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Utah historian, author, dies at 96

Published December 29, 2010 12:13 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Brigham Dwaine Madsen had only two books in his Pocatello, Idaho, childhood home — Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe — and he yearned for more.

Finances were tight, but one Christmas when "Brig" was in fifth or sixth grade, his mother bought a set of encyclopedia through the Book-of-the Month Club. The future professor eventually read all 20 volumes — twice.

Madsen, who died Dec. 24 at 96 of natural causes, had an ever-expanding interest in human events, especially the story of the Shoshone-Bannock Indians, who lived hear his Idaho home.

History was more than a career; it was his life's work.

"Brig was a historian's historian," said Gary J. Bergera, managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, a Utah-based historical research group. "Each book he published set a new standard of excellence. From his studies of American Indians to biographies of prominent Westerners to his own memoirs, Brig succeeded in achieving the balance, insight and understanding all good historians strive for."

Madsen's death represents "a tremendous loss to the history community," Bergera said Tuesday.

With a lifetime spanning nearly a century, Madsen not only taught history, he lived it.

As chief historian for Gen. George Patton's Third Army, he observed the War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg. From 1964 to 1965, Madsen helped train Peace Corps workers and, while in the nation's capital, joined Martin Luther King's March on Washington and heard the preacher's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Such travels and openness took him physically and intellectually far from his boyhood home.

Madsen's first real encounter with the world outside Pocatello was when he served a two-year mission in rural Tennesee and North Carolina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In his 1934 departure speech, the gangly 6-foot-4 teen admitted to his LDS congregation he wasn't sure Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Madsen served his church honorably, baptizing 14 converts and helping build two Mormon chapels. But he remained a skeptic.

"Losing faith is a traumatic experience," the University of Utah professor emeritus of history told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1999. "You feel as if your ego has been hurt, that you've been taken in."

As a young professor, Madsen's intellectual rigor and dedication to what he saw as unvarnished truth led him into a conflict with Brigham Young University administrators over the issue of academic freedom. He resigned his post in 1954, after teaching there for only six years.

Madsen then worked with his Idaho-based brothers in Madsen Construction Co., but he missed academia, so in 1961 he accepted a teaching position at Utah State University. Four years later, he moved to the U., where he both taught and oversaw the library and the school's massive building projects.

He always returned, though, to American Indians.

A lifelong fascination started at the University of California Berkeley in the late 1940s. He wanted to write his doctoral dissertation on the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, but his advisers balked.

"They said the topic was unimportant and not scholarly, and that he should choose something else," daughter Karen M. Loos said in a phone interview from Alameda, Calif. "But he persisted, and that's what he wrote it on and continued to have an interest in that tribe his whole life."

In pursuing the truth about an 1862 military campaign against the Northwestern Shoshone, Madsen discovered the engagement was "not a battle but a brutal slaughter," he reported in his memoirs.

The Utahn's efforts resulted in the establishment of the Bear River Massacre National Historic Landmark. The Shoshone tribe later retained him as an expert witness in its lawsuit against the federal government, Loos said.

Madsen passed on the same idealism, passion, discipline and drive to his four children, said his son Steve Madsen, a builder in Carlsbad, Calif.

"He taught us the value of hard work, keeping our word and doing whatever we committed to," Steve Madsen said.

Seen as a big, happy, gregarious man, Madsen was also playful, a punster and brimming with limericks, including 59 original creations that mention Utah sites and culture, Loos said. "Dad taught us all vaudeville ditties he learned from his mother. Music was very important to him."

Those people skills easily charmed university employees he greeted every day as director of the U.'s J. Willard Marriott Library and later as a researcher, said Gregory Thompson, who now oversees the library's special collections.

"He made it a habit to circle through the library, greeting people," Thompson recalled. "His contact with everyone was on a personal level."

Madsen brought that same approach to his scholarly work.

"Brig was very optimistic in his general outlook, and quite positive about people, and that's reflected in the nature of his writing and his interpretation of people and their situations," Thompson said. "His influence was in a wide sweep, not just Utah and the American West. … He opened up some very important avenues of research and writing that have led others on down the path."

pstack@sltrib.com

Memorial service

P A memorial service will be held for Brigham D. Madsen at Larkin Sunset Lawn on Jan. 4. Visitors may greet the family from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. The burial will follow the service. —

Looking back • Brigham Dwaine Madsen

R Born Oct. 21, 1914, in Magna

Raised in Pocatello, Idaho

Married Betty McAllister, who died in 1997. They had four children: Karen Loos, David Madsen, Linda Dunning and Steve Madsen.

Married Mary Harriman in 2003. She survives him.

Earned University of Utah's Distinguished Teaching Award twice.

Author of 11 books, including The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre and Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Western Historian.