BETTER THAN WE WERE
By Colin Bay
ABOUT AGE EIGHT was when I first met Gene England, and I didn’t know it at the time, or at least I have no memory of it. I may have been accountable for my sins, but not for any memory of things grown-ups did. But the experience was classic Gene, I learned after I grew up.
My family attended a ward in the San Francisco Bay Area with a mix of people: immigrants, professionals, people with kids in the military, white collar workers, some with solidly conservative beliefs, a few otherwise. My father was the bishop. Knowing Gene from school at Stanford, he invited him to speak in our sacrament meeting one week. Dad described the talk as a moving and beautiful address on charity, on the power and depth of the Savior’s love. The bomb came at the very end of the talk. Gene closed by asking, “In light of the Savior’s teachings on charity, how can we continue to support an unjust war in Southeast Asia?”
My dad was telling me about this sacrament meeting some twenty or twenty-five years after the fact, probably during a summer vacation from school. I goggled, trying to imagine the moment, and asked how people reacted. Dad replied, with a certain amount of understatement, “They didn’t like it very much.” Everything I loved and feared about Eugene England was right there in that story: the fire of his faith, how he polarized people, his non-stop teaching, his tilting at windmills to change the world, his relentless anchoring in basic principles, his dogged insistence that our beliefs should change what we do. When I returned to Provo, I asked Gene if he remembered the occasion, which he didn’t until I described it. Then he laughed, shook his head and said something like, “I think I would be a little less confrontational than that now.”
My first remembered experience with Gene was at an Honors conference the week before school my first year at BYU. He talked, if I’m not mixing this up with another time, about the King Follett discourse. As much as the challenging ideas he put forth, the way he looked stayed with me: big, overshadowing brows, deep eye sockets, high cheekbones, a much younger man’s shock of hair. It was ridiculous how young he always looked. He probably also talked, as he often did, about paradoxes and quoted Joseph Smith: “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”
That was a natural for me. I eventually noticed why my writing style was so cramped and non-linear. My sentences tripped over themselves because my natural tendency was to structure virtually every sentence in opposites, every sentence with a “but” or semicolon, an “although” or “while.” Plenty of contraries, but I wasn’t so good at proving. Not much truth came out by my contraries because I lacked what Gene had, a driving force to understand God and make good on his promises to Him, and God his promises to Gene.
There was plenty of opportunity for learning about contraries because I was in Gene’s “Learning to Learn” Honors colloquium with Karen Lynn, Noel Reynolds, and Bill Hess. There was transformative power for me in those six credit hours, and a good part of it was learning how Gene England learned and how he thought. For years and years, not knowing Christ very well, my practical test when faced with moral decisions (and some days that’s most of them) was to ask one of two questions: “What would Dad do?” and “What would Gene do?” His honest self-scrutiny and to-the-bone generosity and charity were the greatest influence for good in my life during my college years, and that influence lingers, a long time after I haven’t been around him much. The fact that there are probably thousands of people who could say the same thing makes you wonder how he found time for all his writing and family adventures and church work, yet he did.
SOON AFTER ITS re-publication a few years ago, I read Terry Warner’s book Bonds that Make Us Free. Near the end, Warner talks about forgiving compared to the higher and rarer capability of forgoing—that is, not taking offense in the first place in a way that would make it necessary for us to forgive. For mortals, forgiving is repenting, after all. But if we didn’t get angry or condemn or take offense, no forgiveness would be necessary. I couldn’t read that without big lights flashing “Gene!” in my mind. I’ve seen him reacting to an attack on his character in a way that was surreal to me: instead of being angry or defensive, he went straight to loving curiosity. “I wonder why they feel that way?” The angriest I saw him was not when defending himself at all but defending a popular teacher who was widely mocked by student intellectuals who assumed Gene would share their views. Guys, if you assumed that, you didn’t know this man.
Gene would not let traditional boundaries—English professors teach about English—get in the way of doing good. After the Colloquium’s field trip to Southern Utah to see geological features, he had a heart-to-heart with the class about what he noticed on the trip. Several romances must have been in evidence, because he commented on the danger and unreality of being preoccupied with each other, symbolically (and often literally) looking into each other’s eyes for longish periods. He recommended, rather, standing together and facing out at the world. You could hear the Lowell Bennion in him, and of course it was the Gene in him too, caring for the lives and happiness of his students and others more than the formal requirements of the student-teacher relationship.
Not much could stop Gene from magnifying a calling, and teaching was a calling. That included rebukes. Our Colloquium had an optional assignment to go to a talk by Dinosaur Jim. Apparently not one of the hundred or so students in the Colloquium went, but Gene saw Hugh Nibley there, ever the learner. He told the class of his disappointment in us and his lack of surprise at someone like Hugh going to it. He talked of how we should emulate that kind of curiosity and thirst for learning. We felt mightily abashed. We had disappointed him not just in something hard he hoped we could do, like figuring out how to make an inductive argument flow in a deductive direction (or was it the other way around?), but in something we really could have done. And it must have been disappointing to him that when I dated one of his daughters for most of the year after my mission, the stance was one of preoccupation with each other rather than facing the world together. I know he saw it, but he had the restraint to hold back from telling me so.
ONE GREAT BENEFIT of that failed romance was to get me signed up for BYU Study Abroad in London, easily the most fun six months of my life up to that point. Gene was the director, a handful of good friends were going, and learning from him at such close quarters couldn’t have been better, I thought. I was right. He was in his element, teaching, explaining, rushing to art shows and plays and cathedrals, somehow getting into sold-out exhibitions through the back door, making connections with people wherever he went, striding with the energy of a twenty-year-old.
Like people everywhere, not everybody behaved well on the Study Abroad program. That was one place—and there were others—where Gene’s desire to see the best in people made him an easy mark for manipulated indulgence. I saw it happen. If you knew him well enough, you could sketch out for him the kind of repentant insight into yourself that he would hope for, and get a break. Write a personal essay on a strong character flaw and he would praise you for your honesty, though all the while you knew the mistake wasn’t something you have yet overcome, not nearly. Or you could get away with doing things that might have gotten you sent home, because his eyes were not the cynical kind that are on the lookout for suspicious signs. Those eyes were expecting to see you do good.
Isn’t that, ultimately, why he had such influence on us? Because he hoped for so much from us, from all of us? Because he thought we were better than we were? When I later co-taught a Shakespeare class with him, he really listened while I was teaching. That’s what he was like. You went into his office as a student to talk about a class, and he shared with you something he was in the midst of writing and asked what you thought, as if you were a peer. I remember him calling me at home a couple years after I moved back to Oregon to work in high tech, and his question dropped my jaw. Gene was asking me for my notes from a Shakespeare lecture that he remembered me giving in class. Eugene England, asking me about Shakespeare. Do you have any idea what that means to me even now, sitting at the keyboard ten years later, with my throat hurting from the tears? I loved that man so dearly.
Gene got depressed and then sick, except it turns out the order was reversed. Making Peace and Dialogues with Myself were among the books I re-read while he was in the hospital. On YouTube earlier this year while looking for videos of magic tricks, I happened onto a video of the three-card monte scam that Gene fell for, which he describes in his personal essay “Easter Weekend.” In the video it was as if I could see him standing there near Times Square, first a bystander, then suddenly a participant, and finally a mark as the scammers melt away. In the essay he hides nothing, confesses his vanity and greed and shame. That essay stayed with me so hard that I still can’t get through Easter Sunday and its sacrament meeting most years without thinking of the lines he heard in the Manhattan Ward and closed with: “I’m sorry in all the world. I’m sorry in all the world.”
I’m sorry, too, Gene. Oh, if only. One of my great regrets is that I let the months slip away without finding a way to fly out to Utah and see him in the hospital or at home. I made it there on a few days’ notice for the memorial service in the Provo Tabernacle, so couldn’t I have done so earlier? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Or a little afraid. I knew from talking with a mutual friend who got the same request that Gene would ask me to do some writing for a publication I didn’t want to write for. I was afraid that being with him in the room and holding his hand, I wouldn’t be able to tell him no. And yet, and yet, no one in the world would understand better than Gene how it could be right for him to ask, and at the same time right for me to decline. I wish I had hugged him and kissed his cheek.
It was hard to muffle the noise of my sobbing at that memorial service. Traveling with a small Study Abroad group on the continent before meeting with Gene and the larger group in Paris and Vienna, the cassette we traded around most often among the Walkmans was Cat Stevens’ greatest hits, including “The Wind.” So when they played the slideshow of photos Charlotte and the family had put together, some from London, accompanied by that song, it was way too much. Some of those photos were so quintessentially Gene it stopped my heart: stiffly unruly hair, tweed jacket, piercing eyes softened by a look that is why the phrase “boyish grin” exists. As we heard his voice recorded in a sacrament meeting just before the diagnosis, I could see him standing in class. It might have been Shakespeare or Mormon Literature or Colloquium, where he was intently making a point and as he did so, forming that habitual O with his thumb and forefinger and extending the other three fingers, explaining his understanding of a paradox, but more humbly than an outsider would think, open both to revelation and to a new idea from someone else’s heart.
The most moving part of the memorial service to me was hearing Levi Peterson share, in the rawest of grief, how it felt to have a critic like Eugene England who saw more in your work and more goodness in you than you ever knew was there—and then to lose him. That’s how row after row of people in the Provo Tabernacle and so many other places felt about Gene. That’s how I felt. This isn’t supposed to be a hagiography, but I can’t help telling the truth about how good he was. He thought we were better than we were, and we so desperately wanted to believe him that it became true. I loved him. He was the best of men.