In remembrance: Truman Madsen, 1926-2009
“Come, lay his books and papers by,
He shall not need them more,
The ink shall dry upon his pen,
So softly close the door.
His tired head, with locks of white,
And like the winter’s sun,
Hath lain to peaceful rest tonight,
The teacher’s work is done.
“His work is done; no care tonight
His tranquil rest shall break,
Sweet dreams, and with the morning light
On other shores he’ll wake.
His noble thoughts, his wise appeal,
His words that battles won,
But God doth know the loss we feel,
The teacher’s work is done.
“We feel it, while we miss the hand
That made us brave to bear,
Perchance in that near-touching land
His work did wait him there.
Perchance, when death its change hath wrought,
And this brief race is run,
His voice again shall teach, who thought
The teacher’s work is done.”
-- Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #338 (1948 edition)
“Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”
-- 2 Samuel 3:38
"Ed ella: 'O luce etterna del gran viro
a cui Nostro Signore lascio' le chiavi,
ch'ei porto' giu,' di questo gaudio miro,
'tenta costui di punti lievi e gravi,
come ti place, intorno de la fede,
per la qual tu su lo mare andavi.'
. . .
"Cosi' spiro' di quello amore acceso;
indi soggiunse: 'Assai bene e' trascorsa
d'esta moneta gia' la lega e il peso;
'ma dimmi se tu l'hai ne la tua borsa.'
Ond'io: "Si ho, si lucida e si tonda,
che nel suo conio nulla mi s'inforsa.'"
-- Dante, Paradiso, XXIV:34-39, 82-87
"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
-- Jackie Robinson
I first heard of Truman Madsen some 36 years ago, when, as a recent convert to the LDS Church and a newly-minted missionary, I listened to one of his talks during a study session with my companion. I don’t remember the subject of the talk, but I do remember the spirit that accompanied it and the impression it left upon me. Along with a few other, similar experiences during my two-year mission, that was enough to ensure that I would count myself among his lifelong fans; but I had no way of knowing that in years to come I would become well-acquainted with him personally, or that he would exert a powerful impact on my life far out of proportion to the amount of time I would actually spend in his presence.
Several years later, while I was attending BYU, his son Barney and daughter-in-law Cindy became two of my closest friends on earth. In time I would come to regard them as family, and as often happens, that involved getting to know the extended family as well. Accordingly, one evening in March of 1981, while Barney and Cindy were either engaged or very close to becoming so, I met Dr. Madsen for the first time. The occasion, to say the least, was a good deal less formal than what I might have expected for such an encounter, and that evening I saw a side of Truman Madsen that is probably largely unknown to those who have never met him personally. We were watching a BYU basketball game, and much to my surprise and amusement, he became quite involved in it, alternately cheering whenever the Cougars scored or executed a good defensive play, or – in a manner that would have been entirely appropriate in, say, a Mormon Sunday School class -- cursing their mistakes. He would jump up and down and wave his arms and holler and stamp his feet while he did this. His agitated, living-room cheerleading was completely at odds with the calm, scholarly image he presented in more formal settings, but it made him seem human and real, and even more appealing to me than he already was.
Over the years, I would have many other encounters with him, every one of them pleasant and memorable. And I continued to listen to recordings of his lectures and watch them on the BYU Channel whenever I could. Truman Madsen had a soothing, reassuring voice that was perfectly suited to the type of work he had chosen, and in his person and character, the fabrics of scholarship and faith were woven together seamlessly. He proved that one could at once be devoutly religious and, in the secular sense, highly educated. His achievements included a Ph.D from Harvard, but he spent his career teaching philosophy at BYU; and in between, he found time to raise a wonderful family, make more than 50 trips to Israel (most of them rather lengthy), and serve faithfully and devotedly in the the church he loved. He served for three years as a mission president in New England, and later, toward the end of his life, as a stake president and patriarch.
But it is simply as a friend that I remember him most fondly, and I know he would want it that way. I returned with my family to Utah during the summer of 1997, and we remained there until relocating once again five years later, this time to Arizona, where we have remained ever since. In October, 1997, we were invited to attend the first of many post-General Conference wrapup sessions with the Madsen family, and from that weekend up to the present, Conference has never seemed complete without that traditional get-together. These were always presided over by Dr. Madsen and his wife, Ann, and he was always the one who closed them, first with his own thoughts and comments and then with a prayer. I participated in every single one of the gatherings during the remaining five years we lived in Utah, and by telephone after we moved again and I was unable to be physically present. During one of those wrapup sessions, he gave me an inspired and memorable priesthood blessing, for which I will always be grateful to him.
The last such gathering I was actually able to attend took place after the closing session of October Conference of 2005, and Dr. Madsen appeared to be in good health and spirits. He allowed me to take some pictures of his bookshelves, one of which is shown here. Although he was nearly 79 years of age at the time, it just sort of seemed like he would be with us forever, and it did not even occur to me that that first weekend in October, 2005, would mark the last time I would ever see Truman Madsen alive.
But to paraphrase Cervantes, in his concluding chapter of Don Quixote: “As nothing that is man's can last for ever, but all tends ever downwards from its beginning to its end, and above all man's life, and as Truman Madsen's enjoyed no special dispensation from heaven to stay its course, its end and close came when we least looked for it.” Several years ago, he developed prostate cancer, which through treatment was put into remission; but as cancer so often does, it eventually returned with a vengeance. Through communications with the family, I had been aware in recent months that his health was declining, and I knew the end was near when no plans were made for a post-Conference wrapup this past April. Finally, word reached me this morning that Truman Madsen, the beloved husband, father, grandfather, scholar, and friend – one who, like Moses, had been faithful in all his house, and whose eye had not been dimmed nor his natural force abated – had passed away a few hours before, at his home in Provo, Utah, at 6:35 a.m. local time.
I had been expecting the news for days, and of course it was deeply saddening to me, as it surely has been to others. But perhaps it should not be so, partly because Truman Madsen himself would not want us to mourn his departure, and partly because his life was both long and gloriously lived. I never knew a nobler or better man than he, and his life was both a monument to the Latter-day Saint faith and a living, breathing, palpable testament to its intrinsic and ennobling virtue. If being a Mormon is what made this man what he was, then anyone could certainly do worse than to become one, or to persevere in this difficult and, frankly, demanding faith after having accepted it. "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."