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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Bert Wilson (1933-2016)

Monday, April 25, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Elliott Oring (California State University, Los Angeles, emeritus) — 

William Albert Wilson, better known as “Bert,” was born in on September 23, 1933 in Tremonton, Utah. He died in Provo on April 25, 2016. He grew up in Downey, Idaho, a town for which he had considerable affection. Bert’s mother continued to live there until the end of her life. As a youth, Bert milked cows, tended livestock, managed irrigation on the family farm, did seasonal agricultural work, and worked at a variety of odd jobs. Bert’s father was a section foreman for the Union Pacific Railroad, and Bert sometimes worked for the railroad under his supervision. Although Bert managed to get into little bits of trouble with school authorities in both grade school and high school, Bert was the first member of his family to attend college, majoring in English at Brigham Young University in 1951. Bert interrupted his college education to go to Finland on a mission for the Mormon church. There he mastered the Finnish language and met another missionary, Hannele Blomqvist from Lahti, who also enrolled at Brigham Young University. They were married in 1957.

Bert came to Indiana University under a National Defense Language Fellowship to study Finnish and Estonian, and he pursued a degree in folklore because he felt that folklore was the key to Finnish literature. Because Bert was teaching at Brigham Young University at the time he was working on his dissertation, and because of multiple surgeries he underwent in his battle against thyroid cancer, he did not finish his dissertation “Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland” until 1974. It was published by Indiana University Press in 1976 and was a second-prize winner of the Chicago Folklore Prize in 1977 and was a winner of the Gustav O. Arlt Humanities Award given by the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States.

The book was well-review in the pages of Journal of American Folklore, Western Folklore, Journal of the Folklore Institute, and American Anthropologist. It was also reviewed in Journal of Baltic Studies, World Literature Today, The American Historical Review, Acta Sociologica, and Scandinavian Studies. Writing in this last journal, the reviewer stated: “Wilson … makes his case conclusively. His book is one of the most important to appear in recent decades on any aspect of modern Finnish history, for even though Wilson does not make the point, the implications of his analysis transcend the field of folklore studies” (Krosby 1980).

I don’t remember that Bert’s dissertation or book aroused much discussion or debate in scholarly folklore circles in the United States, but long before everyone was asserting that “everything is political,” his book was the first sustained study of folklore and politics. It will continue to hold a place in the history of our discipline. Apparently his book aroused considerable attention in Finland, and in later years, Bert took great pleasure in reporting that the initial negative reactions to it by Finnish folklorists--who were not altogether pleased to have an outsider commenting critically on their scholarly history—were replaced by acquiescence and then respect. Ultimately, he was awarded the Aimo Turunen Medal from the Kalevala Society of Finland.

Bert’s other great contribution to folklore scholarship was in the area of Mormon folklore. Although preceded by the work of Austin and Alta Fife, Hector Lee, Thomas Cheney, and Wayland Hand, it was Bert who really put Mormon folklore on the map. Beginning with his work on the “Three Nephites” while he was still in graduate school, he went on to document the verbal and visual lore of Mormon missionaries as well as the larger LDS community. I was once staggered by his computerized database of Mormon missionary stories. He had the legends organized, coded, and searchable at a time folklorists were merely “talking” about the computerization of archival materials. I trust that his databases along with his photographs of missionary art have found their way into the archive at BYU (named the William A. Wilson Folklore Archive) where they can serve as a basis for research for students and scholars everywhere.

Bert left BYU in 1978 to become Director of the Utah State University Folklore Program. He expanded the program with undergraduate and graduate courses cross-listed in English and History and was a founder of the master’s degree program in American Studies with an emphasis in folklore. He reorganized the folklore archives so that materials were actually locatable. When Bert left USU in 1984 to return to BYU as Chair of the English department, three folklorists were hired to replace him. Something similar occurred when he came to retire from BYU.

Bert was also deeply involved in public folklore and served on the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Panel as well as on the board of the Utah Arts Council. He was widely known as a first-rate teacher and many of today’s folklorists from Utah will attest that they were drawn to the field solely because of their encounter with Bert in a folklore class.

Bert’s approach to folklore was deeply humanistic. Exposed to the stories of his family, particularly his mother, from an early age, he strongly felt that art and literature were not the exclusive accomplishments or properties of cultural elites. All individuals could be and were creators. Ordinary people had something to say, and what they had to say was often historically, culturally, philosophically, and aesthetically edifying. Bert spent much of his career evidencing these particular claims. You can read a good number of Bert’s essays on Mormon folklore, family folklore, folklore and national identity, and the importance of the field of folklore in The Marrow of Human Experience: Essays on Folklore edited by Jill Rudy,

I think I first met Bert in Bloomington, Indiana, but I didn’t really get to know him there. He was a decade older, married, and moving between Bloomington, Finland, and Utah. When I took a job at a California university, I got to know him a lot better. We were both loyal attendees at the conferences of the California Folklore Society (since 2005 the Western States Folklore Society). When I became editor of the journal Western Folklore in 1976, Bert was book review editor. When my editorship came to an end, Bert became editor. Somehow during those times, although I cannot remember or document the how of it, we became friends. All that I can remember is that it seemed very easy. Over the years, I have stayed over with Bert and Hannele at their home in Provo, went to their cabin in the mountains, visited Bert’s mother in Downey, and had Bert and Hannele stay with me in California. As far as I know, I was the only one to record his story of his shooting a goose that belonged to the county commissioner of Bannock County, Idaho; a story he was always reluctant to share with his children but which he told to me on several occasions with considerable relish..

Those who did not know Bert personally are still able to learn of the scope and substance of his scholarship. The publications are there for all to peruse. But those who did not know him personally will never know him as an individual. Bert was an utterly decent individual, and among folklorists, who I would think exceed the mean score for scholars and academics in decency, Bert was probably two deviations from that mean. Anyone who met him could immediately sense his, openness, warmth, humility, sincerity, sympathy, humor, and generosity. There is a Jewish legend that has roots in the Talmud with intimations in the Torah about the lamed vav. Lamed vav are two Hebrew letters that designate the number thirty-six and refer to thirty-six righteous individuals by whose merit the world is sustained. The thirty-six are neither saints nor holy people per se, but without any one of them, the world would cease to exist. It is not hard to imagine that Bert might have been one of these thirty-six. Of course, Bert would have vigorously denied it, but that would have only served to affirm the ascription. The thirty six do not know who they are, they could never be persuaded of their own extraordinary merit, and could never conceive that so much of consequence had rested upon their shoulders.

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