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The Many Lives of Franklin S. Harris

Janet Jenson
ISBN: 1-58814-028-8
Format: Hardcover
Trim: 8½ x 11 inches
Publication Date: 01/01/2003
Pages: 410
Language: English



The Harris Fine Arts Building on the Brigham Young University campus is named for Franklin S. Harris, but the name means very little to most BYU students today. So why should the author spend twenty-five years producing a biography of him? During his life Harris was known as “Mr. BYU” and as “one of Utah’s most beloved citizens.” One man did not think “any citizen of Utah has ever made a greater contribution to the complete well-being of a larger number of people than that made by Dr. Frank Harris.” After fifty years and several more BYU presidents, several have expressed the feeling to the author that Harris is still the greatest president that BYU ever had—even the greatest university president in the state during his tenure. Some who esteemed him knew Harris personally, but others only knew him through the history books and the character assessments of those who did know him. His success was not only in his BYU world. According to one man, “When a man succeeds in one kind of endeavor cynics sometimes call it luck. But when a man succeeds simultaneously in a number of divergent lines—We then realize that man has some secret of success which it would be well for all to know.” To some Harris was larger than life and their reminiscences of him border on mythology or folklore and seem to be exaggerated. How could one man have been that good? Should not anyone this highly regarded by his generation be studied to see what can be learned from his life?
There have been numerous biographical sketches written about Harris, but most are bare bones outlines that mainly list his achievements and publications. This biography will attempt to put some meat on the bones and show some of the interesting experiences behind the skeleton of facts. By adding to a repertoire of traditional stories that have often been told about him, it is hoped that a more well-rounded picture of his life will emerge and lead to a better understanding of the man.
The history of the Church is made up of the lives of its members. There are many biographies of General Authorities and many personal histories and journals of ordinary members of the Church, particularly those living in the nineteenth century. Harris fell in between these two categories. What was it like in the first half of the twentieth century for a man who hobnobbed with General Authorities, but was not one of them—who was on the periphery of the grand councils, but only participated in lesser councils?
Most people who know anything of Harris know of one facet of his life, as a university president. Few know of the multitude of activities he carried on simultaneously, ranging from agriculture to politics, from expert consultant to successful father; of the boards, committees, and travel he engaged in to help in the community and in the world. Many biographies focus only on the person’s main life endeavor, which for Harris would seem to be BYU, but a whole different picture of Harris’s life emerges when we consider his activities in all their variety. Though his years at BYU and USAC will be covered, this book is not a history of these colleges. Instead it is a more personal look at his administrations—how BYU and USAC affected him, as well as how he affected them.
Many segments of Harris’s life could provide material for a book. But just as this book is not a history of BYU, neither is it a penetrating analysis of the problems of any country Harris worked in. It is the story of how Harris affected the different spheres he operated in, and how they affected him. Each of these spheres is very different. It almost seems as if he had the nine lives of the proverbial cat. Because of this diversity the author has opted for a subject-oriented arrangement rather than a chronological arrangement of chapters. With a chronological arrangement there would have been too much jumping back and forth between unrelated activities. This book is as diverse and many-faceted as the man who lived the life. In the first two chapters on his youth and his student days all facets are merged and treated within these two time periods, but such things as his church work and his travels are otherwise treated in separate subject chapters. There are some drawbacks to this arrangement and it is not always obvious which chapter is the best for a given event, but there are too many threads in Harris’s life tapestry to attempt another arrangement.
One result of this arrangement is that each chapter is almost like a separate book, with a whole new set of sources. Discovering the background for all the spheres he was involved in was arduous and not always possible. It is also true that, depending on the reader’s own interest, some chapters may seem more important or more interesting than others. Some will wonder why certain things were given less attention at the expense of more detail in other areas. For example, the author finds the travel chapters more interesting and would have preferred to leave out the agricultural part of his life. But it would not have presented a true picture if either of these areas had been left out or downgraded. A reader, however, can skip the parts that he or she finds less interesting.
Another difficulty in writing this particular story is the sheer volume of resource material available. The number who have commented on Harris and their relationship to him is astounding, as is the amount of written material he produced. This material provides many interesting tid-bits and human interest stories otherwise unknown. Out of thousands of pages of source material, the author has chosen what she thought would be most interesting and most likely to bring out the character and accomplishments of the subject. But much more material has been left unused, and another might have chosen differently. There are often many sources that could be cited to support a point, but frequently only one is cited as an example. Even then the text sometimes seems distractingly loaded with citations, partly because of three testimonial letter books compiled for Harris and numerous interviews with his colleagues in which comments about him were solicited.
The material Harris left in his own words includes a diary he kept from the day he left Colonia Juarez at age eighteen until 1955, shortly after his stroke and just five years before his death. Though his diary entries are usually brief and factual, he left a wealth of material in his correspondence, in his writings for publication, and in his speeches. Frequent citation of this material allows Harris to tell his own story. In many ways this gives a better picture of the man than could be had from talking about him or from broad generalizations.
It should also be noted that the material on each sphere of his life depends somewhat on the sources available. For example, some of his experiences produced official reports, while others are known mainly through the personal correspondence he produced during a given experience. These two types of sources produce different viewpoints which may seem to be an inconsistent handling of the subject.
Another judgment was to include a great deal of what might be deemed inconsequential minutia that for some will bog down the narrative. But the big picture is made up of minutia. It is like a newspaper photograph which under magnification appears to be only tiny dots, but if any of the dots are missing, the big picture lacks something. Life is made up of small details and they give a more accurate picture of a time that is no more. For example, dollar amounts quoted for Harris’s era will seem astoundingly low when compared to the present day. The statistics show something about Harris and his times that cannot be seen in any other way. An effort has been made to present a concrete picture of what his life was like and not merely paint an abstract portrait of the man. The portrait is intended to portray him as he appears in the documents, without undue speculation or retrospective analysis. The reader is left to make his or her own conclusions based on the information presented.
This biography makes two important points. Some think there has to be exciting controversy, a powerful figure, or a well-known person to make a biography lively and interesting. Is the life of a “nice guy” too dull to maintain interest? This biography attempts to show that the importance of a life is not in the controversy generated, in the positions held, or in how well-known a man is, but rather in the qualities he exhibited that we can emulate for happy and successful lives. It has also been said that if a man has no enemies it’s because he hasn’t done anything of significance. Harris cultivated good relationships, so did he therefore not accomplish anything of significance? This biography will attempt to show that “nice guys” can indeed make significant contributions to the world.
Without the support of the Harold B. Lee Library of Brigham Young University it is unlikely that this biography would have been produced. The support has come in many forms: time for research and writing, funds for some research work, clerical support, and use of library equipment. Particular thanks is extended to Cali O’Connell who put the entire first draft into computer format and after the author’s retirement from official library employment, many years later, provided a faculty study room in the library and computer support from personnel under her supervision. Those who have helped to upgrade numerous drafts over the years are Katherine Eanes, Yvonne Salinas, Lynda Hill, Wendy Stevenson and Liza Olsen. The author is particularly indebted to Liza who had the burden of producing a “perfect” final draft. Thanks are also extended to Liza Olsen and Kelly Jones for editing expertise. David William Jenson donated his time and expertise to finalize the document, scan photographs from the author’s collection, and do the layout, all of which constituted an invaluable contribution to the final product. Helen H. Jenson provided an extra amount of financial support for the project for which gratitude is expressed.
Thanks is also extended to personnel of Brigham Young University Archives (particularly BYU archivists Hollis Scott, Melba Richey, Mark A. Smith, and Brian Reeves); Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections and Manuscripts; Utah State University, Merrill Library, Special Collections and University Archives; University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library, Manuscript Division; Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Utah State Archives; and Utah State Historical Society, for the use of their facilities and help in locating materials.
Many people over the course of the last twenty-five years have provided information, agreed to be interviewed, and otherwise helped to keep this project moving. Thanks is extended to all of them. Franklin S. Harris’s children have been invaluable in providing resources, sharing knowledge, and offering encouragement to keep going during the lengthy life of this project. They are Arlene H. Grover, Franklin S. Harris Jr., Chauncy D. Harris, Helen H. Jenson, Leah D. H. Jensen, and Mildred H. Bradley.


Table of Contents
List of Maps
Chapter 1 Childhood and Ancestry, 1884-1903
Chapter 2 Student Days, 1903-1911
Chapter 3 Agricultural College Faculty, 1911-1921
Chapter 4 Brigham Young University President, 1921-1945
Chapter 5 World Trip, 1926-1927
Chapter 6 Consulting Work
Chapter 7 Icor Mission to Siberia, 1929
Chapter 8 Political Campaigns, 1938 and 1948
Chapter 9 Iran, 1939-1940 and 1950-1952
Chapter 10 Middle East, 1946
Chapter 11 Utah State Agricultural College President, 1945-1950
Chapter 12 Miscellaneous Travel
Chapter 13 Community Service and Personal Finances
Chapter 14 Church Work and Spirituality
Chapter 15 Family
Chapter 16 Writings and Speeches
Chapter 17 Character
Chapter 18 Retirement, Death, and Honors, 1952-1960
Appendix 1 Family Charts
Appendix 2 Organization Memberships
Appendix 3 Publications
Sources Cited

List of Maps
Mormon Colonies in Mexico
Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico
Brigham Young University, 1903-1945
World Trip, 1926-1927
World Trip Detail, 1926-1927
Russia Trip, 1929
Birobidzhan Explorations, 1929
Middle East


Janet Jenson spent 25 years writing this biography.

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