by Steve Walker
I admire the great good Gene has done in so many significant dimensions of our world. I can’t drive up Provo Canyon without appreciating his protections of our environment, the heroic way he fought to keep the canyon a canyon instead of a roadbed for a six-lane highway. I never go downtown without thinking the new library ought to have his name on it, so much he contributed to the practical preservation of that historic monument. I seldom read an academic article, and never read the kind of scholarly article that matters most to me, writing which bears thoughtfully on my faith, without thinking Gene’s had more positive impact on Mormon thought than anyone I know. I admire the Professor England of pen and podium and pulpit, deeply admire his professorial profundity.
I enjoy even more the playful Gene. I like Gene best where I knew him best: on the tennis court.
Gene was on the tennis court as he is everywhere: Gene—so honestly, intensely, delightfully himself. Gene was a passionate tennis player, played with fierce intensity. I loved to see him loping to the net to smash overheads into our chests, drifting easily back to loft uncanny lobs over our heads, and, when we’d take even the slightest step toward the middle of the court, lashing that lethal backhand past us down the line. We used to kid him that he took advantage of his superior spiritual insight to hit the ball where we weren’t, to smash that wicked backhand into the precise space he had no way to know we’d vacated except for his supernal radar.
Gene loved tennis. Last time I visited London, surrounded by cultural monuments like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, historic attractions like the Dark Tower Beefeaters, intellectual wonders like the British Museum Library, Gene advised me with absolute seriousness: “Whatever you do, don’t miss the strawberries and cream at center court at Wimbledon.” I think what he liked about tennis wasn’t so much the glamour of it or even the athletic skill of it. His favorite player was Andre Agassiz, not because he was the best of players, but because he was so tenacious, hung in there so sturdily. Steve Young was his favorite athlete ever for similar reasons, despite a certain lefthanded lack of grace for a quarterback—Gene liked that he played so hard.
In the most dramatic tennis match of my lifetime Dave Cowles and I on a late October afternoon at Kiwanis Park tried Gene and his stalwart Idaho partner Bert Wilson at a set each. It started to snow, snow hard, so thick we could barely see those olden-days traditional white balls, so cold we had trouble holding our wooden rackets, so slick we could scarcely keep our feet. But the DowneyIdaho crew insisted on a third set. Gene and Bert insisted on calling our manhood into question when Dave suggested we might be sane enough to get our shorts in out of the snow. After prolonged duress and momentous dramatics, they finally insisted on beating us 11-9. At the time I blamed my partner Dave for wimping out, for worrying more about frostbite than the defense of our tennis reputations. Retrospectively I blame Gene: there’s just no quit in the man.
Gene’s tennis style made me think C. S. Lewis might be right that the most fundamental virtue is courage, “the price of every virtue at the sticking point.” I like Gene’s brand of courage, the never-say-die Downey kind, the don’t-quit-no-matter-what Mormon pioneer variety. That’s my own highest virtue, tenacity, the thing I like most about myself, yet Gene consistently beat me at my own good game. It wasn’t so much how effectively he played—none of would have survived as ballboys on the professional tour. But I loved how hard, how intensely, how wholeheartedly he played the game.
I liked playing on Gene’s side a lot more than playing against him. Doubles partners wouldn’t allow us together much, so determined a duo we were. Many’s the time we’d be down and Gene would say, “Time for our patented comeback,” and we would. I’d guess our winning percentage together over a quarter century was over ninety percent, mostly because—I attest this from the close-up perspective of his tennis sidekick—Gene played with such passionate intensity, such indomitable courage.
The man didn’t give up easily. Once in a particularly sticky tennis situation we huddled up so I could quote Gene’s favorite tennis lines from, appropriately enough, Tennyson:
The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs, the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are-
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
Gene was never one to yield. In tennis as in all his life, Gene played passionately.
I liked his passion all the more because it was compassionate. Gene was as fierce a player as I’ve played with, and at the same time superlatively kind. In our league where we play hard but none too well, and some of us don’t see too well, a whole match can come down to a single bad line call. Feelings tend to run high; sometimes there’s more debate than play. Gentle and nonconfrontational though I am, I’ve come at times on tennis courts close to blows with everyone I’ve played with except Gene. In over a quarter century of tennis averaging I’d guess a game a week—that’s a lot of tennis, a large sample—I never once saw Gene angry, never saw him contest a line call, never saw him so much as upset. You’d have to know how much some of those games meant to us to know how much that means: In situations where there was sometimes not much love lost, Gene managed to love us more than tennis. And, believe me, he loved tennis.
I liked the way he loved. Gene shared with me a tendency to want to keep on playing, and would usually echo my “one more set” refrain even when we’d played three sets already, or five. But some nights he’d say “Got to go. Got to get some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and eat it with Charlotte.” I pictured them eating the ice cream in bed together, and I liked the picture. I feel the way Gene and Charlotte love—more even, maybe, than tennis—is the way love ought to be. Gene’s loving looked, to reference my favorite movie model, about as good as it gets.
Gene didn’t love only Charlotte. I always felt about my relationship with Gene the way I felt about my special inside-track status with my parents: I was always clearly the favorite. All Gene’s friends thought the same thing. Doug Thayer fly fishing, I’m certain, was Gene’s favorite. Bert Wilson gadflying university administrations was Gene’s favorite. Bob Rees on the cutting edge of Mormon thought was Gene’s favorite. Tennis wise, I was well favored. Every one of his friends thought ourselves Gene’s best friend. I think maybe we were, maybe we are. The universality of Gene’s individual immediate favouring of us is a measure to me of the largeness of his love. Gene really loves us.
Gene loved truth almost as much as he loved Charlotte and me. He invited me to edit most of his publications after he joined us at BYU. I thrived on that, partly because he was always interesting and partly because he was so easy to edit: I never messed with the England ideas, just broke down into more accessible bytes his interminable sentences which said in their very form how anxious he was to get it all in, not just to tell the truth, but to tell the whole truth in all its complex glory. Gene’s love of truth is evident in every sentence he wrote.
Gene’s loving was always so generous, so helpful. A few years back I had some serious professional pressures compounded by financial difficulties. When I mentioned my frustrations during a tennis game, really just by way of venting, Gene on the spot offered to loan me enough money to solve the problems. Even though I couldn’t accept the loan, that largehearted offer—it was, as always with him, not a gesture but a sincere offer—was a huge deal to me: not just more than my net worth, more than I thought at the time my soul was worth. I’ve been blessed with good friends over the years, but it’s characteristic of Gene England, typical of the down-to-earth helpfulness of his solid practical warmly helpful brand of loving, that Gene is my only $50,000 friend.
The tennis courts without Gene have seemed awfully empty. Even at this distance from his death it is profoundly painful to me to think of playing tennis the rest of my life without Gene. Even now, on the Pleasant Grove courts where he liked best to play, when we hit a particularly vicious shot we dedicate it as the “Gene England memorial tennis shot.” But without Gene it really isn’t the same and will never be the same until Gene and I get to play together again in those splendid tennis courts in the celestial spheres: There’s a huge hold in my life where Gene was. I would give all he offered to loan me to see just once more that great Gene England grin as he drove the ball by us down the line. The daily loss of Gene is as poignant to me as Judith Viorst feels it:
One by one the petals drop.
There’s nothing that can make them stop.
You cannot beg a rose to stay.
Why does it have to be that way?
The butterflies I used to chase
Are gone off to some other place.
I don’t know where; I only know
I wish they didn’t have to go.
And all the lovely afternoons
So full of birds and big balloons
And ice cream melting in the sun
Are done. I do not want them done.
I miss Gene deeply, and, even after these too-long years, immediately: Every day I drive to BYU I wish Gene were still here with us, wish it so much that sometimes it feels like he is. There are days—a lot of days—when I cannot be in Provo Canyon, or the city library he built almost singlehandedly out of the academy building he rescued, or the Jesse Knight Building at BYU, or on any tennis court in Utah County or anyplace at all without Gene. He was so much with us when he was with us, even when he isn’t he’s still with us.
Gene loaned me more than he knew. My life is the better for what’s left of Gene in it, and I can tell you exactly how it’s better: I’ve always been sure there’s a heaven. But I haven’t always been sure I wanted to go there. Some of the people who seemed on their way to heaven didn’t seem to me to be having much fun, sometimes didn’t even seem to want to have much fun. Playing tennis with George Eugene England Jr. has expanded my tennis testimony. I’m absolutely sure, having played with Gene, that there will be tennis in heaven.
We’ll play tennis whenever we want, endlessly, tirelessly on the finest of illimitable inimitable sweet spring mornings. We’ll play the way Gene always plays—fiercely competitively, hard as we can play, not sweat but perspiration pouring down our celestial faces onto our unstainable tennis whites. We’ll never play angrily, meanly, with any indication whatsoever of smallness of soul. We’ll play always generously, always lovingly, always, always, win, lose, or draw, in life or in death, whether we’re smashing overheads or getting smashed by them, with that good Gene England smile on our faces—that superbly loving smile, loving tennis and loving life and loving us, loving damn near everything that matters, that Gene England smile.