GENE ENGLAND FLUNKED A FRESHMAN WRITING JOB
By Toby Pingree
In 1951, a precocious group of freshman arrived at the University of Utah a year ahead of schedule. They were among many who had been plucked out of high school by the Ford Foundation after their junior year, given scholarships, and sent off to the U and other schools as 17 year-olds.
During the fall quarter of 1951, I was the sports editor of the Utah Chronicle. My staff and I were hungry to get young eager beaver staffers to provide daily copy to fill the page devoted to the world of Utah sports. One of those who responded to our offer to try for a career in college sports journalism was one of the Ford Scholars, G. Eugene England.
While the job description sounded like we would only accept elite writers, our experience told us we’d be lucky capture cub reporters who could spell and sing “A Utah Man Am I”—the Utah fight song. When we got a look at Gene’s high school English experience and heard him tell about his ambitions to become a writer, we were ecstatic to think we might have landed a real catch, someone with the potential to become another legendary Utah sports writer in the mold of Hack Miller or John Moody, long time sports columnists of the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune respectively.
Gene was there the first week of school eager to complete coverage of an athletic happening assigned to him. He completed the task and brought in his report by the copy deadline. It sailed past the editorial review process quickly as copy was needed in order to let the presses run. The end product pleased the paper’s publishers, but trouble came in the form of feedback from the sports set that the England article was not what they were used to digesting. Instead of the usual sports bromides told with single syllable words and jock clichés, Gene spun a story about the event he covered that related it to the community, mankind, and the universe.
He was called in by the staff, who pointed out to him that sports writing wasn’t about challenging the great minds of English literature. Its mission is to communicate with rabid weekend sports fanatics about the virtues of Utah football and hoops. He listened tentatively and seemed to take the constructive criticism well, but his next effort was more of the same—the message of his piece overwhelmed the capacity of the sports audience to comprehend what he was writing about, and we got more negative feedback.
Sadly, we were forced to conclude that the kid was not going to make it in the world of sports writing. His great talent with words would have to seek another medium of expression at the U. So we sent him off to the office of the PEN, a student literary journal, and they found a spot for him—and later made him editor as I recall. He also because the darling of Jack Adamson and the faculty in the English department, so they later sent him off to Ph.D.-land at Stanford. I guess you’d say he became a poster child for overcoming adversity to make a life.
My path and Gene’s continued to intersect over the years. We left for and returned from church missions at the same time—he and Charlotte to Samoa, and me to Central America. A couple of years later, we both ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts—he as an Air Force officer being trained in meteorology at MIT, and me at the Harvard Business School. It was said that Gene was no more suited for weather forecasting than sports writing. Whenever he could escape the rigors of the MIT meteorology program, he would sneak up the banks of the Charles River to attend graduate English classes at Harvard.
For many years after we both left Cambridge, I followed Gene’s career in the academic arena through Stanford and eventually his arrival at iconic status at Brigham Young University. During his days at Stanford, I was energized when hearing that he was immersed in the founding of Dialogue, the independent journal devoted to scholarly studies of Mormonism. I knew it would be good, and I was never disappointed.
The crowning good came from the years five of my children fell under his influence at the Y. His highly regarded freshman Colloquium course and later English literature classes cemented their love of the classics and creative writing. His influence was a major factor in three of them completing Ph.D. programs in English while the other two are now practicing physicians who continue to love to read and write.
His last hit on me came about ten years ago when he enlisted me to become a member of the Sunstone Board of directors. As a non-academic and a limited intellectual, I didn’t believe I had much to offer. After a long discussion about what alternative voices like Sunstone, Dialogue, Exponent II, and other like-minded ventures contributed to Mormonism, he convinced that there was a place for the likes of me. I have never looked back.
And he never held it against me that I didn’t give him a chance to write sports stuff. We were good friends.