SNAPSHOTS OF GENE ENGLAND
by Thaylene Barrett
My family moved to Provo the summer of 1981 because my husband, Wayne, was hired by the BYU Mathematics Department. A friend from our post-doc days at the University of Wisconsin at Madison was driving me around looking at neighborhoods in preparation to buy a house. She had heard of this house built by hand from the remnants of an old pioneer school that Gene England had built, and we looked around until we found it. I have always loved rustic, hand-built, historic houses. I was very impressed, and it was the first time I heard of Gene and Charlotte England.
My friend ended up buying in Springville, but Wayne wanted to be so close to his office he could walk if the car wouldn’t start, and I wanted to live on a farm. So when we found a small house for sale with a huge private back yard on Stadium Avenue, it seemed like the perfect compromise. And that’s how we came to live in the England’s neighborhood and the Pleasant View First Ward.
My second memory of Gene came when my neighbor across the street, Jeanne Clarke—a talented artist and convert to the Church—and I decided to drive to Salt Lake together to hear Gene debate a Baptist minister at the University of Utah about whether Mormons were Christian. I remember how calm and loving his debate manner was, and how he kept basing his arguments on the teachings of Christ; using the logic that whoever follows those teachings has every right to call themselves a Christian.
Gene was in the bishopric when my two oldest children were in YM/YW. My oldest son was struggling with his testimony, and we made an appointment to talk this over with Br. England. My son is very bright and honest, and Gene met every question with honest answers or an honest “I don’t know.” I, too, confessed having to struggle with my own testimony and shortly after that conversation I was called to be one of the ward’s Gospel Doctrine teachers. It was a turning point in my life. During those four years—a full rotation of the scriptures—I had to study so much and plead for the Spirit to be with me (if not for my sake, then certainly for the sake of the dear people who attended my class) that I came to the point of promising the Lord I would accept any calling because I was so grateful for the growth that came to me through teaching.
I remember it was such a treat when Gene was conducting fast and testimony meeting. He would eloquently describe his gratitude for the Gospel, the sacrament, and his family. He would never bear an “ordinary” testimony. He would also never just announce the sacrament; he would prepare us for the sacrament—again by his tender, eloquent expressions of love for the Savior and the Atonement.
With a son and daughter in YM/YW at the time, we frequently sat in a classroom as Gene set them apart for roles in class presidencies. One would think they were being set apart as president of the Church the way Gene would bless them, nurturing their young spirits and giving them a glimpse of God’s love for them and their destiny as leaders in these last days.
When I learned that Gene was a big fan of Lowell Bennion, I invited him and Charlotte to Sunday dinner with my father, a University of Utahprofessor and longtime admirer and friend of Brother Bennion’s. I think we had Gene and Charlotte in our home twice for dinner—it’s still hard to believe he had time for ordinary friendships when he ran full tilt in so many directions. I believe he and Charlotte were also our home teachers for a while because we have a signed copy of Brother Brigham. The inscriptions reads: “To the Barretts—a great but kind of weird family.”
We have certainly been in the England home many times. Our children have performed in concerts there. We have attended other wonderful concerts and lectures in that amazing home. When it was my turn to give my life story for Relief Society, Charlotte hosted the luncheon.
Maybe my very favorite memories, though, are of Gene’s Personal History classes held during Sunday School time. Because of my callings, I was rarely able to sit through a whole series, but I always started going and doing the weekly assignments. He would assign an interesting topic to write about: “What was your most inspiring spiritual experience?” “What was your most disappointing spiritual experience?” “What was something from your childhood that will be lost if you don’t write about it?” “Describe something you make that’s unique to you?” He would assign one of these topics, read a few examples from his own writings to inspire us, then he would tell us to bring him the essay during the week and he would respond to it just as he would do with his students’ papers at BYU. The next Sunday he would select from the submissions a few to read to the class. The paper would then be returned with his comments and suggestions. These writing assignments are some of my treasures now—especially the ones with his personal comments.
As the years passed and our oldest son went away to Stanford University, Gene would look him up when he visited his old campus or go to Church with him. He had such a way of never dropping people from his life—if you ever were his friend once, you were always his friend. I was the ward Relief Society president when he became ill. It was impossible to imagine the cancer might be terminal. The ward and neighborhood without Gene was just unthinkable. Charlotte was always so open and willing to share him with all the people who came to depend on his intelligence and wit to make sense of the contradictions and inconsistencies in the church and life in general. Even in his final days, she continued to share him with concerned visitors. One afternoon I was privileged to visit his bedroom as he lay propped up but unable to speak. I shook his hand—held it really—for the last time in this life and tried to thank him for all he had meant over the years to my family and to me. I can’t imagine a great man who was more accessible and genuinely interested in all people individually.
The Relief Society planned his funeral luncheon as one would honor a noble, great soul. Joyce Ridge filled the cultural hall with Black-eyed Susans and sunflowers, and I was grateful for the memorial service later in the Provo Tabernacle where I could attend as one of the hundreds of mourners and grieve with them and not have to be in charge of anything.
I hope his memory will always be bright. He was a great example of a Christian peacemaker and bridge builder.