tens of millions of dollars annually.
Now, Whitehead Evans is getting renewed recognition on the Coca-Cola campus in Atlanta, US.
Last month, the company officially dedicated a meeting room to Whitehead Evans. She joins a handful of company leaders who have been given such an honor on campus, including former chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta and four other long-serving board members.
Whitehead Evans’ name was placed on the Empower room in the North Avenue Tower on Coke’s Atlanta campus as part of the company's Women’s LINC conference.
The idea to honor Whitehead Evans originated with current Coca-Cola Chief Financial Officer Kathy Waller. “She is a major figure in our history, and it’s fitting to add her name to our campus,” Waller said. “The story of her life in the Coca-Cola system is really remarkable, and her influence is still felt today because of the work of her foundations.”
This little-known story dates to 1894, when Lettie Pate – originally from Virginia – married attorney Joseph B. Whitehead near Chattanooga, Tenn. The young couple began a quiet life: Joseph specialised in tax law, and Lettie stayed home to raise two boys.
Joseph Whitehead was friends with a Chattanooga lawyer named Benjamin F. Thomas. They pondered obtaining the rights to bottle Coca-Cola, which was, at the time, only a fountain drink.
They didn’t know Coca-Cola president Asa G. Candler, nor did they know much about the soft-drink business. They did, however, know Sam Erwin, a Chattanooga haberdasher who was a distant cousin to Candler.
On July 21, 1899, Thomas and Whitehead left a meeting with Candler in Atlanta with a contract for the rights to bottle and sell Coke in most of the United States. Sam Erwin attended the meeting but, for some reason, decided not to join in on the deal.
Thomas built the first Coke bottling plant in 1899 in Chattanooga. Whitehead partnered with another Chattanooga businessman, John T. Lupton, to build a plant in Atlanta. These Coke bottling companies became the foundation for a system that now spans the world.
The venture also changed the future of Joseph and Lettie Whitehead.
Joseph Whitehead promoted the idea of bottling Coke across the country, and he traveled widely to set up bottlers and transportation throughout his extensive territories in the South and the West.
In 1906, at the age of 41, he died of pneumonia, leaving behind his widow and their sons, who were ages eight and 11. Lettie Pate Whitehead, herself only 34, was already well-entrenched in Atlanta as a community leader, and she took over her husband's share of the 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.
Lettie Pate Whitehead remarried in 1913. Her second husband, Colonel Arthur Kelly Evans, was a retired Canadian Army officer. During their 35-year marriage, they lived in Hot Springs, Va., and for many years maintained a home in Atlanta.
Whitehead Evans also outlived both of her sons: Joseph B. Whitehead, Jr., died in 1935, and Conkey Pate Whitehead died in 1940.
Meanwhile, through the first half of the 20th century, the Coca-Cola system began to expand enormously. Ernest W. Woodruff and investors acquired Coca-Cola from Asa Griggs Candler and family in 1919. Four years later, Woodruff’s son, Robert Woodruff, became president of the company. By 1928, bottle sales were exceeding fountain sales.
Robert Woodruff became a mentor, close friend and advisor to Whitehead Evans. In 1932, Coca-Cola expanded its bottling plants to England. Two years later, Woodruff and Coca-Cola bought the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company from the Whitehead family, exchanging ownership for shares of Coca-Cola stock.
Whitehead Evans was appointed to Coca-Cola’s board of directors, a position she held for almost two decades. She was one of the first women in America to sit on the board of a major corporation and the first at Coca-Cola.
During her life, Whitehead Evans donated millions of dollars to more than 130 different organisations, mostly in Virginia and Georgia. She served as a trustee of Emory University, Agnes Scott College, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the American Hospital of Paris.
She donated to the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the administration building is named after her, and to the College of William and Mary, Washington and Lee University and other educational and religious institutions.
In 1945, she created the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, which was dedicated to charity, education and religion. She left her estate to the foundation when she died in 1953. She also created the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation.
Those foundations operate yet today, under the umbrella of the Robert Woodruff Foundation, along with the foundation of her first husband, Joseph B. Whitehead. In 2014, the two foundations connected to Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans gave grants totaling more than $53 million.