SURPRISED BY GENE
by Louise Plummer
Gene England scared the spit out of me long before I met him. I heard about him when Tom and I lived on the east coast in the Athens of America along a river named after an English monarch. Gene was connected with an upstart Mormon publication: Dialogue. Our local general authority did not cotton to the likes of Dialogue the journal, nor for that matter, dialogue as a concept. I was in my twenties then and did not ever question general authorities’ authority or opinions, nor did I distinguish between the two. As far as I could tell Gene England was a rabble-rousing intellectual, a heretic, and maybe even a son of perdition. Thank heaven he lived on the opposite coast so I could avoid the appearance of evil by making his acquaintance.
I was raised by Dutch Calvinists, who converted to Mormonism in the 1930s in Holland. Once a Calvinist, always a Calvinist. The first rule in our family was obey authority, which I interpreted as anyone in a suit. I suppose the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II reinforced this rule. Another first rule was 100 percent attendance at church. Still another first rule was always say yes to a church calling. Knock yourself out by anxiously engaging in good causes. Have at least nine children. Mother knows better. Father knows best. Get a job. Be responsible. What was not on our family’s list of rules was to go to college and learn to think critically. Intellectuals were suspect. Gene England was suspect.
Fast forward about a dozen years after Tom and I have moved to the Twin Cities on an even larger river, the Mississippi. Clyn Barrus, the first violist for the Minnesota Orchestra, was a member of our stake and organized a production of Handel’s Messiah which included not only a large choir from the surrounding area, but an orchestra as well. Not for the first time, I was asked to sing tenor with the woefully small tenor section. The night of the dress rehearsal more singers and orchestra members appeared from outlying communities, and I found myself standing on the back row next to a slim, attractive man with thick dark sandy hair and a pleasant tenor voice. I introduced myself to him and he introduced himself to me: he was Gene England, an English professor from St. Olaf College south of the Twin Cities. Gene England in the flesh. Happily, I had been married to my own professor for some years and had had a lot more schooling, and had even read many issues of Dialogue and admired the writing, so I was delighted, charmed, maybe even enchanted, to meet the man who I once feared as a heretic. He pointed out his wife, Charlotte, who was playing violin in the orchestra, and we shared bits and pieces of our lives during the slow periods of that rehearsal. He was so normal, so likable. Mostly I recall that our voices blended together singing a testimony of “Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.”
Years later, I would meet Gene again when we both taught at BYU in the English Department. He trusted me with his Writing Mormon Literature class when he went on study abroad one winter semester. He reviewed one of my novels and, to my surprise, labeled me a deconstuctionist. I never thought of myself as anything but a careful entertainer. Even now, I sometimes lie in bed and think, “I have deconstructed.” Gene England said so.
I never attended one of his classes, but students have big mouths and tell tales. They loved him as a teacher, a writer, and a leader. He began each class with a prayer. I think my Calvinist parents would have approved heartily. In his last semester, he and Charlotte had afternoon tea and crumpets in his office. Anyone could drop by for refreshment and a chat. I thought it was an engaging and congenial way to say, Good-bye friends.
In the next life, I would like to repeat the experience of meeting Gene again, maybe in a heavenly choir directed by Clyn Barrus.