A Few Memories of My Friend, Eugene England
By Floyd Astin
I first became acquainted with Gene when he moved into Edgehill Ward during our high school years. He was living at approximately 1600 South and 1500 East in a two-story duplex his family owned. Gene soon became part of a group of close friends, which included Gary Maxwell (Max), and Gary Christensen (Chris). Gene’s father had installed a basketball hoop on the garage, and we would often play basketball together. We would also play touch football in the street in front of Chris’s home on Logan Avenue between 1500 and 1600 East. Gene would usually be the one to organize the gatherings to play these games.
Edgehill Ward had a large number of boys in the Teacher and Priest age groups (14–19 years), and it had a very active sports program. The building had a large, regulation-size basketball court with locker rooms and showers. The basketball programs were administered by a man named Paul Hansen, a college professor, who was a very able supervisor of the facilities, along with several other fine coaches. Gene was of average height but a good, scrappy player who always scored well. We won many games, and one year we won the Salt Lake Regional Tournament in our age group. The ward also had a softball team we played on, and it generally won the stake softball tournaments as well.
I played football on the East High School football team but could not play my senior year due to an injury. The coach asked me to be the equipment manager and asked Gene to work with me. This gave us a chance to work in the locker room and on the playing field with the team members. We made many good friends through this activity.
During the summer months, Gene would go with his father to work on their large wheat farm in Downey, Idaho. Gene seemed to have mixed feelings about the farm. He loved the beautiful outdoors and wide open fields and the time spent with his father, but he didn’t feel that he wanted to be a farmer the rest of his life. I spent a number of days with him and his father at the farm. We slept in a small, rustic cabin-like house. We spent time in the wheat fields pulling the weeds out from the wheat. The wheat was high enough that we could stoop down, look over the top of the wheat and see the weeds growing above the wheat. Then we could go and pull the weed out. It was hard, hot work and the fields were large. Gene was a hard, diligent worker and proud of the hard work his father did on the farm. He was also proud of the modern, innovative farming techniques his father introduced. He spoke of his admiration of the marketing procedures his father used in selling the wheat. They were much better than those of most of the other farmers in the area.
Gene, Max, Chris, and I did a lot of social things together in high school as we were very compatible. School academics were very important to each one of us. Gene became an
English professor, Max a medical doctor, Chris a Rhodes Scholar and a lawyer with a degree from Harvard, and I also became an attorney.
Even though we were pretty serious about our studies, we had a lot of fun, silly times together. One of the things high school boys would do at that time was to “slug” one another. If someone would do or say something outrageous we would “slug” him, meaning we would hit him on the upper arm (not too hard, but firmly). However there were times when we would get a little carried away and do it in a rather hard manner. Gene always managed to give as “good as he got.” Sometimes it really hurt, but no serious damage was ever done.
One time we were in downtown Salt Lake City walking by a bank, being silly and acting tough (although we never were tough), when one of us said, “I think we ought to rob this bank next!” An older lady walking by heard us and came up to us and said, “Boys, you should not do anything like that. It is something you will regret the rest of your lives.” We were stunned into silence, and it wasn’t until we were some distance from her that we all burst into uncontrollable laughter. A few minutes later we concluded that it was great that she cared enough to say something to us.
Another time we were cruising State Street in a car, which was the thing to do in those days, when we noticed three girls who indicated they needed a ride into the center of town. Feeling a little frisky ourselves, we picked them up. Seat belts weren’t in use then, so the girls sat on our laps. After a few blocks, the girls were more frisky than we wanted to be, and they began to move in on us in a very amorous way. We were getting far more than we bargained for, and being frightened, we let them out of the car as soon as possible. They left laughing, as the joke was on us.
One of our favorite social activities was dancing on Friday or Saturday nights. There were many dance places available as it was a very popular activity in the ’50s. The church stakes sponsored monthly dances, the schools would have frequent dances, and there were several commercial dance places that were nice and reasonably priced, so we could go dancing nearly every week. Max had a steady girlfriend throughout high school whom he eventually married. Gene had three girls he generally dated during our high school years. Chris dated one girl for a while and then a few more towards the end of high school. I dated Charlotte Hawkins during most of high school. I had been dating her for about six months when Gene told me his mother had met Charlotte at a church stake function sometime before I had started dating her. His mother told Gene that he ought to get to know her as she was very pretty and his mother was very impressed with her. A few years later when Charlotte and I were no longer going together, Gene dated Charlotte and married her. These dances were a very pleasant part of our high school experiences.
Gene had not lived on 15th East very long when his parents built a beautiful home closer to the Edgehill Ward building just up the street east from Westminster Avenue. His father was doing very well financially with the farm and other investments. He was still in the same ward with me and a little closer to where I lived on 17th South about 14th East. Gene was given the use of a car shortly after he was licensed to drive. Our family only had one car that was not very often available for my use, so Gene very graciously drove me around a great deal on dates and such. I was always grateful for his generosity. I enjoyed being around Gene as he always seemed to be “in the know” about when and where fun things were happening in the city. His family knew Elaine Cannon, who was a feature writer for the Deseret News mainly covering local human interest stories and social events. Because of this, we had our pictures in the newspaper on several occasions and were interviewed on various teen subjects.
Gene enjoyed his English classes in school, and most of all reading the many modern writers of the day. He would enjoy getting me to read them and then explain the hidden meanings of them and their deep nuances of thought. Most of it was over my head, but I enjoyed listening to his excitement. It was obvious he would someday be a teacher and a writer himself.
After graduating from high school, Gene, Max and I decided to take an automobile trip to the Northwest and down the Pacific Coast. It was a great adventure for us. Most of the time we slept in sleeping bags off the side of the road. We went to the Columbia River and followed it out to the ocean. This was before the dam was built on the river, so we were able to get to some of the rock islands and stand next to the native Indians as they caught salmon in a net as the fish were swimming upstream to spawn. We walked on logs that were tied together in preparation to be floated down the river. We slept on the lawn of a college campus overlooking the river. We waded into the Pacific Ocean and climbed the cliffs overlooking that churning ocean below us. We marveled at the living creatures at the bottom of the untouched coves. We gathered some dead starfish in our car to take home. A few days later, the terrible stench in the car taught us the starfish were not dead when we first put them in the car. What do inland high school graduates know of such things?!
We marveled at the giant redwoods and at San Francisco Bay. We wandered into a Casino in Las Vegas and were quickly ushered out for being underage.
Gene knew an officer in the Sigma Chi Fraternity, we were invited to join. We went through “Rush Week” and all the ceremonies, but before accepting the invitation to join, I decided I couldn’t afford the honor in either time or money as I was working my way through college and found it necessary to work long hours to earn enough money just to stay in school. Gene soon followed in also leaving the fraternity. We both joined Lambda Delta Sigma, the LDS church fraternity.
Gene was a writer for the University of Utah Chronicle newspaper and soon had me writing for the sports pages. Gene was always a hustler and would take me along. He was the editor for the school literary magazine and soon had me working as the business manager selling advertisements to pay for its publication.
Gene and I took a class at the LDS Institute where he became acquainted with Lowell Bennion, one of the outstanding institute teachers there. He had a great influence on Gene. He was a deep thinker and a great humanitarian who strived deeply to live the gospel principles he was teaching. He challenged his students to think independently.
During high school, Gene and I often discussed religion and its impact upon our lives. Gene loved his father, but he often felt his father was too materialistic. I admired his father and what he had accomplished in the business world. We often disagreed on this point. Lowell Bennion seemed to strengthen Gene’s thinking along these lines. Gene felt strongly that we should examine our LDS beliefs and challenge them. I felt that we should rely more on faith and wait for answers to questions we may have and receive those answers through revelation in the Lord’s own due time. Although we differed on this point, I always felt that Gene had a strong testimony of the gospel and its truthfulness and never wavered from it.
About this time in our lives, our mission calls, marriages, military commitments, and so forth caused our paths to diverge and we did not see much of each other after that. I am a better person for having had Gene in my life during the time I did.