EUGENE ENGLAND AT THE SALT LAKE INSTITUTE OF RELIGION, 1973–1974
By Dale Lecheminant
Gene England went from the University of Utah, where he earned his B.A., to Stanford University on a scholarship. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford in English and then moved onto his first teaching and administrative post at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. In 1973, he brought his family back to the West, joining the faculty of the Salt Lake Institute of Religion at the University of Utah.
For two years, Gene taught various classes in religion, and he taught them well. Gene was not only a good teacher but also a genuine scholar. He was well educated, curious, and interested in a host of topics. Given these many qualifications and interests, it was clear to us that the Institute was a way station for Gene en route to a university where he could better realize his potential and pursue his interests in literature, history, and related fields. While those of us who were closer to him sensed this, we nevertheless were delighted to know him and have him teach with us for as long as we had him in our midst.
The years we had Gene with us were the days at the Institute long to be remembered as a golden, more relaxed time when teachers were freer to be themselves. Gene fit right in. Many of the faculty valued his qualifications and his attitude about church religious education, which was to be honest, clear, and faithful. Even during this “golden” time, there were nevertheless a few reactionaries on our faculty who disliked his liberal views on religion and politics, and they let it be known. Perhaps they thought him stand-offish or aloof, or maybe too different from them (which he indeed was), but not as they perceived it. I admired the way Gene handled these differences with ease, and how was not one to let such situations detract him from his real work.
In the various religion courses he taught, he had a good following, particularly among the more advanced and serious students, as well as the thinkers. On occasion he expressed regret that he did not spend as much time on the less academically inclined.
Gene had friends in the English department at the University of Utah from his time there as an undergraduate. They knew his work and credentials well, yet they didn’t seem interested in offering him—a man with an impeccable academic background, including a PhD from Stanford—a teaching position, not even Freshman English! As Gene mused on this situation, he wondered if it was because of his Mormonism: “He was too good a Mormon to teach at the University of Utah but seemingly a not good enough Mormon to teach at BYU.” What I know is that he was an outstanding Mormon and Christian, and of the latter sentiment regarding BYU, that would later be proved wrong.
Gene associated with everyone on the faculty, attended the socials and “retreats” in the summers, and seemed to really enjoy the mutual instruction we shared, especially the ensuing lively discussions. At these retreats, Gene always enthusiastically and energetically joined the fun and seemed to really enjoy playing tennis and volleyball—whatever the sport being played, he was involved. And while he was not a stellar athlete, neither were the rest of us. But as novices, I recall most of us liking and accepting each other as such, and perhaps this was Gene’s longest suit. He really fit in smoothly with those of the faculty and administration who took the time to understand his mind and good will. And as we grew to know Gene better and understand his thought process, we invited him to discuss some of his several interests and ideas during faculty in-service meetings.
On a more personal note, I remember distinctly that Gene was in no way a reclusive academic. He loved the out-of-doors; he fished and traveled to many places. When he moved from Minnesota to the Institute, he had a home north of Salt Lake in a rural area, and during pleasant weather he and Charlotte had a bed near the home but out of doors that they’d sleep in, and together they planted and ate the produce from their garden.
After his work day at the Institute, Gene would frequently change into his “grubbies,” pull on his work boots, get his tools, and head off to help someone build a cabin or repair a roof. This was the “regular guy Gene” we knew and admired. When an offer came for him to join the English faculty at BYU, we regretted that our friend—this interesting, unique and diverse man—would leave us, even though we knew he needed a wider playing field on which to more fully use his talents and interests. So while we made it known we would miss him, he wisely accepted the offer to teach at BYU, and I have always felt that this decision was the right one for him.