A FRIEND FOR ALL SEASONS
By R. Garry Shirts
Kathryn is born
I remember D. Arthur Haycock, my mission president, seemed a little ambivalent about the arrival of Gene and Charlotte England from Samoa. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because he knew Gene’s dad had influence with the church hierarchy; maybe he’d heard that Gene was another person who espoused and loved the teachings of Lowell Bennion; maybe he was worried about how the mission would handle Charlotte’s pregnancy. I can’t remember why, I just remember that he seemed a little anxious when he told us that they would be joining us in the Hawaiian Mission.
I, of course, was delighted to learn of their impending arrival. I’d known Gene at the University of Utah before our missions, and we both loved the ideas and values of Lowell Bennion. I can’t remember the exact day they arrived in the spring of 1956, but I do remember thinking that they looked shell shocked by the hustle and bustle of Honolulu. They’d been on a remote island in Samoa for almost two years, where they told time by the phases of the moon. They weren’t used to the pace of a city.
But Gene and Charlotte were soon into the swing of things. Going out daily knocking on doors, holding meetings, and filing weekly reports on the number of houses they’d tracted, scriptures they’d memorized, and all other aspects of mission life. As Charlotte’s delivery grew closer, she could no longer go tracting. On February 9th, 1956, Gene became my companion, as I was the district president and didn’t have a permanent companion. Each morning Gene would say goodbye to Charlotte, and he and I would start knocking on doors and holding meetings. Every week or so, we took Charlotte to the hospital for checkups. On March 13th, I wrote in my missionary journal, “Sister England still hasn’t had her baby.” Then on March 28th, I wrote:
Sister Charlotte England gave birth to a 7lb. 5 oz girl who they named Katherine. We took her to the hospital at 3:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, and she gave birth Wednesday at 6:20 p.m. We were both (Gene and I) at Moanalua (the mission home) when Elder England phoned the hospital and found out she was in the delivery room. We rushed out from the baptismal interview we were conducting and started toward the hospital. We just barely got going when, much to our surprise and frustration, we ran out of gas. By the time we pushed the car to a gas station and bought some gas and got to the hospital, the baby was an hour old.
Gene and Charlotte attend our wedding
After I returned to the University of Utah, I continued to be friends with Gene and Charlotte. When I met and proposed to Cozette Williams, neither of our parents had temple recommends so they could not attend our wedding in the Manti Temple. Gene and Charlotte shared that event with us, and we will always be grateful for showing their support for our marriage by attending the ceremony.
Gene and Charlotte help us make The Last Cattle Drive
In the late ’60s I learned that Cozette’s father would be driving his cattle for the last time from the desert around Lake Powell to Boulder Mountain. I thought this last cattle drive should be filmed, and so I started raising money for the project. When I told Gene and Charlotte about the proposed film, they generously contributed $500 to the project—a lot of money in those days. We raised an additional $9,000, but their $500 was the starter money. The film won the prize for the best documentary at the 1969 Hollywood film festival (which is not quite as impressive as it appears since a strike was on in Hollywood and there were only a few films entered). The film and the 10,000 feet of raw footage are now in the possession of Kenneth Williams, an archivist for the state of Utah.
Gene felt he could speak “truth to power”
Gene more than any other person I knew could see the flaws, problems, and inconsistencies of the church as simply challenges to be met on the way to church perfectibility. Gene was also helped by the fact that he felt he had the right to speak truth to power. I didn’t have the same feeling. I’d been raised to believe that the authorities were divinely inspired and it would be presumptuous of me to point out ways the church could improve. I also believed that suggestions were not welcome, at least by some of the authorities. At a Sunstone meeting in Los Angeles, Gene told me of a meeting with Elder Boyd K. Packer that grew out of a protest of a death penalty (I think that was the cause) staged by Gene, Brother Bennion, and others. When the apostle came into the room, he looked at Gene and said, “What is he doing here?” His hostility surprised Gene. It was clear that he believed that he had a right and a responsibility to improve the church, and he assumed his suggestions and criticisms would be welcome. This belief gave Gene a strength and allowed him to speak with a degree of honesty and forthrightness that earned great respect from many of us. Gene believed fervently that one could be intellectually honest and also a good member of the church
When I told Gene that Cozette and I were going to resign from the church, he was disappointed but understanding. It helped somewhat when I told him we weren’t intending to become cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking, anti-Mormon apostates. In later conversations, Gene let me know that he felt my leaving was a cop-out. I, on the other hand, felt leaving was an act of honesty and courage. We never resolved this basic difference, but we remained good friends in spite of it. I will always cherish his friendship.