EUGENE ENGLAND, GATEKEEPER TO HEAVEN
By Lorraine Bradford Kelley
As a teenager, I focused on gymnastics, dance, and social life. Although I valued my religion and family, they were not my priority. School work was also not a priority. I did not consider myself an intellectual or even a good student.
My parents both had advanced degrees; my dad had a Ph.D. in Economics and my mom an M.A. in English. They valued education almost as high as family and religion. My brothers were both good students. Scott, my younger brother, was a genius and excelled in every subject. In his freshman year of high school he was taking 12th grade AP math, and as a sophomore in high school, he was taking college math from John Hopkins University. Steve was on the honor rolls, took AP classes and received academic recognition. I was proud of my brothers for their intellectual accomplishments, but at times I felt like the black sheep of the family. While Steve and Scott were receiving academic awards, I was nominated by my senior class for the “Air Head” and the “Best Looking” awards. Fortunately, I didn’t win either.
At BYU in my freshman year, I was interested in getting an education and a degree, but I was also apprehensive. I was creative. I loved to dance, and I loved people. But I didn’t know who I really was and what I wanted to do with my life.
My mother and her professor friends from BYU encouraged me to take their honors classes. I declined, thinking I wasn’t smart enough. I did, however, take Eugene England’s Freshman English class. Suddenly, a world of knowledge opened up for me. I was no longer studying just to get into college, or just to please my parents. I was thrilled to be in Eugene’s class just for the sake of learning. Fascinated by literature, I realized that people didn’t have to choose between art, religion, or education but could choose all of those things.
In my sophomore year, I broke down and took Eugene England’s honors class, along with honors science. Brother England taught us that art, religion, science, and literature are inter-related. We as students were becoming philosophers. He taught us to think. He inspired us to delve into the contradictions and the truths.
When my brother Steve came back from his mission, we lived next door to each other and became close friends. We shared a mutual social life for the first time, including doing things with the England family. Steve and I, as well as Scott, the next year, spent numerous days at the Englands’ house having dinner, discussing school and religion, and getting all the tender loving care we missed living so far from home. This was our home away from home with another brother and five additional sisters.
One day on the way to class, I was in a car accident that left me with severe whiplash and some emotional trauma. The Englands let me stay with them for three weeks while they nursed me back to health. They took turns bringing me food, talking to me about school, helping me with homework, and entertaining me with their humor and love.
Steve, Scott and I loved to visit the Englands’ cabin and Ray and Caroline Hillam’s cabin with other student friends of ours. We went to commune with nature and to explore our doubts and beliefs. We had enlightened conversations while sitting on the mountain top enjoying all of God’s creations. These discussions were inspired mostly by Eugene’s classes.
Brother England, as we called him then, was not predictable. I often had differing views from others around me and sometimes was a little bit proud and stubborn in my “radical” ideas. It surprised me when the liberal Gene played devil’s advocate just when I thought he was going to agree with everything I had to say. At first I was disappointed, but I soon became fascinated by his ability to help me see differing views. He helped teach me tolerance of the “Molly/Joe Mormons,” as well as to gain greater appreciation for the “intellectuals,” all the while inspiring me to write, to act, to dance, and to be myself—no labels at all.
In my second semester sophomore year, I joined the Englands and other BYU students for a semester abroad in London, England. Brother England taught British Literature and Creative Writing. Brother Monroe Paxman taught British History, and Brother Don Marshall taught Humanities and the Arts. Dashing across London at the last minute to see the latest Broadway show, opera, ballet, or symphony, we had V.I.P. front row seats. Brother England wanted us to experience everything. With our teachers we explored theatre, dance, history, poetry, architecture, music, paintings, and sculptures.
While studying in London, we traveled by train across Europe for a month. We also spent a week with families in Ireland, and a week each in Russia and Israel. These trips taught me more than I learned during the rest of my college career. Not only was this experience culturally mind-opening, but because of Brother England, it was also a spiritual awakening. He taught us how religion had inspired the arts. We visited gorgeous churches of varying faiths. We felt a fierce connection to God.
When in Russia, I came down with the flu, sick and nervous, so far from home. Brother England missed an important event to bring me soup, medicine, and a healing blessing. The blessing told me things that I needed to know. The peace and comfort I felt was indescribable. Brother England was not only a philosopher, a scholar, intellectual, and a poet; he was a man of God—a spiritual beacon to us all.
John 8:32 says, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Brother England helped me by teaching me to understand the definition of truth. Truth is not just “the facts,” but it is our own experience and our own perspective of the facts. Gene taught me that through literature we can understand human nature, its complexities, its contradictions, its pains and its joys. We don’t live in a black and white, all-or-nothing world, and it is through literature that we can find real truth. He taught us that the scriptures are the greatest literature. Through them we can understand the struggle to become like Christ in a stressful, hate-filled world.
Many people discuss the factual accuracy of the Book of Mormon. To me it doesn’t matter whether or not there is historical proof of the facts because the value of the Book of Mormon is in its literature and teachings. It, like the Bible, is a profound portrayal of human nature—our strengths and weaknesses with counsel on how to become happy and free through Christ. Jesus Christ was a rebellious, forward-thinking, compassionate son of God who taught through love, by example and through parables. Brother England and my mother, Mary Bradford, taught in poetry, which like parables, speaks directly to the spirit. I see no better way to learn.
Brother Eugene England, my mentor, lives on in spirit. He also lives on through his family. Katherine, his oldest child, has his independent spirit and leadership qualities. Jody has his creativity as well as his love for others and caretaking gifts. Mark, in addition to his artistic soul, has his ability to listen and give counsel without judgment. Jennifer has his fun-loving social skills and a smile to light a room. Becky has his quiet reflective spiritual nature with a combination of the intellectual and the religious. And last but not least, Jane, has his understanding and love of the theatre and his exuberance for life.
As wonderful as Eugene is, he is not without Charlotte. Charlotte has Gene’s unique understanding of God and of people as evidenced in their own works of art, poetry, and other writings. She shares his qualities of love, intellect, compassion and creativity. Gene and Charlotte are one.
Because of the England family, my life has more meaning. I am now a language arts tutor interested in instilling in my students a love of learning. I am also a dancer and “wanna-be poet.” I value most my husband, my children and my religion; they are my first priorities.
One night at BYU I had a dream that I was dancing out in a field. A big white spaceship landed in front of me. The doors opened and Jesus came out with some of my teachers at BYU. One teacher taught us that all churches except ours would be damned. One teacher announced that a respected friend of our family was an antichrist. The campus psychologist, who was treating me for bulimia, told me to have an ice cream and call him in the morning. All of these men told me I couldn’t board the ship because I had eaten far too many Twinkies and Hostess Cupcakes.
Later I had another dream where I encountered the same spaceship. This time Eugene England came out with Jesus as my personal Judge in Israel. He said, “We know about the Twinkies and Ding Dongs, and we know about your questions, doubts and fears. Well done thou good and faithful daughter, you may enter in.” I climbed onto the white spaceship to heaven weeping.
Eugene England is to me what Lowell Bennion was to my mother—a teacher, an advisor, a Christ-like example and a friend.
(This reflection was previously published in Student Review, 10 April 1998).