A new Hugh Nibley story, from the Archives

I found this in a short autobiography by Glenn Pearson, a BYU professor.  Boyd Peterson, Hugh Nibley’s biographer and son-in-law, had not seen it before.

While running an Institute in California, Pearson completed PhD coursework in History of Education at UCLA, but went back to BYU before finishing. Here’s Pearson’s story.

I picked up a lot about historians and the writing of histories during my forty years in the academic community. My major at USU was history. At BYU I took courses in ancient languages from Hugh Nibley and Sidney B. Sperry. These classes often became discussions of history. Hugh Nibley especially brought a great deal of history into his language classes.

At UCLA my major was history of education. My major professor, Dr. Flaud C. Wooton, taught history and was the head of the history department at Claremont College before coming to UCLA. He said that he gave Hugh Nibley his first job after Hugh received a doctorate at UC Berkeley. He said that listening to Hugh translate and discuss ancient manuscripts was the greatest intellectual experience of his life.
The way this thing about Nibley came up was that, in a graduate seminar one day, Wooton made some statements about what he considered an ideal scholar. Among other things, he emphasized languages, though languages certainly were not his own forte. A black doctoral candidate from the faculty of a famous all-black college in the deep South raised his hand and asked: “Dr. Wooton, if you were to choose your successor in this department, how would you describe him?”

Wooton said, “That would be easy. All I would have to do is describe a young assistant I hired at Claremont College when I was the head of the history department there. He had just received a PhD from UC Berkeley and could not find anyone who would hire him because he was overqualified. He came to me and offered to work for nothing if I would give him a chance to work for me. He wanted access to our library, which was one of the best history libraries in the world in some areas in which he was interested. So I hired him, but not for nothing. I put him on the payroll.”

Then Wooton said this young man’s ability to read and translate ancient documents in seminars was the greatest intellectual experience of his life. I knew that Hugh had been at Claremont College. He told me once that the vice president of Claremont was a particularly vicious Mormon hater and that this man had said that he expected some day to be president of Claremont and that, when he became president, the first thing he would do would be to fire Hugh. Hugh told me that one night when he was in his room, he saw the spirit of the president walk through and knew he was dead. The next day the vice president, now president, called Hugh and notified him that he was no longer on the payroll. One of Hugh’s greatgrandfathers was that Professor Neibuhr who taught Joseph Smith Hebrew. Could that have been part of the problem? Well, I doubt that the vice president of Claremont College would have known that Hugh was part Jewish. But I have seen unbelievable prejudice against Jews in my lifetime….

After Dr. Wooton had finished his speech about this young assistant’s brilliance, I raised my hand. Dr. Wooton recognized me. I said, “You sound like you’re describing Hugh Nibley.”

Wooton asked, “where did you ever meet Hugh Nibley? I’ve been trying to find out where is is for years.”

I said, “That’s easy. He is one of my colleagues on the BYU faculty and he married one of my first cousins.”

He then continued to praise Hugh Nibley, and said that just such a scholar would be his choice to succeed him as head of his department at UCLA.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Hugh Nibley, he was a polymath who greatly influenced an entire generation of LDS scholars. I highly recommend reading his award-winning biography, and his World War II reminiscences.

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