Ronald W. Walker: Historian, Mentor, and Friend

By May 11, 2016

Ronald W. Walker left an indelible impression on many Juvenile Instructor bloggers (and friends of the JI). For some, it was primarily through reading his work or hearing his conference presentations. Others of us got to know him on a more personal level, and we have contributed brief tributes below, reflecting on Ron as a historian, mentor, and friend.

Brett D. DowdleJoseph Smith Papers

I was saddened to learn of Ron?s death.  The first time I read one of Ron?s articles was in 2006, when I read ?Crisis in Zion: Heber J. Grant and the Panic of 1893.? I was instantly captivated.  Ron had a way with words and a command of research that few historians ever approach.  In June 2008, I was privileged to meet him for the first time, beginning a long friendship as he kindly took me on as a research assistant for his biography of Brigham Young.  At the time he hired me, I was an inexperienced graduate student and historian, but he kindly worked with me to teach me how to become a proficient researcher.  While working with Ron, my understanding of and appreciation for the early Utah period grew exponentially as we discussed the topic in his office.  Up to the very end, Ron was dedicated to research and writing, and was pushing forward with his work on Brigham Young.

Despite being my employer and a far more accomplished historian, Ron treated me as a colleague with potential.  When my early research notes were scattered and complicated, Ron taught me how to systematize my notes so that they would be more valuable to him and more valuable to myself.  As I advanced as a historian, Ron kindly gave me opportunities to write, and provided kind and valuable feedback on my writing.  He encouraged me in all of my scholarly endeavors, and maintained a constant interest in my progress in graduate school.

My most valuable experiences with Ron, however, were often not scholastic in nature.  Ronald W. Walker was the consummate Christian gentleman, and one of the best friends I have ever had.  Our interactions were never solely confined to discussions of history and scholarship.  Without fail, before he ever asked me about the research I was doing for him, Ron asked me about my family and various other parts of my life.  When he learned of my father?s death last December, Ron took a great amount of time to offer his condolences and inquire as to the well-being of myself and my family.  He was the kind of man that made me proud to be a historian because of his ability to mix great scholarship with profound faith and uncompromising goodness.  I will miss Ron tremendously, but will ever be grateful for the blessing of having known this great man for eight wonderful years.  God be with you till we meet again my dear friend.

David W. Grua, Joseph Smith Papers

I first met Ron Walker a little more than a decade ago when I was a research assistant for the Joseph Smith Papers and a master’s student at BYU. As I’ve since learned was his common practice, during our first conversation he inquired into my personal research projects. At the time, I was writing my thesis on Mormon collective memory of the 1838 Missouri expulsion. He showed immediate interest, as he was beginning to think through similar issues as they related to how the Saints remembered and dealt with the horror of Mountain Meadows. He asked if he could borrow some of my books on collective memory theory, which I readily agreed to. I was pleased to see that the books proved useful for a short paper he later published on the subject in BYU Studies.

Ron and I kept in touch while I was getting my Ph.D at Texas Christian University and then after my return to Utah to work for the Church History Museum and then the Joseph Smith Papers. We exchanged emails and enjoyed a few lunches as we discussed our shared interest in nineteenth-century Mormon-Indian relations. Reflecting his scholarship in general, his work in this area was notable for his efforts to understand both sides with sympathy, using ethnographic studies to illuminate indigenous cultures. His call for scholars to recognize not only conflict, but also cooperation, between the Saints and the Great Basin Natives has been influential on the field.

In each of our interactions, Ron was as interested in me as an individual as he was in talking history. He made a point of asking about my growing family and my other interests. Although I knew that his health was not good, especially toward the end, news of his passing still hit me hard. He will be missed, yet through his scholarship his influence will continue to be felt for decades to come.

Robin Scott Jensen, Joseph Smith Papers

I am saddened to learn of Ron Walker?s passing. I offer my deepest condolences to his family. Ron introduced me to the scholarly world of Mormon history. Tiring of early morning custodial work as a student at BYU, I applied for any job I saw. Ron and Jim Allen interviewed me for a research assistant position working with Ron. They asked me the standard questions for any job interviews and then started to ask about my Mormon history experience. I had always had an interest in Mormon history, but I was the standard Mormon growing up, finding my history fix in Lucy Mack Smith?s or Parley P. Pratt?s autobiographies (or the Work and the Glory series). When asked which recent scholarly book of Mormon history I had read, I could only admit to having just finished Leonard Arrington?s autobiography. I walked out of the interview bracing myself for more early mornings.

I was quite surprised, then, to be called back with a job offer. To this day, I do not know why Ron hired me. Perhaps a small applicant pool benefited my chances or perhaps he felt sorry for my obvious ignorance and wanted to introduce me to Mormon history. Perhaps he wanted a relatively ignorant research assistant so that I wouldn?t be influenced by previous assumptions with my major assignment: researching the Mountain Meadows Massacre. What I do know is that Ron introduced me to the field of Mormon history and I will forever be in his debt. I made many missteps when working for Ron and he was always patient and kind. I will never forget the time when I found an obscure piece of information that I mentioned to him, trying to impress him. He not only was familiar with it, but asked me about it and wanted my opinion.

When funding became impossible for me to continue working with Ron, I was dreading going back to custodial work (which I did for a week). But out of the blue, I was offered another research assistant position for another professor due to a good word from Ron. Ron was more than a solid historian and poetic writer. For those who knew him, Ron was a kind individual. He reached out to students and scholars alike, recognizing the importance of community, friendship, and finding value in the past. That community has lost a luminary.

Janiece Johnson, BYU Idaho

I?ve been thinking how I might honor Ron Walker and I keep thinking about Ron?s eyes. I think there were twinkles in them, though that feels incredibly odd to say about a fellow historian. (Ok, often there was mischievousness and sometimes there was fire in those eyes too.) Though a consummate historian as adeptly demonstrated by his many publications and awards, with Ron Walker it was never just business; it was never just academic. People were always important. Whether they were living or dead, they were important. Ron?s humanity and compassion will always overshadow my memory of him.

I interviewed to be Ron Walker?s Research Assistant in late 2001. I had just finished up my MA Thesis at BYU and needed to fill my time before I continued graduate school the following fall. He told me if I got the job we would be working full-time on Brigham Young and the Indians. (I wasn?t entirely interested, but I needed a job.) A few days later he called me in for what I thought was a second interview. There he told me that he wanted to hire me, but he needed to tell me what we?d really be working on?the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Did I still want to do it? Though I had read Juanita Brooks, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I said yes. (I?m still stuck in the mire of the Meadows some days.)

For the first few months all I did was read the Salt Lake Tribune from the 1850s to the 1870s. I read everything they published about the massacre and was physically nauseated every day. He consistently made sure I was ok and able to deal with the toll of learning about the massacre. Later I would learn that Ron also internalized the weight of this horror and for him it was manifested in nightmares. He hated it, but thought it was important that we as Latter-day Saints learn to approach difficult things head-on. And he was willing to do the work. Meanwhile, he patiently taught and interacted with a grad student who at that point was pretty clueless about much of Utah history. I only worked with Ron for six months before I left for school; yet that was the beginning of a valuable friendship for me.

He tutored me personally as well as by example through his eloquent writings to value people and to approach difficult questions with the tools of the academy as well as with faith??without cowering. As a friend of his daughter Liz, in the years that followed I would get to see Ron every so often in their home as well as in Mormon history circles. No matter how he was feeling, he would offer a warm handshake and what I swear was a twinkle in those revealing eyes as he asked me how I was doing and encouraged me in what I was working on. A few times in the last few years those brief meetings also included the question of when I would choose to leave Mountain Meadows alone. Though he still thought it was important; he also assured me life was better away from it. I believe him. Mormon History will miss Ron, but it is better for his efforts.

Christopher J. JonesPh.D candidate, the College of William and Mary

Unlike many here, I did not know Ron particularly well. I read his prolific scholarship and admired what I learned of him from others, but I doubt he would know either my name or my face if we’d crossed paths recently.

I met him for the first time as an undergraduate at BYU. This would have probably been 2005 or so, and he had, if I remember correctly, recently announced his planned retirement from teaching. Grant Underwood, whose office was either next door or just a couple of doors down from Ron’s, introduced us, and Ron immediately invited me in to chat. He asked about me and my research interests, and then told me that his door was always open if I ever wanted or needed to chat about Mormon history, graduate school, or the like. It was quite clear this was more than a rhetorical gesture. I could tell he meant it. But as if to drive that point home, he followed up by explaining that he didn’t know how much longer he’d have an office at BYU, but that the offer still stood, and that if I ever wanted to chat, I could email him and we could schedule a time and place to meet.

I never took Ron up on that offer, and I wish I would have now. Our paths crossed occasionally in the years since, and he always greeted me with a smile and a handshake. I was saddened to hear of his passing earlier this week. We’ve lost one of our best.

Benjamin E. Park, Sam Houston State University

Like many others, I was hired by Ron as one of his research assistants the summer after I graduated from BYU. I was working on the Utah War, finding and scanning documents related to political correspondence between Young and Washington D.C. But it wasn’t that research that I treasured–it was the weekly dinners or lunch with Ron to talk about all things Mormon history. That’s what stood out to me the most: his insatiable curiosity about the field, its lessons, its developments, and its practitioners. He was especially interested in the rising generation of scholars. Unlike most senior historians, Ron was excited about new trends and theories, and he tried to stay abreast of their evolution. After I finished my brief stint as his research assistant and moved away to graduate school, we shared infrequent emails and I would try to visit him whenever I stopped by in Salt Lake City. The last time I saw him was last summer when I flew to Utah for MHA. He invited me to his office and we spent a good 45 minutes catching up. It was clear the last few years had taken a serious physical toll on him, but his mind was as sharp as ever. And just as ever, he was eager to learn about developments in the field of Mormon studies and, just as important, about the people leading their charge. I wrote earlier this week of his deep involvement with the Mormon history field, but what can be overlooked is his deep investment with Mormon history practitioners. He truly cared about the community, and that was merely a reflection of his overall gregarious and genuine personality.

Jed Woodworth, Church History Department

Years ago when I was just starting out in Mormon history, I published an article on the early history of BYU in BYU Studies. It was a meager offering, and I was unsure whether anything I had written had registered. Not long after the article appeared, I received a personal letter from Ron. I didn’t know him, but I knew his work, and I felt so honored that he would write me a letter telling me that he appreciated what I had written. He must have done the same thing to countless others over the years, knowing just what a young scholar needed. Ron’s letter gave me the courage to keep with it. I have never forgotten his largeness of spirit and have tried to emulate him through the years.

A few years later, after I had finished working with Richard Bushman on Rough Stone Rolling, I was sitting in Ron’s office in the Knight Mangum Building at BYU. Ron and I had become friends, and he was quizzing me about what I had learned in the process of working with Richard. I mentioned a half dozen or so ideas for spin off articles covering subjects the book either had not dealt with or had ended up on the cutting room floor. I’ll never forget Ron’s response. “Articles? Why not books?” I learned later that Ron’s question came out of his own experience as a scholar. Today, before I sit down to work on an article, I always ask myself whether my interest in the topic really should be extended to a book. Ron has helped me to measure the depth of my interest at the beginning instead of at the end.

Ron Walker richly deserves his reputation as one of Mormon history’s great stylists. It is a tribute to him that his prose could be selected by aficionados like me in a blind taste test of Mormon history writing. There may be no more delectable prose than his. But as my interactions with Ron have proven, he is much more than a great writer. He is a mentor, a friend, a gentleman, and a kindly and generous soul. I will miss him and hope that whatever work I produce both on paper and in conversations with others in some way approaches the measure of the magnanimous spirit of Ron Walker.

Article filed under Biography Historiography In Memoriam Reflective Posts State of the Discipline


  1. I never knew Ron but I am very grateful for these remembrances. The Mormon history community has lost someone it cannot replace.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 11, 2016 @ 10:18 am


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