You will find great pleasure seeing the interviews of the Founders of the John Whitmer Historical Association at the Fall 2022 JWHA Conference. It is the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of JWHA and will be held at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouri. Two years ago I wrote in the JWHA Newsletter about visiting each of the Founders in order to obtain their signatures on a special plaque denoting what else was going on in the year 1972 when this association was founded. That article included information about each Founder in addition to something of the conversations we had.
These remarkable men and one woman are still with us, and we insist they come to the conference next year to help us all celebrate the association they had the foresight, wisdom and even courage to found. It was Grant McMurray who responded, when I asked him to be present next year, “These days I don’t usually use ink when adding to my calendar events that are over a year in the future. Seems a bit presumptuous.” But he and his wife Joyce put it on their calendar and plan to come. That said, they all plan to attend, whether in person or via Zoom.
I had the honor and pleasure of visiting these wonderful people again this year to facilitate the interviews which you will get to see next Fall. To remind you of who these perceptive historians are, here is the list: Alma Blair, Paul Edwards, Bob Flanders, Dick Howard, Barbara Howard, Grant McMurray, Bill Russell, and Pat Spillman. (Logistics prevented our including Bob Flanders in this group of interviews.) This article reports what I learned about the Founders that I had not known before.
Casey Griffiths, President-elect/Program Chair for the 2022 conference, served as the capable interviewer for this project. He, Cheryle Grinter and I developed the questions and loose format for the interviews. We were able to obtain the very professional services of Brian White, Dean of the Arts and Humanities at Graceland University, as our videographer. My role was to set up the schedule to accommodate the seven Founders in Iowa and in Jackson County, MO, and the interview team, and then to revise the schedule, so as to conduct the interviews over two days. We managed to accommodate everyone’s eccentricities. I got to go along because the Founders all know me, but they don’t know Casey or Brian. “Who is this Casey Griffiths person? Well, if you say so, okay.”
The schedule allowed for a one-hour visit at each home—15 minutes for greetings and set-ups, 30 minutes for the actual interview, and 15 minutes for take-downs and good-byes. I hadn’t appreciated how much equipment Brian would need: two cameras, three microphones, and two lights just in case. He was adept at setting up and taking down in the allowed time. What I began to realize as the interviews went on was that he was recording with the first camera and microphone while setting up the second camera, the other two mics and the lights. During the take-down he would leave a camera and microphone going while taking down the first one, mics and the lights. He captured the informal banter as well as the formal interview. I can’t wait to see what the editor will do with these extra gems.
On Thursday, September 30, we began with our visit to Bill Russell at his home in Lamoni. He gave up running marathons a while back, but he still writes and talks with a memory that never quits. He began the theme we were sure we would hear, that JWHA was started, not by the church leadership, but by the RLDS historians who wanted to distinguish their work from that of the historians of the Mormon History Association. Bill described his first visit to the MHA with Paul Edwards, Lyman Edwards and Dick Howard. He went primarily for the conversation he anticipated on the drive, which didn’t disappoint. But he was overwhelmed by the warm reception they received from Leonard Arrington, the Latter Day Saint historian respected and beloved by all. The conference experience exceeded expectations.
Because we had appointments with the only two Founders in Iowa on Thursday, we had plenty of time to drive to Alma Blair’s home at a lovely assisted living facility in Johnston, just north of West Des Moines. I was entertained during the drive by Casey and Brian reminiscing about their childhoods. They didn’t know each other before today, but they both grew up in small towns in Utah, Casey as a Latter Day Saint, Brian as a Reorganized Latter Day Saint. They both mentioned how significant their respective communities were in their lives. We stopped at Panera just a few blocks from Alma’s home for lunch before going on to the interview. There the conversation was, “There isn’t a Panera in Utah.” “I can’t believe there isn’t a Panera in Utah! What are they thinking? There should absolutely be a Panera in Utah.” I giggled to myself as I savored my Panera salad.
Professor Blair welcomed us into his studio apartment replete with his artwork and his books. He has some old books, but he also receives boxes of new books to distribute to those in his senior living community who choose to read and discuss great books under his leadership. Alma’s artwork is all new, a talent he has discovered over the past couple of years, but which he surely has had all along, given the prolific art talents of his children and grandchildren.
When Casey asked Alma to tell us a little about his background, Alma commented that “after the Korean War, I….” I did not know that Alma had served in Korea during that infamous war. We know that serving in the foxholes of that war was the defining experience for Paul Edwards, but this was new news. Note to self: Ask Alma more about that.
Alma echoed, without prodding, Bill Russell’s desire to form a history association which would distinguish their work from the historians of the Mormon History Association. Alma couldn’t rightly remember whose idea it was to found the association, but he is pleased that they did and that it has functioned for 50 years as the Founders intended. He hopes it continues to carry out its mission with young historians assuming leadership.
Friday morning we met Paul Edwards at his office in Independence, The Center for the Study of the Korean War. Paul and his son Gregg continue to receive correspondence from Korean War veterans and their families regarding artifacts they want to contribute to the Center. Paul and Gregg vet these offerings, which, if accepted, are held in the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum across town.
Paul was the philosophy professor at Graceland and I had the good fortune to take his 101 class. He was brilliant and prescient. (My favorite quote that still holds true today: “Machines have minds of their own.”) In this interview he described the reasons for founding JWHA and how it has served over the years. The description, “brilliant,” is still apt. You will see. Paul is also kind. He called Rosewood, where his wife of 60+ years has lived for a year suffering from dementia. In this age of Covid, he has to make an appointment to see her. He graciously changed his appointment in order to accommodate our changing schedule.
With the help of the nice lady on Casey’s rental car’s GPS, and also following the detailed instructions provided by conscientious Dick Howard, we managed to find our way to John Knox Village (JKV), Building D, and Dick and Barbara Howard’s lovely apartment. Dick and Barbara sat next to each other on their sofa for this interview, sharing their usual serious-yet-humorous banter about the questions they had been asked to consider.
I did not know that Barbara served as an editor of The Saints’ Herald in the 1970s. She described her experience at that time of co-authoring a paper on Marietta Walker, the esteemed woman who gave the land on which to establish Graceland College in 1895. They took their research seriously, but were castigated for presenting at JWHA because they were distinctly not historians. My goodness, how things have changed!
We were treated to lunch by Dick and Barbara in the private dining room of the JKV restaurant. The setting was pleasant, the food was varied and delicious, and the company, of course, couldn’t be beat. A good time was had by the five of us.
To find our way back to Independence for our appointment with Pat Spillman, it was Barbara who gave us a more direct route and a decidedly more pleasing route than any GPS. A left turn, a right turn, and we were there!
A poignant situation met us at the Spillman’s, where Pat’s wife Judi, who did not know we were coming, reported that Pat was on the phone with the coroner, having just learned that morning that his younger son had died the night before. I cannot imagine the pain. However, Pat chose to go ahead with the interview and we were so glad he did. I learned that he was the church’s utility player, serving where his eclectic education and experience would meet the need of the time. I also learned that from 1992 to 1994 he edited the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal.
Hoping we had inserted a little joy into Pat’s very sad day, we headed east to find Grant McMurray’s home in Grain Valley. Sometimes I disagree with the guiding voice on the GPS. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes she corrects my mistakes. Thank goodness she was there for us that day when we needed her. Casey and Brian were kind enough not to laugh at me.
Grant’s wife Joyce met us at the door and graciously welcomed us in. I, of course, first noticed that every space was decorated artfully to reflect the fall season and holidays. When we set up for the interview, she gently reminded Grant to remember to breathe. His advanced Parkinson’s makes that difficult sometimes when doing something as vocally strenuous as this interview. During the interview, Grant spontaneously recalled the time when Barbara Howard was given trouble for her paper on Marietta Walker, and he named the reviewer. We will not do that here.
Following the interview, Grant led us into his office and library, his pride and joy. I couldn’t help but notice that his books were meticulously placed in recognizable categories. Indeed, one was set aside for all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries!
My job was done. On the way back to our respective destinations in Independence, Brian and Casey talked technical talk, using terms I cannot even remember. The interviews you will view at next year’s 50th Anniversary Celebration are thanks to Casey’s interviewing skills, Brian’s technical knowledge, the editing process, and the gracious cooperation of the JWHA Founders and their very kind caretakers. Thank you, all. See you next year!