‘He was like Ted Lasso’: LDS historian, ex-college president and a student favorite dies

Nov. 10, 1932 — Nov. 25, 2023: Douglas D. Alder helped build up what is now Utah Tech University, taught at USU, and played a part in the New Mormon History movement.

(Alder family) Douglas Alder, a Latter-day Saint historian and former president of what is now Utah Tech University, in an undated photograph. He has died at age 91.

Not long after he accepted the presidency of Dixie College (now Utah Tech University) in 1986, Douglas D. Alder learned that the governor was requiring a 6% budget cut for higher education across the state.

It made for a grim first day on the job.

Since salaries made up 70% of the school’s budget, and contracts had been set in place, the cuts were going to have to come from other sources.

At the time, the tiny southern Utah college had two vehicles in its motor pool, six copy machines on campus and enough incidental cash for only six months’ worth of postage.

So Alder, with his can-do attitude, inexhaustible energy and network of friends, went about building the small school into a strong and viable college.

He did this by creating a national advisory committee, a capital campaign, and a strong academic program — and by eliminating numerous presidential perks, including the president’s vehicle, his gardening services, cable television and housekeeping.

By the end of Alder’s presidency in 1993, he had made long strides.

The longtime professor, historian, author, educator and community leader died late Saturday in Lehi after 15 years with Parkinson’s disease and, finally, cancer. He was 91.

His superpower: Getting a read on his students

(Alder family) Douglas Alder, a Latter-day Saint historian and former president of what is now Utah Tech University, in an undated photograph. He taught at Utah State University for 23 years.

Alder had a doctorate in European history, specializing in German history during the time before World War II, but he later fell in love with Utah’s own history, according to son Nate Alder. He also served (twice) as a lay bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on numerous church councils, and, ultimately, as a member of the St. George Temple presidency.

At the height of the “New Mormon History” movement, Alder was active in and became president of the Mormon History Association (1977-78). He was on the editorial board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and was engaged widely in Latter-day Saint scholarly circles.

Alder chaired Utah’s Endowment for the Humanities and was a longtime board member of the Utah State Historical Society and the Utah Arts Council.

Still, his greatest love — beyond his wife, Elaine, his four children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — was for college students.

“Dad’s superpower was understanding the minds of students who faced big decisions in life … [and believing] in young people to make their mark in the world, to find success, to climb to their highest potential,” Nate wrote in an email. “He was like Ted Lasso before we ever knew anything about Ted Lasso.”

A life of learning

Alder was born Nov. 10, 1932, in Salt Lake City. He graduated from East High School and attended the University of Utah before serving in the Swiss-Austrian Latter-day Saint Mission. He returned to finish his bachelor’s and master’s degree in history at the U. He met Elaine Marie Reiser while in college, and, after serving in the Utah National Guard, they married in 1958 and later relocated to Eugene, Ore., where Alder earned his doctorate at the University of Oregon.

Returning to the Beehive State, Alder was hired by Utah State University’s history department and within four years was named USU’s “Professor of the Year.”

Dinner table discussions in the Alder household “were often organized debates,” the son recalled. “One person was asked to take a ‘pro’ side and the other the ‘con.’ [Dad] would referee, and offer encouragement, points to consider, and award praise.”

His father never was “without a book in hand,” Nate said. “If there was a five-minute break, he would read a few more pages. He believed in being a season ticket holder, especially to concert series, but also to basketball and football. He was not afraid to show up to an Aggie sporting event with a book in hand.”

The historian, the son noted, believed deeply in the “transformative effect of higher education.”

His father had a sign on his desk that read: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

As a USU professor for 23 years, Alder “had a line … of students waiting to ask him questions, get advice, hear his wisdom.”

To this day, people ask the son, “Any chance you are related to Doug Alder?” and when he answers in the affirmative, he hears a version of the following: “Your dad changed my life.”

It is difficult for daughter Elise Alder Clark to summarize her father’s impact on her life.

“My greatest loves — the gospel, music, books, learning, NPR, languages, art museums, the cultural arts, libraries, gardening, family history and travel — all grew from the seeds my father planted in my youth,” Clark wrote on Facebook. “Some of my earliest memories of my father include him teaching me to whistle and skip as we walked to various cultural events on USU’s campus. His big hands kept me close. His long legs kept me skipping.”

New Mormon history

During Alder’s first year at USU, he came to know future church historian Leonard Arrington, who reawakened Alder’s interest in Mormon history.

Arrington and others helped him realize that “something was changing in Mormon history,” Alder wrote in a summary of his Latter-day Saint beliefs.

Books by the faith’s scholars were being published by reputable universities.

“The presses were secular,” Alder wrote. “They wanted history that was objective, based on factual documents, not dogma.”

A new approach emerged.

It came to be called “New Mormon History” and aimed at being “genuinely objective and acceptable as such to the scholarly community,” he wrote. “Though it had some critics, it has proven to be successful and prolific.”

Throughout his life, Alder was able to balance his faith and rational learning, seeing them as complementary rather than conflicting.

Latter-day Saints “believe in truth and must pursue it wherever it can be found,” he wrote. “But we do not set the gospel aside during that pursuit. We live by faith and commitment … We experience tensions, but we pray.”

A memorial service is planned at Lehi’s East Bench Chapel, 1631 E. 900 North, at noon Saturday, Dec. 2. Visitation will take place from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.