John L. Sorenson
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Random Events

As I contemplate the trajectory of my life's experiences, I discern a pattern that some people would call random events that have been determinative in the way my life has gone on. I do not think they were random but directed by my God who set a course for me beyond my ability to foresee. On the basis of this observation I have always been skeptical about the virtue of a person's  "planning," "setting goals," and so on. They may constitute desirable strategies for other people but apparently not for me. Some instances of "random events" in my life may be instructive. I was born in a fortuitous location. Being a citizen of the United States of America has given me opportunities that have been to my great advantage. Furthermore, to grow up in rural Utah gave me an egalitarian viewpoint (neither downtrodden nor elitist) that has stayed with me for good. And to have been born in a Latter-day Saint community, with numbers of good people around me who taught me early and late to love the truth-especially the truth in the gospel of Jesus Christ-has been a great privilege. My parents' family, while less than ideal in some ways, surrounded me with sufficient love that I did not suffer from the traumas some others have encountered. I early learned the value, and necessity, of hard work, both physical and mental. Particularly during the Great Depression, which my folks barely survived, it was pounded into me that it was unnecessary to be concerned with a high degree of material prosperity and that those who were so concerned were no happier than those of us of modest means. The experience of my five older sisters and brothers taught me vicariously that to maximize one's education was the only way out of the limitations of living and thinking small. Actually Smithfield was quite a progressive community, more than a village, with about 2500 population- in those days "urban." The schools were highly valued and the teachers quite good. It helped the prevailing viewpoint that we were situated just seven miles from Logan, "the city," and its vital Utah State Agricultural College (USAC), where quite a few Smithfield-ites had attended. (All my close friends in high school graduated from college.) Even Salt Lake City, the regional metropolis and communications hub, was only 90 miles away by automobile or interurban railway. We were almost part of, yet were buffered somewhat from, the big buzzing world. I consider it a privilege to have grown up in Cache Valley rather than, say, in the isolated Bear Lake country from which my parents had come. (What "random events" led them to settle in Smithfield is part of their story, not mine.) Both my older brothers, Curtis and Randall, toughed out college during the Depression, earning B.S. degrees in respectively Electrical Engineering at the University of Utah and Radio Engineering at the USAC; Curtis was killed in 1936 in an industrial accident at Kennecott Copper on his first job). It was natural enough for me to emulate them in 1941 when I enrolled, at 17, at the Logan school; I too went for Radio Engineering. In December came my most dramatic "random event" to that point: World War II began for our country at Pearl Harbor (where Randall had just taken his first job after graduating in May).  As with all other able-bodied men, it was immediately obvious that I would face military service. I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps (predecessor of the Air Force) Reserve to take advantage of the technical training in physics and mathematics I was receiving. I was to be trained as a weather forecaster. After five quarters of college, while still 18, I was inducted in March 1942 as a Private and was sent off to "pre-meteorology" school at the University of California at Berkeley. At that point the powers that were decided they had too many such training programs, so two days later they split the group alphabetically and sent my half to the university at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the other half to UCLA. The randomness of my name starting with S set me on course for one of the most influential happenings of my life. After six months at New Mexico (and promotion to the rank of Aviation Cadet) we were shipped to the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena for nine-months training as meteorologists (in the regular but accelerated curriculum). Upon completion we were commissioned Second Lieutenants. Those who already had earned a bachelor's degree were also awarded a Master of Science in Meteorology degree. Those who had no degree were advised that when we achieved a B.S. degree, Cal Tech would, upon our application, confer the M.S. degree automatically. That happened with me in 1952 after I graduated with a B.S. at BYU in archaeology. One characteristic I learned as a meteorologist continued to affect all the "science" I would engage in over the rest of my life. Unlike the electronics/radio/physics study I had previously started to learn where there seemed to be definite, cut and dried outcomes, meteorology was a far less definite subject. I never believed I nor anyone else could forecast the weather more than approximately. "Science" to a weatherman is about seat-of-the-pants experience as much as about "the inexorable laws of nature." That perspective provided me a superior entrée into the field of anthropology, "the (vague) study of man." I can no more than begin to say how many doors that degree has opened for me overall, but the most obvious one soon ensued. When in late 1954 I applied for a National Science Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship to study for a Ph.D. in anthropology, I had never even had a class from an anthropologist, although I had had six months of archaeological digging in southern Mexico two years earlier (archaeology was usually considered a sub-field of anthropology), and I planned to become an archaeologist.  I had little hope that I would get an award, yet I did! That year was the first when the NSF gave fellowships in anthropology, and, I learned later, only mine and two others were awarded in the nation for 1955. I can only suppose that my having the Cal Tech M.S. on my record carried a lot of weight in that award. Already with five children, I probably could not have swung graduate school in any other way (the NSF grant paid an allowance for each child, so we actually made out well in that respect). When I enrolled at UCLA, I made comfortable arrangements with Dr. George Brainerd, the resident (and very prominent) Mesoamerican archaeologist to study under him. In December he died of a heart attack. They could not quickly hire a replacement of any reputation, so I was left with the necessity of making a lateral move in the department and of lining up alternative recommendations from other faculty to support the renewal of my fellowship for the next year.  (I feel like continuing to use exclamation points but I won't.) So I positioned myself with the social/cultural anthropologists whose teaching I was enjoying. The result was I got my fellowship renewed and went to work under some professors who were prominent in their fields. By the end of the second year I was well established to do my dissertation under Walter Goldschmidt, an expert on modern American society, on the effects of industrialization (i.e.. Geneva Steel) on the town of American Fork, UT. It had been studied 30 years earlier (pre-Geneva) as a farming town. (Goldschmidt had once worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Utah as a quasi-sociologist, so he knew a little about the area.) It was a perfect set-up to shed light on his model of the evolution of farming society into modern industrial life. Because of the "accidental" reorientation of my interest made necessary by the death of archaeologist Brainerd, I thus became a student of modern society and some of its consequential problems that would occupy me heavily for the next 30 years of my professional life. I am glad in retrospect not to have become an archaeologist. What I did was much more expansive intellectually. Because of my study of American Fork, I became well acquainted with some sociologists in the nearby BYU Sociology Dept. More on that below. After three years of NSF fellowship funding, through my year of field research in American Fork, I faced finding a professorial job that would support my family (then with seven children). That proved impossible. As I recall I could have taught at Santa Barbara, in New Hampshire or in North Dakota, but none of them paid enough to consider. My key professor at UCLA was busy promoting his own career (he later became president of the American Anthropological Association) and had no time help his students start theirs. In the summer of 1958 I essentially had to try to find any job, even beyond anthropology, but that did not work out either. Finally a key "random event" came about. In the period 1953-55 I had been a lowly instructor in the Archaeology Dept. at BYU officed in the Eyring Science Center. I became a good friends with a young faculty member, S. Lyman Tyler, in the same building. His field was the history of American Indian relations, which naturally overlapped with anthropology. By 1958 he had received a charge by the administration to plan, build, and then administer a new library. Encountering him one day in the summer of my desperation, he offered me a job for a year as "Social Science Librarian" with the duty to select and acquire a respectable collection of social science books, including of course anthropology and American Indian works, to fill the new shelves to be built. Of course I accepted and spent a delightful year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to order thousands of important books. I also immediately connected with the BYU sociologists and arranged to teach a couple of courses in anthropology in their department; many of the faculty there had had a taste of anthro in their graduate training and were sympathetic with the idea of having it taught at the Y (at UCLA my department was called Anthropology and Sociology, which helped). They welcomed me heartily. By the end of my year in the library, I had been hired to begin teaching full-time in the department, and the next year we were offering a major in anthropology, while the name of the department was changed to Sociology and Anthropology (I can't resist one more exclamation mark!) My "random event" of cultivating a friendship with Lyman Tyler at length turned into creation of a full-fledged, well- respected Anthropology Department at BYU that is now decades old. A couple of years later another major "historical accident" in my life developed out of another friendship I had cultivated. Paul and Harriet Hyer moved into an apartment in 1949 just half a block from where my wife Kathryn and I were living near Fourth North and Second West. He was our (LDS) home teacher, or vice versa (I've forgotten which). Later he got his Ph.D. at Berkeley in Asian Studies then returned to BYU where he became the Asian guru on the faculty. (He is still my good friend today; after much research in Japan and Mongolia, he served as a mission president and temple president in Taiwan.) In 1963 he was involved in planning a research project concerned with Vietnam, where the U.S. was becoming involved in the war between the government of South Vietnam and an insurgent force supported by North Vietnam. A former student of Hyer's had arranged with his employer, the Naval Ordnance Test Station in China Lake, CA, to carry out a "systems analysis" of the situation in country and the prospects for U. S. forces there. Paul H. insisted that in addition to historians and political science folks as planned, they very much needed an anthropologist on the team. I signed on and worked full-time in Provo two summers and part-time during the intervening school year on that study. My role became so central that I ended up writing the final report.  (We were not optimistic about either the corrupt South Vietnamese government or the U.S. role.) As a result of our timely and perhaps even useful report, NOTS requested a revamped team to spend a second summer making the same sort of study of the situation (i.e., a growing rural insurgency) in Venezuela, which we were able to pull off. Again I wrote the report; both 90-page papers were published by NOTS in early 1964. I was due for a sabbatical leave from  BYU in 1965 and wondered what and where that might be arranged.  One day in late winter of 1965 another major "random event" came along. A telephone came from the president of the Defense Research Corporation (an outfit of about 75 people; their name was changed to General Research when they later went public) in Santa Barbara, CA.  They had seen my two NOTS publications, had a pending contract on insurgency with an agency in Washington, and wanted to know if I would come to work for them- immediately! After a quick reconnaissance visit to meet them, I accepted, and we moved as fast as arrangements could be made. They paid two and a half times what I had been getting from the Y  (which meant I could give up my poor-man's ulcer). This led to one of the greatest changes in my/our life. I credit all that followed in my career with my getting to know Paul Hyer 15 years before. GRC said they would make it impossible to return to BYU after my sabbatical leave, and they increased my pay regularly so that I could not, in fact, go back. I became their chief social scientist (their basic work was missile warfare gaming, but they wanted to broaden their range of projects). At least for five years. By then the relatively relaxed life of a professor in Provo seemed mighty attractive, given the hectic pace of the GRC job--- frequently flying to the East coast to report or talk about new contracts, or to go to professional meetings, or to meet consultants. That seemed a pace I had not bargained for. Expressing  those concerns to management led to a surprising development. GRC offered to form a subsidiary, Bonneville Research Corp., to be located in Provo, where I would carry out their social science contract work. I hoped to tap into the supply of part-time social scientists on the Wasatch Front, who at that time had few alternative employment options beyond teaching. We implemented the plan. After two prosperous years, there was no more contract funding to be found. I switched back into a BYU faculty slot through another personal friendship arrangement, but this time as a tenured professor and without giving up too much financially. Relatively minor random events continued to come along in that period that I won't mention, but in 1978 my dear friend and guru, Dean Martin Hickman, decided he had to make me chair of the troubled "Archaeology and Anthropology" Dept. (I was outside the dept. at the time.) I served at that task for eight years, at length turning it into a unit firmly integrated in the university's structure instead of the isolated appendage it had been. In my eighth year in that role I suffered a heart attack (largely as a result of the stress induced by the job). Talk about "random events!" That was completely unexpected.  I decided to retire at the end of the school year (in 1986) at age 62. That constituted another major turning point in my life, leading to my best career move of all: escaping the rat race! Freed from thinking about the minor quibbles of anthropological theory and the even more minor squabbles about which professor was to get which small privilege, I became a non-practicing anthropologist, retaining the broad comparative perspective of the field but happily unconcerned with details and personalities. My intellectual attention turned back to my early topic of interest: Mesoamerican archaeology and history from which Professor Brainerd's death had turned me. In many respects I continued this interest especially through affiliation with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) to which Jack Welch had introduced me a few years earlier. Their concern with scholarly studies intended to shed light on the Book of Mormon matched my own renewed (actually, continued, though subordinate) interest in Mesoamerican studies for the same purpose. Most of my intellectual activity since my retirement from BYU has been along those lines. And much of my most satisfying research has followed that line now for 27 years But two major "random events" still awaited me. At the beginning of January 1991 my wife Kathryn and I had just arrived in the Santa Barbara area to spend a leisurely winter season when she passed away of a heart attack. We had been married a little more than 44 years. The changes that came upon me at that time were as weighty as any ever to come into my life. In my floundering to find new ground under my feet, only weeks after Kathryn's burial I was blindsided by a further surprise.  As I have explained elsewhere, God let me know, directly and pointedly, who my new life companion was to be: my neighbor Helen Christianson. Suffice it to say that after 26 months of preparation we were married. Balancing our two families (18 children in all--eight Sorenson sons and a daughter and six Christianson sons and three daughters, their varied spouses, 62 grandchildren, and 10 greats, so far) has been a nimble act through the 20 years of our marriage. The experience has been very satisfying overall, rather like a picnic in the summer: there have been a few thunderstorms come along with occasional dusty winds and blowing debris, as well as intervals of rain, but mostly we've enjoyed lovely sunshine. What have learned about life? That episodes of balance in life are often interspersed with "random events" or "historical accidents." In my considered view, I see a loving Father arranging (in my case at least) for those punctuations of the greatest utility for my development and happiness. Changes may result in good for any of us, if we respond positively to their challenges. Or they may devastate our lives if we allow them to. Here's my praise for positive outcomes, as has been so often the case for me.
Reminiscenses by John L. Sorenson