A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
By Frank Odd
At the memorial service held for Gene at the pioneer tabernacle in Provo, Utah, Doug Thayer described his friend and fishing companion as a lover of the “long line.” His observation was drawn from the many happy hours he and Gene had spent together searching out and fishing trout streams in the mountains of central and southern Utah. Given Gene’s penchant for making long casts, Doug said, Gene inevitably hung up a lot, tangling his fly and leader in the branches of trees behind him or in the bushes overhanging the creek on the far bank. But Gene also had an ingenious gift, Doug noted, for teasing or shaking his fly loose from most such hang-ups, thereby freeing his line and allowing him to resume his casting with undiminished enthusiasm. This was an apt and evocative metaphor for Gene’s approach to life, and one that resonated strongly with me, because just two summers before his tumor was discovered, Gene had guided me to a couple of the streams he and Doug had discovered and had told me, as we hiked over a ridge into the first one, how much he enjoyed fishing with Doug and how, especially, he admired the control and precision of Doug’s short but accurate casts. “I can’t match Doug for consistency and elegance in casting,” Gene had said, but then, laughing, had added, “but I cover more water than he does, and I catch more fish.” Gene would have appreciated Doug’s metaphor.
Although I had never been able to articulate that particular quality in Gene’s fishing style and personality match as succinctly as Doug did, I had noticed it during the three years, 1972–1975, that Joanie and I spent getting acquainted with Gene and Charlotte and their children in Minnesota. By the time I arrived at St. Olaf College, Gene had already established himself there and had also, perhaps, already prefigured his leaving. When St. Olaf mounted a national search for a new Dean of Academic Affairs circa 1970, two members of the English department there, alumni of St. Olaf who had gotten acquainted with Gene in graduate school at Stanford, encouraged him to apply for the post. He did, and was hired. He brought to his interview at St. Olaf, and subsequently to the job, a concept of administration rooted in his deeply seated belief in the merits of dialogue. He proposed that institutions such as St. Olaf could strengthen their academic programs by appointing distinguished members of the faculty to a set period of years in the Dean’s office, and then, at the close of that service, return to teach in their respective departments. This process of cross-pollination, he argued, would tend to produce a more informed and integrated vision of institutional goals and of the faculty’s and administration’s respective responsibilities for achieving them. Therefore, in discussing his coming to St. Olaf with the president and dean of the college, Gene later told me, he had suggested an arrangement that would have him serve as Dean for Academic Affairs for three years and then migrate into the English department to teach. He arrived at St. Olaf thinking that this was the deal, but discovered, three years later, that the administration, despite having expressed interest in his proposal, had hired him without consulting the English department about such an arrangement. That department, consequently, did not have their door open when Gene completed his stint as Dean for Academic Affairs and was ready to move into the classroom.
During those initial three years, nevertheless, Gene found several opportunities to promote dialogue at St. Olaf, and even to throw an occasional long line. When he was invited, early on, to speak in the daily, twenty-minute chapel service held for the college community in Boe Memorial Chapel, he contemplated several topics that he could appropriately address before deciding on the more germane, if more provocative, one of “Are Mormons Christians?” This topic arose from conversations he had had with several students who had sought him out at various times as a resource for papers they were preparing about Mormonism for a religion course in which they were enrolled. Having found the students to be of good will but woefully misinformed, Gene seized the opportunity to speak of his own faith and to open an informed, respectful, and constructive dialogue with other people of faith in that community. The reaction to his chapel talk, as might be supposed, was mixed: it raised eyebrows in some quarters but opened doors, and fruitful relationships, in others.
When Gene finished his stint as Dean of Academic Affairs and found his anticipated move into the English department closed to him, he accepted a position in St. Olaf’s Paracollege, a division of the college patterned on the Oxford tutorial system that allowed a self-selecting cohort of enterprising and self-directed students to actively participate in defining their majors and shaping their education. Every year, this program attracted to St. Olaf many of our brightest and most creative, if least traditional, students. The Paracollege was a great fit for Gene, who loved the interdisciplinary nature of the program, the energy and drive of the students, and the freedom afforded by the St. Olaf milieu to include dimensions of faith, spirituality, and morality in the dialogue between him, his students, and the material they studied together. As anyone who knows Gene would anticipate, he soon attracted an enthusiastic and devoted following of students. But the structure of the Paracollege also presented a problem to Gene: it was staffed by faculty members on loan or leave from the formal academic departments of the college, and hence it lacked authority in itself to hire or promote faculty. This arrangement left Gene without an academic home and, essentially, without any prospects for tenure. Given the depth of his many contributions and commitment to St. Olaf and his students (who vigorously protested his being let go), it was hard for Gene to leave, but though he left in sadness he did so without resentment or anger. That made him, in my eyes, a real Christian at this Lutheran school.
This was, in brief, the academic trajectory of Gene’s years in Minnesota. But as I learned the first time I met him, the college was only one piece of his and Charlotte’s Minnesota experience. When I interviewed at St. Olaf in early 1972, the third person I was scheduled to meet was Eugene England, the Dean of Academic Affairs. I knew who Gene was—my time as a graduate student at Stanford had briefly overlapped his, I was aware of his work in founding Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which I subscribed to and read—but I had never met him. At the conclusion of our hour together, Gene glanced at my list of appointments for the day and said, “Come back around4:00 when you’re free, and we’ll talk about the branch.”
Our second talk about the branch came some six months later on the day that Joanie, Kendra (our eleven-month-old daughter), and I arrived in Minnesota. That evening, Joanie and I were shifting boxes of belongings among the rooms of the small house we had rented, sight unseen, before leaving Colorado when a knock came at the door. Somewhat surprised, we opened the door to find Gene, Charlotte, and Jody standing on our front porch—and to be grasped by the hand, swept out the door, escorted through the elm-lined streets of Northfield, given a tour of the college, and finally ushered into the hallowed precincts of Bridgeman’s, Northfield’s ice cream emporium extraordinaire, there to be introduced to turtle sundaes and informed in loving detail about life in the Faribault Branch. Joanie and I had been forewarned about Minnesota’s bone-cracking winters and steamy summers, but no one had warned us about the hazards of taking up membership in the Faribault Branch, over which Gene presided and within which Charlotte was a focus of warmth, understanding, talent, and resourceful service. By the time we returned to our new home that night, worn but warmed, we had become acquainted with Gene and Charlotte—and with Jodi, who had cared for our daughter amid our boxes—and had intuited, a little apprehensively, that life had suddenly shifted into a higher gear and that we were in for a ride. And what a glorious ride it was! In those three years, Gene and Charlotte challenged us to stretch, to sacrifice, to serve, to accept and to love—God, our fellow saints, ourselves, our neighbors—and to grow in ways we never had before.
That was my and Joanie’s experience of those years. How it looked to Gene became apparent a few years later when he published his essay, “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel.” Commenting on the dynamics of discipleship, both his and ours, Gene wrote:
But what I was experiencing others were too. A young couple came to the branch who had lived abroad, away from the Church, for a year right after the wife had been converted and they had married. Their Church experience, especially hers, had been oriented to gospel concepts and convictions, deeply felt and idealistic, but abstract, involving very little service to others. She was a dignified and emotionally reserved woman, bright, creative and judgmental—and thus afraid of uncontrolled situations or emotional exposure. He was meticulous, intimidating, somewhat aloof. I called them—despite some resistance on their part—into positions of increasing responsibility and direct involvement with people in the branch, and I saw them, at the expense of some pain and tears, develop into powerfully open, empathetic, vulnerable people, able to understand, serve, learn from and be trusted by people very different from themselves. I saw them learn that the very exposures, exasperations, troubles, sacrifices and disappointments that characterize involvement in a lay church like ours—and that are especially difficult for idealistic liberals to endure—are the main source of the Church’s power to teach us love. (p. 11)
It was, as Joanie commented on reading the essay, an admirable arrangement she and Gene had between them: she was judgmental and afraid of uncontrolled situations or emotional exposure, and Gene was uniquely gifted at creating and involving people in just such situations and exposures. And then, of course, he and Charlotte together so graciously supporting them with unconditional love and confidence as we and the other members of that little branch struggled and learned and grew and became more deeply rooted in faith—in the abiding faith they so vitally personified—and in love, concern and acceptance one for another.
The chapel we met in had served in an earlier—a much earlier—incarnation as a one-room schoolhouse. Situated on a wooded plot of perhaps an acre an a half on the eastern edge of Faribault (a town some fifteen miles from Northfield) where houses gave way to farm land, it boasted a row of tall and gracious windows on one side which flooded the six or seven pews on each side with a lovely light, and a large, dank basement which, following one of our frequent Minnesota thunder storms, transformed itself into a cistern. The Young Women met in the four-by-ten-foot cloakroom/bathroom, the Primary children downstairs (in dry weather), the adult Sunday School class in the chapel, and other groups in any available nook or cranny. We all struggled to maintain the building, to adapt to its limitations, and to keep up the large grounds—and we all regarded it with abiding affection. It was where we came together on Sundays to partake of the sacrament, pay our devotions to the Most High, and rejoice in fellowshipping one with another. In the spring of 1973, Gene proposed and the members agreed that we would plant a large communal garden on an open area to one side of the chapel. On the appointed day, one of our members, a farmer who lived just a few miles from the chapel, ploughed up the ground with his tractor and then dragged a harrow over it. After the men had raked the surface of the good black soil smooth, Gene and I each grabbed a hoe and began to grub parallel furrows the length of the plot. “Hey, whatta ya doing?” our Minnesota brothers called out. “Doing?” we two dry-land Utah boys replied, “What’s it look like we’re doing? We’re digging furrows.” And then, when our wet-climate brethren furrowed their brows and asked, blankly, “What are furrows?” Gene and I looked at each other, shrugged, and murmured, “Strangers in a strange land, that’s what we are.” (But strangers among fellow saints, I must say, and the tomatoes turned out great.)
In retrospect, the Englands’ years in Minnesota appear as a whirlwind of activity, and a remarkable tale of accomplishment. Husband, father, shepherd of a branch that sprawled over five large counties in south central Minnesota, dean and professor, Gene completed his dissertation in those years, wrote his book on Brigham Young, published scholarly articles, generated a sheaf of personal essays, beat me fairly consistently in paddle ball, stayed in touch with friends around the country, and tenderly ministered to the members of his flock. And Charlotte, mother of six, seamstress to her family, district Relief Society president, branch Primary president, branch chorister, Cultural Refinement teacher in Relief Society, musician, artist was also a friend who always had time for others. When Katherine returned to Northfield twenty years later for a high school class reunion, she spoke admiringly of her mother’s skill and production as a seamstress, but then added: “I was always so grateful that she didn’t know how to make shoes.” Many other moments from those years still stand out clearly in memory:
- Gene and Charlotte dropping by our house between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. at the end of a long day, any day, bringing Jody or Jennifer as babysitter, and whisking Joanie and me off to Bridgeman’s for an hour of turtles and talk.
- House-bulging and heart-warming Sunday dinners and theEnglands’ farmhouse home, always with a full table and yet room for one more guest, and always with an engaging topic to discuss, and intimate candle light dinners at our house to talk in quieter surroundings.
- Gene’s punctuating his comments at candle-lit dinner one evening by tapping the foot of one of Joanie’s smoky rose Venetian goblets on the table then flinching in anguish as the top pinged from the stem and rolled onto the table. And the next summer, in Idaho, Joanie’s rolling up the back window of the England’s Chevrolet and snipping six inches off the tip of Gene’s new fly rod. Score even. Or almost. Joanie groaned but Gene laughed.
- Gene and Charlotte banging on our door at 11:00 p.m. one summer night, bundling Joanie, Kendra, and me into the Chevy and driving us westerners three miles south of town to see a large field twinkling with a firmament of fireflies.
- Gene and Charlotte driving some students from Carleton College (also in Northfield), recent converts to the Church, out to General Conference and leaving Joanie in charge of their six active and always creative children—plus Tasha, their long-haired Benji dog. Joanie opening the door to a three-by-five-foot bathroom just off the kitchen one evening about dinner time at the exact moment in which Tasha shook from her hair the gallon of tomato juice Jennifer had bathed her with following a close-quarters encounter with a skunk up toward the barn.
- Charlotte graciously and efficiently creating instant meals for guests who showed up at her door, having been invited to dinner by Gene but then forgotten and never mentioned to her.
- The many small and inexplicable miracles: Gene’s never leaving for a meeting across town or the airport in the Twin Cities or the Guthrie Theater on time, yet never arriving late; his making the fifty-minute trip to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport in forty-five minutes in good weather, forty minutes in bad, and his pulling unfailingly into an open spot in the first row of parking on arriving there, or anywhere else.
- Gene’s setting a record for the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, still standing, for leaping through the doors of airliners milliseconds before they snapped shut, without losing a coat tail—ever.
- Gene, in company with his children, damming up the limpid waters of a little brook that ran through a swale on the farm just west of the house in preparation for a baptism there in the shade of the oaks—the Waters of Mormon, he called the place—and then striding back up to the house, when all was in perfect order, his face alight with joy and anticipation.
Joanie and I drive past the old farm, with its brook, swale and grove of trees, every Sunday on our way to church services (in a standard meeting house now) in Faribault, as we have for the last thirty years or so, and every week we look again to that spot and see in memory Gene walking from the swale to the house in company with his family, his face alight with faith, joy and love, and we breathe a prayer of thanksgiving that we ever knew him and them.