REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS NEVER REALLY PAST: GENE AT STANFORD
By Karen Rosenbaum
Gene ambles down the publications hall in the University of Utah’s student union building. I am one of those gluttons for hustle and bustle, and my life is always in a flurry. Gene has a title like “student activity advisor.” Most of what he does is calm us down.
Late in the spring of 1962, I discover that Gene and I have the same fall destination: Stanford’s graduate department of English. Ah, I think. At least, in this scary new experience, I will have a friend.
Gene will be at Stanford for over a decade. My fellowship funds me for just one year, during which I rely on Gene for counsel in my school life, my personal life, and my church life. Between and after classes, we both spread out our books on the front table in the English graduate library in the Quad. He must wince inside when I unpack my book bag in front of him because it certainly means a delay in whatever he is doing.
Sometimes I want to tell Gene about my creative writing seminar, about Merrill Gerber’s funny story about the greeting card verse writer, about Bob Stone wearing a beard so he won’t look seventeen, about Scowcroft and Stegner and their comments on my stories. “You can tell something about a university by the way students address the faculty,” Gene tells me. At the U, we called our teachers “Professor Adamson” or “Doctor Mulder.” At Stanford, it’s “Mr. Stegner” and “Mr. Winters.” At MIT (Gene refers to an earlier period of his life), it was “Harry” and “Sam.”
Sometimes I want to complain to Gene about crusty old Yvor Winters, who delights in telling us that he prefers his goats to us students, and who is forever ranking poets that we have never heard of. “Fulke Greville is the greatest poet of the seventeenth century,” he tells our lyric poetry class. Who, we roll our eyes, is Fulke Greville? Gene courageously shows Winters his own poetry. During my time at Stanford, I only know one student of whom Yvor Winters seems to approve: Gene. The man who emanates compassion and the man who emanates contempt form a mutual admiration society. Some years later, when Gene publishes his doctoral dissertation, it will be Winters who writes the Introduction.
But most afternoons in the English library, I want to ask Gene what he thinks I should do about this nice Mormon man who is pursuing me—this nice, smart, attractive Mormon man without a testimony. “Well,” I whisper to Gene across the table, “he does have a testimony. He has a testimony that the church is not true.” I want Gene to tell me that the nice, smart, attractive Mormon man is wrong about the church but right about me. I want him to tell me that the nice, smart, attractive Mormon man will some day receive a new, standard-issue testimony.
Gene doesn’t do this, of course. I can’t remember his responses to all my queries and worries. Sometimes he snorts a soft little laugh. Sometimes he smiles. Sometimes he whispers back, though I think he asks more questions than gives answers. Mostly what I remember is that after I tell Gene whatever I have to tell him, I feel better—and I can open up my Anglo-Saxon primer or my notes on Tristam Shandy and get to work.
The Stanford Ward, meeting in the Palo Alto stake center, includes married and unmarried students, many of whom form close friendships, no matter their marital status. I quickly get to meet the rest of the England family—Charlotte, Katherine, Jody, Mark, and Jenny. (Becky and Jane will come along later.) The Englands live in a house a little beyond my bike range, but Gene sometimes fetches me for dinner or babysitting. I consider both a treat. Charlotte is beautiful, and she knows how to bake bread. I proudly think that I am the only student in my creative writing seminar to manufacture stories to tell four wiggly children.
I leave Palo Alto in June of 1963, but I will return three springs later, and, even after I finally make my big move across the bay to Berkeley, I will spend many weekends with my friends on the Peninsula. Gene and Wes Johnson have headquartered Dialogue in Wes’s Stanford office, which is in desperate need of organization. Clutter is my middle name, so I am the last person in the world who should attempt such a task, but Gene takes pity on my penniless state and hires me the summer of 1966 as “office manager” as a way to help supplement my income from my temp jobs. I do manage to get the work done, but I do it in such a way that no one but me can process it. I’m excited and proud to be a bit player though in this brave new enterprise.
Yvor Winters and I aren’t the only people who appreciate Gene. The single Mormon students and working people form long lines to talk with him when he is a counselor in the bishopric. Others have discovered that Gene listens quietly, speaks carefully, and sends each person seeking counsel on her way knowing how important she is. Gene teaches institute classes, some on campus, some in the church building. He makes sense of the obscure and strange. He makes us want to believe.
Gene’s excitement and curiosity are contagious. Though he is very Mormon, he is ecumenical and generous in his studies of all things of good report. He moves quickly beyond the walls of the English department. He talks of Robert McAfee Brown, who begins teaching at Stanford the year we get there. He talks of Paul Tillich, who is still alive. A small group of us surround a tape recorder in a room in Stanford’s old union building, listening to Tillich’s voice and watching Gene’s alert eyes. How lucky we are that he shares his discoveries with us. As Gene’s world grows, our world grows.
Though I am only a school girl, I am able to work with giants at Stanford. Wallace Stegner is my advisor, my trusted mentor, and he gently comments on my stories and facilitates my degree. I take notes on every book Melville published for my special project with Irving Howe. I read beneath the words in my romantic poetry seminar with Albert Guerard. But the teacher who most influences me at Stanford is not on the Stanford faculty.
Occasionally we idealize the passions of our young years, and then we snicker a little to hide our enthusiasms behind a more sophisticated, cynical, acceptable mask. We shouldn’t snicker. Maybe the most wonderful quality that Gene has is that for so many decades he maintains his vision of a world that we can make better. His passions spill over on those of us who surround him; like the others, I am baptized into a belief that I matter, that I can do good, that I can prevail in my relentless struggle to live a meaningful life.