â€œHe had dedicated his life â€“ his time, his energy, his talents â€“ to the greatest cause of all, the work of God on earth.â€
The evaluation with which Davis Bitton closed his award-winning biography of George Q. Cannon tells us what Davis considered to be the highest and best use of a lifetime, and it serves equally well as Davisâ€™s own epitaph.
Davis was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, on 22 February 1930. He passed away this morning in Salt Lake City, at home, where he wanted to be, in the presence of his family.
He served a mission to France where his mission leaders, recognizing great talent and previous experience, encouraged him to study piano as much as to proselyte. He served in the Army during the Korean War. His formal education included an undergraduate degree from BYU (1956), and masterâ€™s (1958) and doctoral (1961) degrees from Princeton, but like most major scholars, his real education came from a lifetime of study, thought, writing, and teaching.
Most of us know Davis best from his work in Mormon Studies. He was a charter member of the Mormon History Association, and when a photograph of the attendants at the organizational meeting was passed around at an MHA dinner a year or two ago, Davisâ€™s face was the most recognizable to the rest of us. He served as an assistant to church historian Leonard Arrington in the â€œCamelotâ€ days of the 1970s â€“ every Mormon historian or family historian with Mormon roots must have thanked him at one time or another, if only in private thought, for his extraordinary Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies, among other incredibly useful reference works. Lists of his works are easily available; chances are that you will recognize a favorite essay in The Ritualization of Mormon History or Saints Without Halos.
Others among us know him as a teacher, from his work at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and especially at the University of Utah. He recently taught two semesters at BYU-Hawaii â€“ Davis and JoAn had gone there planning to stay only one semester, but the university asked him to organize and teach his thoughts on a new aspect of his medieval history specialty, so they cheerfully rearranged their lives to take advantage of one more formal teaching opportunity.
T&S readers may also know Davis from his occasional essays at Meridian magazine.
Some of us have had the extraordinary good fortune to know Davis in person. From the day I moved into his ward in Salt Lakeâ€™s Avenues, Davis and JoAn have treated me like a friend and a professional colleague, even though Davis really had no reason then to know who I was. They have invited me into their home repeatedly, kept me advised of their family news, and called to check on me when they missed me. On more than one memorable Sunday, Davis sat down at his piano to play for me, with the specific intent of giving me a gift. It was always appreciated. Davis has been my Sunday School teacher, he has offered career and fatherly advice, and he and JoAn have both done me the honor of hiring me to research for them â€“ as if there was anything I could do that Davis himself was incapable of!
I visited Davis in the hospital a few days before he was stable enough to come home, borne into his room by grandsons who carried him like a hero on his shield. He was alert and interested in everything I could tell him, and, as always, he and JoAn made room for a visitor while still barely taking their eyes off each other. Iâ€™m not sure which of them adored the other more; they are the best matched couple I have ever known.
This announcement is scattered and omits too much, and doesnâ€™t at all serve as the tribute I would like to write for this grand gentleman, disciple of Christ, and fine scholar. Rather than waiting until I can do better, though, I thought Davisâ€™s many other admirers and students would want to hear of his passing.
Keep JoAn in your prayers.
This is the obituary running in the Salt Lake papers:
R. Davis Bitton 1930 ~ 2007 I, Ronald Davis Bitton, have moved on to the next stage of existence. As you read this, I am having a ball rejoining my parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and dear friends and associates I knew on earth. I am wide awake, no longer struggling with the narcolepsy that handicapped but did not defeat me, and cheerfully taking in the new state of affairs and accepting the callings that will occupy me there. It has been an abundant life. Growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho, where I was born on 22 February 1930, and on a farm in nearby Groveland, I never felt one moment of familial insecurity. My parents, Ronald Wayne and Lola Davis Bitton, loved me and did everything they could to see that I had opportunities, including piano lessons from age six. I learned to work in the house, in the yard, on the farm, and in local retail stores. I learned to write as a reporter for the Daily Bulletin. I remember enjoying a trip to the San Francisco world’s fair, fishing and hunting trips, scouting camps, and community concerts. I had great friends and was elected to several student offices. I learned to compete in softball and basketball. I joined a crack high school debating team. As a student at Brigham Young University, missionary in France, enlisted man in the U.S. Army, and graduate student at Princeton University, I felt myself growing in understanding. I went on to be a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and for 29 years the University of Utah, enjoying many congenial students and colleagues. I have presented papers at scholarly conventions and published articles and books. I have loved good food, good books, the out of doors, music, art, the dappled things. A nurturing home throughout my life has been the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bishops, stake presidents, teachers, mission presidents, and general authorities I have known have been people I could admire and follow. My own opportunities to serve have been numerous, starting at a very young age and including elders quorum president, counselor in a bishopric, member of the stake high council, and gospel doctrine teacher for many years. From 1972 to 1982 I served as assistant church historian. I have loved the hymns, the scriptures, the temple. I am grateful for Aunt Vilate Thiele, my mother’s sister, a steady friend; my other uncles and aunts on both sides; my brother John Boyd Bitton; my sisters Marilyn Bitton Lambson and Elaine Bitton Benson; wonderful nephews and nieces; children Ronald Bitton, Kelly Bitton Burdge, Timothy Bitton, Jill Cochran, Stephanie Ross, Debbie Callahan, Larry Morris, Judy Nauta, Earl Morris, Delbert Morris; their spouses; and 56 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are to me a delight. Having learned the value of loyalty, I appreciated the affection and interest of my family as well as cherished friends. No one has been more important to me than my dear wife and companion JoAn, a woman loved by all who knew her. She rallied to my side, stood by me through thick and thin, grew with me, laughed with me, made good things happen, and, marvel of marvels, agreed to be my companion through time and all eternity. I have not lived a perfect life, but I have tried. And I know in whom I have trusted. Funeral services will be held Tuesday, April 17th, 1:00 PM at the Salt Lake Ensign Stake Center, 135 ‘A’ Street. Friends may call Monday evening from 6:00 to 8:00 at Larkin Mortuary, 260 East South Temple; and Tuesday from 12:00 to 12:45 at the Stake Center. Interment at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Online condolences at www.larkinmortuary.com