William Bagley Obituary (2021) – Salt Lake City, UT
William Grant Bagley, born May 27, 1950 in Salt Lake City to Lawrence Miles Bagley and Cassandra Margene Bailey, left us on September 28, 2021 after a series of strokes. Among the many who will miss him are three siblings, Kevin (Patty), Pat (Kate Hahn) and Lisa (Wendell Payne); Wife Laura Bayer; Daughter Cassandra and son Jesse; three beloved grandchildren, Noah (Mikah), Megan Cassandra and Maya; numerous extended family members; and legions of readers, students, friends and fans.
Bill, as he was called in his childhood and youth, moved with his family to Oceanside, California, where his father worked first as a city planner and later as multiple mayor. He graduated from Oceanside High in 1967 as a class president, state debate champion, and national pull-up champion. He studied at BYU for a year, which, one of his cousins tactfully noted, may not be the right school for the young rebel running for the student body presidency on an anti-Vietnam war plank. In his second year he moved to the University of California Santa Cruz, where he studied writing with Wallace Stegner’s son Paige and history with John Dizikes. During his visit to Santa Cruz, he organized an independent study program to build a raft and travel from Rock Island, Illinois to the Mississippi Delta. This was the first of two trips down the Mississippi recorded in his last book, River Fever. Fortunately for us, he survived a near-fatal encounter with a barge. In the years that followed, he hitchhiked, rode his bike and drove across the country twice in a van. He also spent time in a cabin in remote Spring Creek, North Carolina, writing, listening to traditional local musicians, playing music, and growing an epic beard that his mother said “made him look like a goddamn hippie.”
After his return to Salt Lake City he worked in construction, played the so-called Ka-Chunk guitar for various country bands and recorded an LP, “The Legend of Jesse James”. When he married Janis Johnson in 1978 (divorced in 2001), the required blood test revealed that he had type 1 diabetes, which he would struggle with for the rest of his life. After his daughter was born in 1980, Will left the precarious music business to take on a number of technical writing jobs in the emerging computer industry, where he worked at legendary computer graphics company Evans and Sutherland and later at Dayna.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that he took up pen to write history. His first publication, A Road from El Dorado, appeared in 1991. Encouraged by mentors Floyd A. O’Neil and David Bigler, he began research in 1990 on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a project that resulted in the publication of Blood of the Prophets. culminated in 2002. In 1996, he worked with Brother Pat to produce an illustrated children’s story from Utah, This is the Place. In 1997, publisher Robert A. Clark invited him to write a documentary story series that became Kingdom in the West, a project that kept him busy until 2019 and produced 16 award-winning volumes. From 2000 to 2004 he wrote the popular History Matters column for the Salt Lake Tribune. During the decade he also served on the Executive Committee of the Journal of Mormon History and edited two volumes for the Utah, Mormons. and the West Series, sponsored by the University of Utah’s Marriott Library and the Tanner Trust, produced online published research papers for the Park Service and the Oregon California Trails Association and provided information for several National Park Service hiking maps. In 2003 he married Laura Bayer. From 2010 to 2015 he produced four major works including Mormon Rebellion (with David L. Bigler), So Rugged and Mountainous, With Golden Visions Bright Before Them and South Pass.
In the end, he published more than 25 books and hundreds of articles on the history of Utah and the West. He has appeared in numerous videos, including Helen Whitney’s The Mormons, Brian Patrick’s Burying the Past, and many documentaries. He has received research grants from the Kniecke Library at Yale, the Huntington Library, and BYU’s Redd Center. In 2008 he received the Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellowship at the University of Utah. He has appeared on local radio and television programs, including Doug Fabrizio’s Radio West program on KUER (26 times). He lectured regularly across the state and across the country, and even spoke in Morocco and elsewhere in the world for the Center for the Study of New Religions. He enthusiastically looked after any student who got in his way and gave generous advice to anyone who asked (and some who didn’t). As a self-proclaimed expert on the bear lake monster, he loved to give lectures on the mythical beast. He put together a second music CD, The Crows Will Pick Our Bones. He wrote a one-act play for the Salt Lake Acting Company evening with short pieces on the subject of water. He has provided historical advice to fiction and non-fiction, theater, television programs, videos, podcasts, visitor centers, museums, government agencies, and others.
Will has received recognition from dozens of professional organizations. Blood of the Prophets won the Original Writing Publication Prize from the Utah Arts Council, the Smith Petit Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Association, a Western Writers of America Spur Award, the Caroline Bancroft History Prize from the Denver Public Library, the Westerners International Co-founders Best Book Award, the Western History Association’s Caughey Prize for the Major Distinguished Book on the History of the American West. After giving him multiple Spur Awards over the years, WWA named The Blood of the Prophets in 2016 as the sixth best book published in the association’s first 60 years. Three years later they awarded him the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in the History of the West. He is anchored with other Wister Prize winners in the WWA Hall of Fame at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. In 2010 he received the Wrangler, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s highest honor. He has also been honored by the Utah Arts Council, Oregon California Trails Associations (OCTA), Salt Lake Weekly, Utah Historical Society, Mormon History Association, and others. In 2013 he was elected to the Oceanside High School Hall of Fame. In 2014 he became a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society.
During his career he has served in many organizations including Western Writers of America, Utah Westerners, Friends of the Marriott Library, Oregon California Trails Association, Utah Rivers Council, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Western History Association, Mormon History Association, Utah State Historical Society, Sunstone, Mountain Meadows Association, Mountain Meadows Foundation, E Clampus Vitus, Center for Study of New Religions, and others.
The family would like to thank the staff at Legacy Village Sugarhouse and Suncrest Hospice for providing excellent service to Will over his last year.
A private family service was held; in the future there will be a public celebration of life. In lieu of flowers, we recommend donating to one of the many organizations Will has worked with all his life, including Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Oregon California Trails Association (OCTA), the Southern Utah Wilderness Association (SUWA), the Utah Rivers Council and Utah Westerners.
Expressions of condolences can be found at www.larkincares.com.
Published by The Salt Lake Tribune October 4-10, 2021.