My father was never comfortable going to church. In a ward of full of gregarious professors and businessmen, Dad was colossally shy, self-conscious of the fact that he didn’t have a college education, and uncomfortable with his blue-collar profession. He didn’t feel comfortable talking about religion either. If I ever brought up a question about God or the hereafter, Dad would go silent. As a boy who was drawn to religion and interested in ideas about heaven, I felt a bit lost at home. My dad was a wonderful man and we were close (in the kind of buddy way we did it in the 1970s), but he was not the one to take me to church, or even the father-son campout.
But I was lucky because I had two families. My best friend, who lived two houses down the street from me, was Mike Backman (he went by Karl in those days). We spent so much time together that we both started calling each other’s parents mom and dad. Mike’s parents were very different from mine—his mother, Kathleen, was a kind, open, loving person who laughed hard and loved board games. Mike and his mother and I would sometimes play Yahtzee or Uno and eat buttered popcorn and laugh. The only grownup I knew who was even more fun than Kathleen was her mother, Grandma McLatchy. Milt was the father who would always take me along on the father-son campouts and ward socials. His thin, tall frame always looked a bit intimidating and dignified, even in his frumpy professor dress suits, but he was always kind and caring. However, the way I’ll always remember him is riding the “flying aces” ride at Lagoon. I never saw a grownup look so happy as when Milt, knees tucked up almost to his chin, flew his Sopwith Camel around and around, holding tight to the rudder.
Just before I went on my mission, Kathleen gave me a thorough introduction to the temple the day before I went through the temple to get my endowments, and Milt was my chaperone. Later, as a student at BYU, I took classes from Milt and became fascinated with Church history. His love for the Church and for its history were contagious.
The thing I loved most about the Backmans is that I never felt like my family was being judged. When I was over at other friends’ homes, their parents would occasionally ask me why my parents didn’t come to church. I always had to make some lame excuse for them, and I always felt ashamed. But not at the Backman’s house. And the Backmans both treated and talked with my parents like they were equals.
Much later, after I had married and moved out, the Backmans were assigned as my parents’ home teachers and loved them into going through the LDS temple.
Kathleen passed away in 1999, and Milt later moved from the old neighborhood. And, while I’ve stayed close to Mike, I sort of lost touch with Milt. But in 2003, I saw Milt again at the Mormon History Association meeting when I received the best biography award at the same ceremony where Milt was recognized with a lifetime achievement award. I felt doubly honored.
Milt passed away this week at the age of 88. He left behind a legacy of scholarship and service. But I’ll imagine him flying his Sopwith Camel into heaven where he and Kathleen and will play a rousing game of Uno.
Mike and my friendship has now lasted over 40 years. He is like the brother I never had, and I am so happy we were able to share parents. I will always miss both sets.