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When you have as many cousins as I have, it isn’t likely you’ll ever meet them all. I feel fairly certain I will not. Having been born to parents whose families on both sides are known for prolific multiplying, it’s possible I see cousins every day without knowing it.
But last week, I met my cousin (mother’s side) Lorel Gagon Roberts. He goes by Lee. It was a sheer delight.
Lee is 99 and going strong. Naturally, we started our conversation with the common link, William Highland Gagon. He is Lee’s grandfather and my great-grandfather. I am descended through his first wife, Lydia Ann Taylor, and Lee through his second, Mary Augusta Goodrich. Now, while you figure out the degree of relationship, I’ll tell you a little about William Highland, an exemplary man with whom I’m happy to claim kinship.
He came to the United States in 1847 with his parents, James and Mary Highland Geoghegan (later Americanized to Gagon) during the height of the Irish potato famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of poor Irish people. It was during this time that thousands upon thousands left the Green Isle and emigrated to America hoping for a better life for their children. (The Geoghegans eventually had 11 children, including William Highland, who was born in New York.)
Eventually, the family, now known as the Gagons, moved to Marshalville, Ohio, where my great-great-grandfather worked for a railroad. William Highland followed in his father’s footsteps as a railroad worker. His employment led to Montana and he then headed south to Utah, probably influenced by fellow railway workers. He was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Jan. 13, 1876, much to the dismay of two of his sisters, who, in true Irish fashion, had become Catholic nuns. Throughout his life, he received periodic postcards and letters from his two sister sisters, begging him to renounce the “cult” he had espoused.
On the contrary, William Highland took his family to the Uintah Basin and became a stalwart among its pioneers, being among the first settlers in Ashley Creek (now known as Vernal). His devotion to the church and his leadership in his community earned him a spot in the collection “Important Men in Utah.”
Among his children was Rose Ella, who married Elmer Roberts, and then there was Lee.
Lee is steeped in Basin stories. He remembers when his Uncle Ray was shooting matches in a cap gun and ended up burning down the 16-by-16-foot cabin that was a relic of the pioneer days. Eventually, William Highland built a home for his family in the west end of Roosevelt. The cost? Just $500.
“It’s still occupied,” said Lee.
The Gagons were many and gregarious. Lee lived across the fence from kin and grew up in typical rural Utah fashion, sharing the hardships and the successes of many relatives. He recalls his Uncle Joe, who is my grandfather Joseph Albert Gagon.
It was in the Basin that he became involved in the building trade, which took him eventually to many places in the United States — and beyond. At the outset of World War II, he’d been engaged in building naval bases in six states, earning 93 cents an hour as an “essential worker.” He’d previously pocketed a dollar a day working in Provo. Eventually he decided to join up.
When he was in naval boot camp at Farragut Base in Idaho, another young recruit named Thomas S. Monson was also in training. “I was his superior then. I outranked him,” Lee said. “Now, I don’t think so.”
Another momentous event during his three years in the Navy was when he met his wife, Pauline, who was serving as a Wave in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
“They’d come in to eat with us,” Lee recalled. Enamored with “the most beautiful woman in the world,” what could he do? Eventually, when she flew to Reno to marry him, the $18 rent on his one-bedroom apartment went up to $20. His Navy pay was just $78 per month.
One of his jobs during his Navy service was helping to build a “sub tender.” Such a boat also was involved in one of the most exciting things that happened to him in the military after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had essentially ended the conflict and after he had actually been discharged. His unit was assigned to take a tender to a location in the South Pacific.
They stopped at an island where Japanese soldiers hadn’t learned yet that the war was over, he said. Apparently they had been out of contact with their superiors for a long time.
“We came back on an older ship, towing two Japanese subs back to Hawaii,” he said. “A huge storm broke the cables on one of the subs and caused all kinds of problems for the sailors.”
Finally home and ready to start civilian life, Lee found that Pauline wasn’t willing to leave her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she had been waiting. He joined her there and after a few glitches, his family settled into life in Milwaukee. (He worked just one day moving 20-foot 2-by-6 boards before throwing in the towel. The superintendent recognized a good worker and he was soon working building houses.)
In 1954, when they found the LDS missionaries “just wouldn’t leave us alone,” Pauline was baptized and Lee renewed his old faith. He helped to finish the work on the old Milwaukee 1st Ward chapel that had been started in 1929 but never finished. His co-workers on that job were “90 percent German displaced persons,” he said.
He’s built hundreds of homes and then turned to helping with the finishing work on temples, more than a dozen of them. Pauline, still “the most beautiful woman in the world” at 93, is struggling with a debilitating disease. She can’t talk any more, but she blew me a kiss when I was leaving.
Lee began writing diaries when he was in high school. A son now is working to organize and preserve these personal writings. I’d like some day to read them all.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.
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