MY FRIEND AND MENTOR EDWIN B. FIRMAGE*
During President Reagan’s first year in office, I was a congressional intern in Washington D.C. Shortly thereafter Reagan proposed the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which became known as “Star Wars,” a space-based anti-missile system. The Cold War was in full swing and the Soviets were concerned the system would give the United States the technological and strategic advantage and first strike capability, even though the system’s uncertainties and costs ultimately proved prohibitive.
I was assigned to conduct opposition research on a “liberal” University of Utah law professor who was speaking out generally against the Arms Race and specifically against a government proposal to develop what was known as the MX Missile, a mobile system to secret ICBMs with nuclear warheads in the deserts of Utah and Nevada. The MX Missile system was designed to include thousands of miles of heavy-duty roads and approximately 4600 shelters in which 200 missiles would be hidden. Each missile would have ten nuclear warheads, each warhead with destructive power vastly greater than the devastation dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Professor Edwin B. Firmage’s anti-armament advocacy, I would learn, was backed by a strong pedigree and extensive writing on subjects relevant to the Arms Race. After graduating from BYU with honors, he earned his Doctor of Law, Masters of Law, and Doctor of Jurisprudence degrees with honors from the University of Chicago Law School. Thereafter, he worked in the Johnson Administration on Vice President Humphrey’s staff before taking a position teaching constitutional law at the University of Utah College of Law. In addition to his broad-based advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups, he spoke often and eloquently about the Arms Race. His vocal advocacy against MX began in 1978. He was only getting started, time would tell.
The conservative, Mormon, hawkish congressman for whom I was interning found himself in a quandary: after receiving considerable input from the “liberal” professor, Mormon leaders issued a statement against basing the missile system in Utah and Nevada and, frankly, against the system itself. Below is the link to the May 5, 1981 statement from the Mormon Church in what, in hindsight, was a rare instance of moral leadership. If you take the time to read the statement, you will discern Ed’s strong influence in its structure and language.
Little did I know that a few years later I would take constitutional law from Professor Firmage and later become one of his research assistants. I remember telling Ed, “you gave me the lowest grade I received in law school.” Without hesitation, he replied, “you can’t fool everyone.”
Ed was prolific and passionate in his advocacy. One of many things I learned from Ed is that some issues are of such consequence, such magnitude, one must remain relentless in sounding the alarm and not become dispirited despite overwhelming opposition and odds. He was passionate on issues of nuclear weaponry and proliferation, the Arms Race, War Powers, MX, Carl Sagan’s disputed theory of nuclear winter, nuclear waste and many other weighty issues. He kindled in me keen interest in these and similar issues and, of course, individual rights recognized in the Constitution.
My friendship with Ed continued after law school up to the time of his passing this year. While house-sitting for him and Gloria during one of their annual Firmage family pilgrimages to Balboa Island, I perused his home library, a vast array of books/texts on law, history, art, religion, philosophy, psychology, the hard sciences, medicine, politics, geopolitics, war and, of course, Dante’s Inferno. Over time when he needed an answer on some area of law with which he was unfamiliar, he trusted my advice and judgment. His tilting at windmills often resulted in referrals on behalf of people whom government had wronged because of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or some intersection of immutable characteristics and circumstances. Given the strong protections governments afford themselves, most of those referrals resulted in my listening to the prospective clients about their concerns and needs and offering a hopeful, encouraging voice. Ed always sided with and advocated for the marginalized.
Half a lifetime ago in 1989, Ed wrote and delivered the McDougal Lecture at the Cathedral of the Madeline, a beautiful Catholic edifice in Salt Lake City. I attended. A copy of the lecture, titled Reconciliation, is linked below. I understand this was one of Ed’s favorite lectures, even though, or maybe because, it created controversy in the conservative Mormon community. It is a beautifully written and delivered discussion of bringing together the external and internal, the tangible and intangible, the objective world and one’s inner reality, the masculine and feminine, good and evil, to render whole and most meaningful the human experience. The lecture combines and synthesizes scholarship from religion, philosophy, mysticism and psychology and serves as a profound exegesis for the deep thinkers Ed consulted. Unfortunately, and with some irony, Reconciliation also created division with his wife Gloria. Their marriage ended, but they stayed close friends.
I recently re-read the lecture. I quote below from the Introduction and a short paragraph from Sexual Reconciliation.
“Increasingly, the latter half of life brings the time of healing and building up. In the first portion of our lives we are appropriately concerned with the external world: forming an ego separate from physical things, parents, and gender identification by rejecting one for another. We select a profession and close the door on other possibilities that interested us. We discover a mate and, with some regret, sever relationships with others. We come to see ourselves as members of a particular family, a tribe, a nation, a discrete religious tradition
“And then, beginning perhaps in one’s thirties and accelerating at mind-wrenching, soul-threatening speed in one’s forties all the lines begin to blur and then disappear. Rather than define myself negatively – “I am not female; I am not Catholic; I am not black; I am not Russian” – I begin to see that indeed I am all of those things and much more.
“For twenty-five years I have written about the nuclear arms race, the dangers of biological and chemical weapons, the need for arms control agreements, and for constitutional restraints upon our propensity to wage executive war thoughtlessly with cataclysmic, inhuman results. I have also spent much of my life working for legal protection of human rights, influenced profoundly as a young man working with Hubert Humphrey, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These topics continue to be central to my life, and I hope they always will be.
“But increasing, I see the need for an inner dimension to match these political efforts. The physical world of law and government is essential but incomplete. Without inner development, we will annihilate each other in one last spasmodic act of human genocide.
“Recognizing an inner reality in no way denies the reality and the importance of the objective world. Those philosophies that do make such denials are dangerously unbalanced. For those of us in the West, however, these denials have not been our danger. During the last millennium, we have become masters of our physical environment with the completeness that no earlier age could comprehend through Aristotelian empiricism; Thomistic syllogism; modern science; conscious rational dialogue; and structures of economic, political, and religious power dominated totally by males. Only a handful, furthermore, has comprehended inner reality: mystics of all of the world’s greatest religious traditions; poets and artists; storytellers who have recorded our inner life in fairy tales, myth, dreams, and ritual; gnostic groups sensing the powerful imbalance of an orthodoxy transfixed with worldly power; and, in modern history, pioneers of depth psychology, preeminently Carl Jung.
“But the inner and outer paths have an integral relationship, whether called the ego-self axis, yin and yang, compensation, or thesis and antithesis. Now, as if our globe were indeed one living system, compensating elements are rising simultaneously, not denying the truth of the previous elements but contesting their completeness. A sexual revolution so profound that it can be compared only to the Reformation in the impact is radically changing our view of the human psyche. Quantum physics hints at an integrated wholeness to our cosmos that obliterates boundaries between space and time, the organic and the inorganic. Brain research reveals an inner cosmos at least as intricate and related. Depth psychology postulates a dialogue between the conscious world of the ego and the unconscious. Whether by contemplation, meditation, dream, or active imagination, we move toward wholeness by bringing to consciousness the compensating messages from the unconscious. . . .
“Within my own religious tradition, I long for the time when four black people, three of them women will sit on the stand as General Authorities at General Conference. No reason exists in Mormon doctrine, I believe, to prevent full priesthood participation by women with every office and calling in the Church being open to them. This profound visual message would transcend in immediate healing power every sermon ever given in our holy house the Mormon Tabernacle.”
As part of his advocacy for human rights and his lifelong quest for reconciliation, Ed retreated with religious mystics. He worked with and helped formulate the Tibetan government in exile and became a devotee of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with whom he met in private and had many conversations.
I met and associated with several of Ed’s children. Ed spared no one in extolling their brilliance, talents and accomplishments. Ed also introduced me to his dear friend Virginia for whom he had tremendous affection and she for him.
Ed lived a full, rich life. He used his talents and resources to improve the world, to make it a safer, more hospitable and kinder place for everyone. His influence will be felt for generations to come.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming and Norway, dropped on November17, 2020 fall. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. The Contortionists is not for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers