A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
By Clyde A. Parker
I became acquainted with Gene and Charlotte before I ever met them. I was a graduate student in Minnesota in the mid 1950s when Gene’s father was the president of the North Central States Mission. He called Ilene and me to be the mission representatives for the Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs. This required that we travel with President and Sister England to the far corners of Minnesota, South Dakota, Canada, and Wisconsin for district conferences. Often the conversations would center around what Gene and Charlotte were reporting from their mission in Samoa. The elder Englands were very proud of Gene and Charlotte. I later became vicariously acquainted with Gene when I began to read Dialogue, which came to me, as it did to many other young scholars, as a way to bridge our religious commitments with our scholarly learning.
About ten years later, I moved back to Minnesota as a member of the University of Minnesota faculty. We renewed acquaintances with Wayne and Marilyn Carver who were in Northfield. Wayne taught creative writing at Carleton College. Their Carleton friends, Vern and Marilyn Bailey (Vern was also faculty at Carleton), who were also from Utah joined us. We began to meet to discuss articles of interest from Dialogue. We were soon joined by Karl and Dawn Sandberg and by Frank and Joanne Odd. Karl taught at Macalester College in St. Paul; Frank at St. Olaf in Northfield. It was a congenial group as well as a highly diverse group. Activity in the LDS Church ranged from actively non-active (even somewhat resentful) through passive to tolerant to “temple worthy” members. From the standpoint of dialogue about Dialogue articles, such a diverse group was an ideal gathering. All the men had academic appointments. The women were all good cooks as well as thoughtful and free to express themselves, so it was a very congenial social group as well.
When Gene took a position at St. Olaf, he and Charlotte accepted without hesitation an invitation to join our group. What was great about that group was that we all enjoyed each other’s company and each other as friends. No one was intimidated by any one of the group. Everyone spoke his/her thoughts and was received by the others. There was no hierarchy of knowledge or authority. Over time, we became mostly a dinner group with wonderful and sometimes intense conversation to follow. It was in some ways our family away from home. What stood out about Gene was that he quickly developed an admiring group of St. Olaf students who were interested in the LDS Church, and he was their missionary. As I understand it, several of the students from St. Olaf’s did join the Church, including Vern and Marilyn’s daughter.
When Gene and Charlotte learned that Ilene and I, with our four children, had made a trip to the Boundary Waters in the dead of winter they were immediately interested. So the next year we planned the trip together for our families. Over President’s Day weekend, we went to Camp Widgiwogan, a YMCA camp on Burntside Lake near the Minnesota and Canadaborder north of Ely, Minnesota. This is a “primitive camp” with one camp center and multiple cabins. The women were bedded down in the camp center with indoor plumbing. The men and boys were all in cabins that had small wood heaters. We arrived near midnight, having left the Twin Cities after work and traveled the three- hundred-plus miles to the camp. Gordon and LaNae Davis with their four children had joined us. Overnight the temperature dropped to a minus 24 degrees. We woke to windows frosted thick. The fire had burned out, and it was cold. Those of us in the cabins made a hurried stop at the outdoor facility and then into the Camp Center to warm ourselves and get breakfast started. The plan for the weekend was to do some snow shoeing and cross country skiing through the woods and over the lake. Then the chore was to cut a hole in the ice and stoke up the large nearby sauna.
The day went well. We had a good time through the woods on our “skinny skis.” The kids all behaved themselves reasonably well. The men gathered around the proposed hole in the ice and began to chop away at ice which was a foot or more thick. At the same time we started the fire in the sauna. The sauna was hot about the same time the hole was finished. About that time, someone realized that the sauna was about thirty yards from the hole. How were we to navigate the women running from the sauna in their birthday suits to the ice, dip themselves in the hole to cover their heads, pull themselves from the ice, and return to the outdoor, open dressing rooms? After a brief discussion, it was decided that the fathers of each family would stand at the hole while the women in his family would run naked from the sauna, be helped in and out of the hole, and return to dress themselves. Actually things went quite well as each, in turn, wearing only white woolen socks took her turn. The dressing rooms were so cold that upon returning from the ice, the socks froze to the floor, but the warmth of the sauna lasted long enough, even after the immersion in the icy water, to allow each of them to get dressed and put on a warm coat, fresh socks, and boots. The boys, of course, took care of themselves without incident.
The Englands left Minnesota before we did. They returned toUtah and took up residence in Kaysville. When we returned to Utah in 1981, we made contact a few times and had some fond recollections. In 1998. we learned that Gene and Charlotte had been hosting “Theater inLondon” courses for BYU students and allowing a few adults to join them. It seemed like a good idea to us, and we made contact again. They were very cordial in their encouragement for us to apply. We left in May with about thirty students and one or two other adults. Tim Slover was the faculty member in charge of Theater, and Gene taught the Shakespeare course. Gene and Charlotte had left a few weeks earlier to make all of the arrangements. They did a wonderful job. Their experience from several earlier programs enabled them to be very thorough in getting what they wanted for the curriculum and for housing and other amenities. It was clear they put their priorities on the curriculum and plays rather than the housing, though it was certainly adequate. We thoroughly enjoyed all of it and it was clear Gene was a superior teacher, guide, and mentor for the students. He saw to it that the needs of the adults and the students were taken care of and that there was plenty to challenge all of us.
When Gene talked with us preparatory to our being included, he assured us that if we made good use of the opportunities it would be “a life-changing experience.” Little did he or we know just how true that was to be. After nearly seven weeks of very enjoyable and stimulating experiences, we began the final preparations to return home. Ilene and I made a quick weekend tour of some homes of her ancestors who had lived within about fifty miles of London. Returning late Sunday night, she was tired from the trip but elated at having had the opportunity. She rested most of Monday. We made one last visit to the Albert and Victoria museum which was only a few blocks from our flat. We had a bite to eat, and them she went upstairs to visit with some of the students and share her weekend. She returned to our flat around 8:00 p.m. thrilled with the events of the weekend, the past seven weeks, and her visit that evening with the students. We read for an hour or so, she from a C.S. Lewis book she had picked up in Oxford. I had seldom in our forty-seven years together seen her happier or more at peace. She enthusiastically talked about several of her ancestors and her plans for visiting their graves when she returned home. We then went to bed and quickly to sleep.
In the morning she seemed to be sleeping peacefully so I went about my business. When she didn’t move after some little while, I checked and discovered she had passed away during the night. I could hear voices in the hallway outside our door, and I realized Gene must be using the hall phone. I went outside, interrupted his call, and explained what I had found. He immediately dropped his concerns and became my guide and constant helper through the next two days as we took care of all the details involved in such circumstances. He finally assigned one of the students to accompany me through London as I took care of the registration of Ilene’s death and the plans for her preparation and flight back to Utah.
Gene’s sensitivity was evident when he arranged a meeting late in the night for all of the students who cared to do so to share their feelings and concerns which arise with such an untimely death. He helped me work through the problems in changing flights for myself and getting an early flight home so I could be with my children when their mother arrived back in Ogden. He assigned a student to accompany me to the airport to make sure there were no problems until I boarded the plane.
“Life-changing experience?” I should say so! I don’t know what exactly Gene had in mind when he had used that phrase with us, but my life indeed was changed forever. His competency as a teacher, scholar, and mentor were obvious in the day-by-day events of those seven weeks. His true character was manifest in those days in which he shepherded me through one of the most trying times of my life.
Gene is one of those people I shall never forget. I will cherish my memories of him for all time.