In January, 2013, I had just completed a semester-long, unpaid academic internship with the LDS Church History Department (CHD). Despite having only completed my freshman year, the CHD took a risk and gave me an opportunity to work on source verification for what has recently been published as The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History. After completing my internship hours, I was approached by Mathew Grow, one of the volume’s four co-editors, to inquire if I would be interested in staying on as a paid intern and working as a research assistant on a manuscript that he was co-editing with Ron Walker (this manuscript was published last year by Oxford University Press as The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young & Thomas L. Kane). I jumped at the opportunity, of course, and ended up working on the project for the next year and a half.
Despite having started on the manuscript in January, I did not meet Ron personally until June when the Mormon History Association held its annual conference in Layton, Utah. It was well known that Ron had been fighting a battle with cancer and, though he was slated to present a response to John Turner’s recently-published biography of Brigham Young, there was some question as to whether he was going to make it. He did and, although physically weakened, presented a thoughtful, articulate, and charitable response to Turner’s work. I approached him after the session and introduced myself as the mysterious research assistant on the Thomas L. Kane correspondence who he had been communicating with only via email over the past six months. He immediately placed his hand on my shoulder and made me feel like a long-time associate rather than an awkward undergraduate intern. He asked me what I thought of the project. I replied with a few of my favorite excerpts between Young and Kane, including some of a fairly scandalous nature. He chuckled and responded, “Brigham Young was a real paradox.” I believe that short reply defined Ron’s long-time relationship with the Mormon prophet who has been both revered and reviled by many; and I believe it also summed up Ron’s approach to historical figures in general: complex, and worthy of charity and nuance.
During the time that I worked on The Prophet and the Reformer, my communication with Ron was typically by way of comments being passed back and forth on the manuscript—sometimes with long pauses in between as he was undergoing and recovering from treatments. But the comments and research questions he sent gave me a peak into how his historical mind worked. Always searching for context, he had me researching government land-survey documents and newspaper clippings as often as the papers of Brigham Young. During the 1850s “Mormon Reformation” period, Ron asked me to look at the Kansas-Nebraska Act and other public documents that illustrated frontier tensions. Context was key. Not to justify bad decisions, but to understand them. Granted, for some, Ron was perhaps too charitable and too ready to stand at the defense of those who, in their estimation, have caused great harm. Nonetheless, it was in his disposition to look unflinchingly at tough issues while seeking for compassionate understanding.
After completing The Prophet and the Reformer in early 2014, I accepted an opportunity to spend the summer in Nauvoo working at the Joseph Smith Historic Site, owned and operated by the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS). After summer had ended, and I had returned to Utah, one of the first events I attended was a lecture given by Ron at the 20th annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture series, hosted by Utah State University. The lecture took place at the Logan Tabernacle. Spry and witty, Ron delivered a candid address titled “Heroes and Hero Worship: Brigham Young and the Utah War.” Following his address, I spoke with him. He expressed his gratitude for my work on the Thomas Kane correspondence as well as an article about the Runaway Territorial Judges that I had put a little time into. He then invited me to stop by his office in Salt Lake City to see if there were any other research projects I could help out with. Months passed, school started, and I became too busy to take him up on his offer. Finally, in January, 2015, I emailed and we arranged a time to meet.
It was a cold Utah winter morning when I arrived at his office located in a multi-use bank building. Ron arrived late, dressed in sweatpants and wrapped in a winter coat and snow cap. He looked weak, but offered me a warm smile. He apologized for his tardiness, noting that after a week of chemotherapy it was becoming increasingly difficult to get out of the house early. After inviting me into his office and showing me some of the impressive archives that he had amassed throughout his career, we sat down at his desk and chatted about his time working with Arrington, about the “Camelot Era,” and about the successes and challenges in “New Mormon History.” While perhaps not the most theoretically-sophisticated approach, it was always the goal of New Mormon Historians to write to the masses while maintaining rigorous historical standards. Ron, renowned as a gifted wordsmith, impressed upon me the importance of writing history for a general audience—and, truly, his writing was always remarkably readable, demonstrating an uncanny gift of translating ideas into words. At the conclusion of our meeting, Ron reluctantly informed me that he had no work to offer. His energy, he explained, had been spent in recurring bouts of cancer treatment, and his research funds had dried up. At this point, he stated, working on a few articles based on existing research materials was all the effort he could muster. When I asked him about his ongoing work on Brigham Young’s biography, his only response was that, Lord willing, he’d be able to complete it. Although I walked away disappointed that I was not hired onto another project, I was grateful for the morning I spent with him and for the insights he shared with me.
About a month after our meeting, I received an email from Ron thanking me for coming down and asking if I would be interested in helping out on a little research for a few months until his longtime research companion became available. By this point, however, I had committed to another project—the David O. McKay Office Diaries—and had to turn down his gracious offer. This was the last time that Ron and I communicated. Knowing of my growing emphasis on twentieth-century history, his final words to me were: “I have always believed that young scholars should doggedly pursue self interest.”
Through our brief contact and working relationship, Ron Walker left a permanent impression on me. His influence can be felt in my own writing, in my desire to seek greater contextual understanding, and in my determination to treat the history of Mormonism with charity. I may never be as prolific, influential, or talented of a writer and researcher as he was, but working with him instilled within me a tremendous appreciation for the generation of scholars upon whose work we are now building. I tip my hat to Ron Walker and send a little prayer up to heaven assuring him that the torch he helped light is being passed onto a new generation of Mormon scholars.
For a look at Ron Walker’s academic career and contributions to Mormon history, see Benjamin E. Park’s excellent summary in The Juvenile Instructor.