GENE, THE GENEROUS GENIUS
By Scott Bradford
Sharon and I piled into the car with my mother, Mary Lythgoe Bradford, and Gene and Charlotte. (For as long as I can remember, I have called them simply Gene and Charlotte, never Brother and Sister England, even though they are my social superiors and deserve more esteem than first names usually convey. In their case, though, “Gene” and “Charlotte” stem from a sincere affectionate respect.) We were going to dinner at the Grille at Sundance. Sharon and I had recently moved to Provo, and my mom was visiting from Virginia. Sharon and I both felt genuinely honored to be included in a night out with my mother and her decades-long friends. We also looked forward to eating at a nice restaurant, since such chances came only sporadically to new professor families like us.
The Grille resembles Gene and Charlotte’s home: lots of wood and earth tones, an open door, great willingness to serve you top-notch food and make you comfortable. Those two places, though, do differ in one crucial way: the Grille expects payment; Gene and Charlotte never have.
We had a great time. My weak memory does not allow me to recall what the conversation covered. (Strangely, this same memory can recall the entire starting line-up of the 1977 Pittsburgh Pirates.) At the end of the meal, Mary ended up paying. She usually does. With pen in hand, she pondered the tip. I stood ready to help with the calculation, as I often had in the past.
At this moment, Gene made a curious statement. “Be generous, Mary,” he said. Now, I, at least, would not expect such advice in that situation. Often, one of the older men, such as Gene, pays the bill. In addition, one rarely hears one who is not paying give unsolicited tip advice to the payer. So, Gene’s counsel struck me as singular. Further, Grille servers earn good wages. Why even be generous with someone who really doesn’t need it?
Despite my briefly raised eyebrows, his statement did not offend us at all because it was pure Gene, the Gene that we love so much. So, while Miss Manners may have frowned upon what he said, each of us knew that he had done nothing improper. In fact, I do not think that any of us outwardly acknowledged what he said. I discussed it with Mary and Sharon after the fact but never at length. I write of it now because that incident evokes much of Gene’s goodness.
Gene had a gift. He could, without hypocrisy, encourage the rest of us to share without he himself literally leading by example. Thus, Gene could say “Be generous, Mary” and have that be exactly the right thing for him to say, even though he was not paying. He led by example of a different sort. Instead of literally leading the way with monetary giving, he lived a life of generosity and charity manifest in a myriad of other ways, many of them ingenious. He did share material things, but, more than that, he shared his charity-loving self. Like his home, he left his heart unlocked, freely and openly sharing its contents and always welcoming the chance to connect with others.
As a professor, he shared his passion for literature, his love for its power to teach us and inspire us to live beautifully, its ability to warn us away from the ugly. I got a full dose of this in the “Learning How To Learn” Colloquium, during the 1981–1982 year at BYU. This was a multidisciplinary six-hour full year course taught by five faculty members: Gene, Robert Bennion (Psychology), John Gardner (Physics), Suzanne Lundquist (English), and Sue Peterson (English). I learned much from each of those professors. We read and wrestled with The Brothers Karamazov, Hamlet, King Lear, and the Book of Job; learned calculus and then taught it to our hapless roommates; dug into the mind-boggling implications of quantum mechanics; took on The Trickster; and explored geology and evolution. Along with the other professors, Gene taught us of the integrity/charity triangle, which has self, others, and God at each vertex. He helped us to see that we must act with integrity toward each point of the triangle and that one can only do so by cultivating charity (or agape).
The core theme that enabled him to pull all of this together was the Atonement. I think that the main reason that Gene loved Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare is that their works enabled him to teach the Atonement. Clifton Fadiman said, “To read Dostoyevsky is to descend into an inferno.” True. With Brothers, we confronted a vivid, intense display of emotion and suffering. Gene did his best, though, to make sure that we students emerged whole from that inferno. He showed us that Dostoyevsky was searching for God, as we should do. Gene helped us, through our reading and discussion and writing, to draw closer to the Father and the Savior. With Shakespeare, Gene did all of this even more effectively. Hamlet and King Lear were the perfect one-two combination for teaching the Atonement. Gene taught us that Hamlet illustrated the sad futility and ugliness of responding to wrongs with revenge and that King Lear’s Cordelia showed how forgiveness, the key Atonement component, can erase all wrongs in others and ourselves. Yes, I got it. (“Ah hah!”) With King Lear and Gene, I saw that, more than anything, the Atonement brings us forgiveness and reconciliation. This is not just third-party debt payments. This is reconciliation and charity and loving embraces, despite willful harm inflicted by God’s children.
I still relish these lessons and love literature in large part because of Gene, even though I was a physics major then, and am an economist now. I enjoy calculus and data and charts and graphs, but Gene showed me how the art and craft of great literature can teach truth better than logic and can help one to love the truth, not just “know” it. Gene shared his insights with such steady and infectious enthusiasm (Bob Rees rightfully calls him an “enthusiast”) that even math-loving, analytical me was drawn in—for good.
Gene also taught us to wrestle with profound and perplexing questions. He and the rest of the Colloquium faculty stressed that in order to learn and to grow in knowledge, we must keep asking questions. They helped us to see the righteousness of questioning. At the same time, Gene and the others always taught us the crucial power of faith. The questioning in Colloquium never challenged my testimony because we questioned with faith. We learned that faithless questioning runs the risk of spiritual starvation. And, we learned that faith makes possible the integrity and charity needed for successful living. Gene did not question his faith; he faithfully questioned. And he showed us all how to do that.
When one questions, one might wonder about the scriptures and want to interpret them figuratively. Gene did tell us that he believed that the second biggest problem that people have with the scriptures is that people interpret the scriptures too literally. He then added that he thought the biggest problem was that people do not interpret the scriptures literally enough. They don’t take literally its urgings for us to have the experiences in spirit that they point toward.
Gene could faithfully question because he himself lived the church’s teachings and sustained the church’s leaders. Family prayer, family scripture study, family night: Gene did all of these things. And I never heard him speak ill of the “Brethren.” Overall, Gene was as true blue as any “conservative.” Sometime after Colloquium, the Englands invited me, along with others, to their Kamas cabin at General Conference time. What a blessing to retreat from valley cares to mountain beauty and Charlotte and Gene warmth for a weekend. This, however, was not a vacation from living church teachings. We dutifully listened to conference, and, on Saturday night, we males made the trip to the nearest stake center to listen to general priesthood meeting. Gene made sure of that.
Gene was an intellectual and a questioner, but dangerous? A threat to testimonies? Absolutely not. Anyone who thought that Gene was dangerous did not know him. (Besides, how could anyone who looked like a combination of Howdy Doody and Ted Koppel be a threat?) Gene was too smart, too much of a genius, to reject the gospel teachings or the church brought forth by Joseph Smith. And he generously shared his strong testimony of these things with thousands of others.
Outside of class, I, along with many others, got to spend time at the England home, just north of the Marriott Center. This was easy to do because the door was never locked. In fact, don’t tell Charlotte, but, more than once, I walked in, found no one home, helped myself to food, sat and read and relaxed, helped myself to more food and some drink, and then left without seeing anyone or getting anyone’s permission. Such was the England home. An oasis and way station for vagabonds like me. As I think about that unlocked door, I wonder: can anyone argue with its generosity and genius? Most of us more selfish and duller folks in Provo lock our doors. Gene and Charlotte did not, and that made a world of difference.
I also had the privilege of actually getting invited to the England home. I dated Becky during my freshman year, which increased the number of those valued invitations. (I look back with fondness at those teenage dating times but also rejoice that each of us married so well a few years later.) During those visits, I learned that, at a personal level, Gene took time to learn about your beliefs, desires, and struggles. He radiated a pure interest in others. He genuinely wanted to know what you were thinking and why. If he disagreed, he would not judge; he just wanted to know why you held your opinions. I am sure that, if he were with us today and learned that I voted for “W” twice, he would, with a look of puzzlement combined with genuine warmth, quiz me on those choices in ways so that I would want to discuss them. I perhaps would shift the subject and ask why he believes that governments that lie about wars can be trusted to solve social problems or run health care. And we would be on our way to greater understanding through dialogue, or at least I would.
In the community and the world as a whole, Gene’s outreach to the needy is well known. The problems of the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed genuinely concerned him, and he generously shared that concern with others, as well as working to help the needy himself. He started Food for Poland during that same year that I was in his Colloquium. He gave heart and soul to this idealistic, but spot-on, cause. Looking back, I do not understand how he did it. Where did he find the time and energy to raise millions of dollars and ship millions of pounds of food and supplies to Poland while sharing so much with his students and with others? Such generosity required genius. I suspect that part of that genius was mobilizing and harnessing the generosity and time of others. Another payoff to that effort, though, was the example it provided to many of us. Gene actually devoted time, energy, and sweat to helping the needy instead of just talking about it. My international economics research has turned recently toward the problems and issues surrounding the world’s poorest people. Gene’s example from way back in my freshman year is one of the factors that have led me in this direction.
In the classroom, at home, and in the broader community of God’s children, Gene selflessly told others to share, which takes more courage and charity than remaining silent. When Gene said, “Be generous, Mary,” it was different and unexpected, but it was typical Gene and just the right thing to say. Gene had a unique, multi-faceted, and ultimately Christlike generosity, enriched by a keen understanding of the human condition and of the power of agape. I cherish the time I got to spend with Gene, the generous genius.