REACHING OUT, BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
By Kathleen Petty
During the first week of my first year at Stanford, I got a call saying that there was someone waiting in the lobby to talk to me. That someone was Gene England, who had come to invite me to a freshman seminar he was leading that year called “Literature and Christianity.” It was to be held once a week in his home, and he was making an effort to personally invite all the incoming freshmen. At the time I didn’t think too much about the effort that represented from an Institute teacher: finding out who the incoming Mormon freshmen were, inviting them, setting aside one evening a week, in his home, to try to excite them about a topic that was dear to him. I also didn’t think about how Charlotte was dealing with the homework and bedtime routine of six children by herself while all this went on in her living room. There were maybe six to ten of us who met, some more regularly than others. I can remember we read The Brothers Karamazov and The Plague, among other books. Not everybody in the group was interested in literature, but I think, looking back, that maybe the topic was secondary. Gene was interested in building relationships, among the students, and with the students. I think he wanted to make sure there was someone available to listen in the event of a religious crisis, or just to talk about “issues.”
It was a turbulent time at Stanford. The university had decided not to include BYU on its basketball schedule because of the LDS church’s position that blacks could not hold the priesthood. The Viet Nam war was heating up—the church’s stand was conservative. It was the beginning of the sexual revolution. I was not the only person among my freshmen peers who was coming from a placid high school experience to a campus roiling with new ideas and energy.
I remember subsequent Institute classes taught by Gene that took us through the scriptures that were used to back the church’s stand on the priesthood-and-the-blacks issue. He was honest about his feeling that the scriptures didn’t support the ban, yet he was clear also about his testimony. It was clear these issues were as important to him as they were to us. He sponsored a “Day of Concern” at the Institute, and he invited Neal Maxwell to come talk with us about these issues, about how we could make a difference.
Gene also invited us students over for dinner. He always had a few stray students at his Thanksgiving table. He reached out in many ways. He was intense but he also laughed a lot. He seemed to have unlimited energy. We took that for granted, I think.
About this time, my relationship with Gene and Charlotte became more personal because I married Chuck Petty, whose friendship with Gene pre-dated my coming to Stanford. Gene and Charlotte and Chuck were friends, and Gene and Charlotte generously included me in that friendship. Gene and Charlotte made the trip to Salt Lake for our wedding.
Chuck and I became sometimes babysitters. We were invited to hang around the Dialogue offices, offering an occasional student perspective on papers, or stuffing envelopes. We dropped in on them at home. We were invited to go to Bearmont—that England family refuge in the redwoods where there was always some kind of building going on and that seemed totally disorganized to me. We witnessed the first of the feminist Charlotte. Sitting around their kitchen table, she mentioned with great difficulty how hard is was to see how much Gene spent on books when there were other things she wanted money for. I remember how intently Gene listened, not interrupting or offering comment. I remember excellent children’s art on the refrigerator, and how I naively said if Charlotte didn’t want that great picture of a dragon that Jennifer had drawn, I would love to have it. We knew that their pediatrician was Dr. James I. Ball.
The final crucible of our friendship with Gene and Charlotte, the event that melded us together, was the epic trip to Minnesota. Gene had accepted a position as a Danforth fellow at Stanford before taking a job at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota. They were trying to figure out how to move their possessions and their family when they had no money. Chuck offered to drive a U-Haul. We would caravan with them to Salt Lake, and then on to Minnesota. There was a revolving combination of kids with drivers; in the end it was Gene and Charlotte with their kids in the station wagon, and Chuck and me in the truck. I should probably mention the car-sick cat and the night all ten of us spent in one room in a motel somewhere between Salt Lake and Northfield.
We left them in Northfield. Later they moved to Utah, and while we lived there and when we visited there, we managed to get together. We always laughed a lot.