My brother Will was a force of nature
Will Bagley was a prodigal son who became a successful and famous historian.
If my brother had been an asteroid, his impact would have ended the dinosaurs.
We called him “Bill” until this intruder Bilbo Baggins entered popular culture. Then it was Will.
Will Bagley set a California state record for chin-ups, was the statewide impromptu speech champion with a certificate of achievement signed by Governor Ronald Reagan, was elected student body president of Oceanside High School, led a protest against bad lunch choices at said high school (I remember their “Give the Rats Back the Cafeteria” picket sign), built a raft and floated down the Mississippi, hiked the rails, lived in a cabin on a mountain top near Santa Cruz to write the great American novel, Hitch – walked through America then started back the other way, got run over by a river barge during his second float on the Mississippi and barely lived to talk about it (his dog, Thor, was not so fortunate), learned guitar and wrote songs, auditioned with Bob Dylan ( Dylan: Keep your day job), brought his stripper girlfriend back went to Oceanside to meet the family, lived in another cabin on a mountain top in North Carolina to try another shot at the Great American Novel, taught th Local farmers to grow marijuana in exchange for learning how to moonlight, and were arrested by the sheriff in a “law and order” election year for the quarter acre of grass he was tending. (The evidence then “disappeared”.)
All before being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes (type 1) at the age of 30.
Needless to say, my parents weren’t happy with almost any of this. We grew up in a Mormon and Republican family, and while religion and politics didn’t mix, the curiosity and love to learn did. Our house had a good-sized library, Time, Newsweek, two dailies, and news-listening televisions. The lasting image I have of my father is his nose in a book.
My parents lived until Will finally moved to Salt Lake with a family and took on conventional cabinet making jobs and later writing technical manuals for Evans and Sutherland. He may or may not have understood how this stability would provide the domestic support for what he would do later.
Will never wrote the great American novel, but he could write well and had an unquenchable curiosity. A sudden interest in colorful Mormon settler and con artist Sam Brannon prompted Will to delve deeply into the history of this era.
Mom and Dad also lived to see their prodigal son grow up to be a successful and famous historian.
Not many people outside of academia can make a living writing history, but Will did. His knowledge of the time and of the people was deep to the point of being aberrant. Ask Will what he did the night before and he might not remember it. But ask him what Parley Pratt was doing on a certain date and Will will likely know and name them with him as well.
If it had anything to do with exploring and colonizing the West, it was in Will’s mental Rolodex. His knowledge is shared in hundreds of books, pioneering annotated journals, travel brochures and articles – for a few years he even wrote a “History Matters” column for The Salt Lake Tribune. He has won the most sought-after history awards and praise from his peers. The Wikipedia page listing his achievements is long.
His best-known work, “Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” took more than a decade to complete. When I asked him about the progress of the book, he muttered something unintelligible. The wait was worth it; it’s an impeccably documented look at the biggest white-on-white mass murder in America. It’s also a captivating sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, what happens next? page turner.
At 5′4 ″, Will was small but with an outsized personality and voice. It’s worth searching for any of his dozens of recorded interviews just to hear him tell stories in his honeyed bass. Google her image and you’ll see her signature smile, always ready to laugh at new nonsense. He made friends easily and kept them for life. He had all the “Aces” going for him: Affable. Friendly. Avuncular.
Will might be irritable. He was pounding the table to make a point, an action that KUER sound technicians dubbed “Bagleying the table.” 150-year-old injustices were new wounds for him. The people in the Church History Library came to dread his request for materials and called him Gimli among themselves.
For my part, I love my brother. I love his passion and his keen sense of justice. I loved his stories. I even understand when his righteous rage overwhelmed his better judgment and prompted him to make a rash statement. The gust always died down quickly, leaving in its wake the funny, insightful and cheerful Will, ready to share an interesting historical anecdote.
We have very different personalities – him extrovert, me introvert – but that old expression is true: I love him like a brother.
Pat bagley is the editorial cartoonist for the Salt Lake Tribune. Her brother Will died Tuesday in Salt Lake City at the age of 71.