WHAT LOYALTY REALLY MEANS
By Sue Gong
A few of the many memories I have of Gene England stand out because I think they epitomize the qualities that drew people to him and changed them: his generosity, spiritual courage, and mental fineness. These are images that attempt to capture my experience with him.
Experience 1—England in England. While Gene and Charlotte were at the BYU Center in London, they graciously and casually opened their apartment to a variety of visitors and friends. I arrived at the BYU Center from the airport one afternoon in the summer of 1980 to find James Arrington in town with the Englands to tour his one-man play Here’s Brother Brigham. Gene swooped us all up in the car and careened through the left-handed streets, forgetting occasionally which side of the road he was supposed to be driving on, remembering only as we faced the headlights of the oncoming traffic. We all covered our eyes. Up through the Worcestershire district we went, to carry James’ classic performance to the local wards. On one of the free days, we visited Peter Benbow’s farm where Wilford Woodruff baptized hundreds of people in the local pond. Afterward we visited a nearby hilltop where Gene read us the account of the missionary-apostles gathering there in a prayer circle only to find later that on that same day Joseph had had a dream of seeing them bowing their heads on the knoll while angels surrounded and blessed them. Gene’s vivid rendering of the incident endowed the historical incident with a new life, and we seemed to be standing among them again, looking into the heavens to see if we could catch a trace of the angels’ light.
Experience 2—Second-hand Theology. On this same trip, we wended our way through the charming historical town of Oxford. Where in the college yards even the gardeners were quoting the Burn’s verses, “Oh my luv is like a red, red rose,/That’s newly sprung in June. . .” Gene took us to a campus bookstore and left us to wander around and find what we may. In my meandering, I turned a corner and spied across the room, above a table of used books, the sign, “Second-hand Theology.” It was a wonderful moment realizing the innocent sign made the best theological commentary on the commentaries below. I was laughing alone when Gene arrived. I simply pointed to the sign and laughed again as he did. The moment was enough for me, but not for Gene. He headed off toward the table to point it out to those who ran the bookstore, and we he met us at the exit, he had the sign in hand. Only Gene would know how to get something like that from the staff! I saw it later in his BYU office where he had place it on the shelf with his religion books.
Experience 3—On Shakespeare. We were teaching in the memorable and scintillating honors colloquium, “Learning How to Learn,” that Gene had developed. Gene, Robert Bennion, John Gardner, Suzanne Lundquist, and I took turns lecturing to the 120 students, and then met them independently in small discussion groups. While each of the faculty lectured, the other faculty members would sit among the students as fellow learners. It was a great collegial experience with the faculty and the students. which most of us remembered with great elation and fondness for years. On one occasion, Gene was giving his unique interpretation of Hamlet. “The play,” he was telling the students, “is really about the way good overcomes evil.” Hamlet’s famous speech, “To be or not to be,” he asserted, was not really about contemplating suicide as many critics had assumed but was a meditation on violence or nonviolence as a way to counter problems. I, for one, didn’t buy that interpretation. Having been imbued with the more traditional outlook on the text, I challenged Gene vociferously and repeatedly in front of all the students. Was Gene offended or critical? Not at all. He was enjoying himself. He acted like he had paid me to show up and make trouble for him. Since he was a professor and I was a graduate student, he could have pulled rank on me to make his point—but he did not. He egged me on and battled on himself, line by line, scene by scene. The students joined in the fray on one side or the other. Gene was in his element. The magazine Dialogue is a fitting legacy of his character because he really believed in dialogue. He was deeply confident in his own views and open toward the views of others. He invited challenging discussion. He thrived on divergent opinions. He was not afraid of heat. He was an egalitarian. He didn’t win arguments with students or graduate students on the basis of his authority, and he didn’t expect (innocently) other authority figures to be offended when he challenged their positions. He was always surprised and sometimes hurt to find out that anything he had said might be interpreted as anything but loyal. To him loyalty meant that we ought to engage each other and challenge each other. He deeply believed that’s how we would all grow—and he had great faith that the greater good would be the outcome of such discussions.