Pat Bagley: My brother Will was a force of nature

Will Bagley was a prodigal son who became a successful and celebrated historian.

Had my brother been an asteroid, his impact would have ended the dinosaurs.

We called him “Bill” until that interloper Bilbo Baggins entered popular culture. Then it was Will.

Will Bagley set a California state record for chin-ups, was the statewide impromptu speech champion complete with a certificate of achievement signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan, got elected Oceanside High School student body president, led a protest against the poor lunch choices at said high school (I remember his “Give the cafeteria back to the rats” picket sign), built a raft and floated down the Mississippi, rode the rails, lived in a cabin on a mountaintop near Santa Cruz to write the Great American Novel, hitch-hiked across America then did it again going the other way, got run over by a river barge on his second float down the Mississippi and barely lived to tell about it (his dog, Thor, wasn’t as lucky), learned guitar and wrote songs, finagled an audition with Bob Dylan (Dylan: Keep your day job), brought his stripper girlfriend home to Oceanside to meet the family, lived in another cabin on a mountaintop in North Carolina to take another stab at the Great American Novel, taught the local farmers to grow marijuana in exchange for learning how to make moonshine, and got arrested by the sheriff in a “law and order” election year for the quarter acre of weed he was tending. (The evidence later “disappeared.”)

All before being diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes (type 1) at age 30.

Needless to say, my parents were happy with almost none of this. We grew up in a Mormon, Republican household, and while the religion and politics didn’t stick, curiosity and the love of learning did. Our house had a good-sized library, Time, Newsweek, two daily newspapers and TVs tuned to the news. The enduring image I have of my father is him with his nose in a book.

My parents lived to see Will finally set up house in Salt Lake with a family and hold down conventional jobs making cabinets and, later, writing technical manuals for Evans and Sutherland. He may or may not have understood how this stability would provide the domestic support for what he would do later.

Will never did write the Great American Novel, but he could write well and had an unquenchable curiosity. A sudden interest in the colorful Mormon settler and grifter Sam Brannon set Will on his deep, deep dive into that era’s history.

Mom and Dad also lived to see their prodigal son become a successful and celebrated historian.

Not many people outside of academia can make a living writing history, but Will did. His knowledge of the time and people was profound to the point of freakish. Ask Will what he did the day before and he might not remember. But ask him what Parley Pratt was doing on a certain date and Will would likely know and also name those with him.

If it had anything to do with the exploration and settlement of the West, it was in Will’s mental Rolodex. His knowledge is shared in hundreds of books, annotated pioneer journals, tourist pamphlets and articles — for a few years he even wrote a “History Matters” column for The Salt Lake Tribune. He won the most-prized history awards and praise from peers. The Wikipedia page listing his accomplishments is looong.

His best-known work “Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” took over a decade to complete. When I would ask about the book’s progress he would grumble something unintelligible. The wait was worth it; it is an immaculately researched look at the biggest white-on-white mass murder in America. It’s also a compelling sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next? page-turner.

At 5′4″, Will was short but with an outsize personality and voice to match. It’s worth looking up any one of his dozens of recorded interviews just to hear him tell stories in his honey-rumble bass. Google his image and you’ll see his trademark grin, always ready to laugh at some new absurdity. He made friends easily and kept them for life. He had all the “As” going for him: Affable. Amiable. Avuncular.

Also: Angry.

Will could be irascible. He would pound the table to make a point, an action that sound technicians at KUER dubbed “Bagleying the table.” Injustices 150 years old were fresh wounds to him. The folks at the Church History Library came to dread his demand for documents and called him Gimli amongst themselves.

For my part, I love my brother. I love his passion and keen sense of justice. I loved his stories. I even understand when his righteous rage overwhelmed his better judgment into making some rash statement. The squall always abated quickly leaving the funny, insightful, cheery Will in its wake, ready to share some interesting historical anecdote.

We have very different personalities — him outgoing, me an introvert — but that old expression is true: I love him like a brother.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Bagley.

Pat Bagley is The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial cartoonist. His brother Will died Tuesday in Salt Lake City at the age of 71.