Published: Sept. 29, 2016

Original article can be found at HJnews  
Originally published on September 29, 2016 By Kevin Opsahl 

At the beginning of her lecture, Patty Limerick jokingly gave attendees who gathered at the Logan Tabernacle on Thursday night a “trigger warning” that her talk would include “bureaucratic studies ahead!” and warned people who had a “high sensitivity to boredom may need to take refuge.” 

But Limerick’s talk was anything but boring. Limerick, a professor and administrator from the University of Colorado-Boulder, was lively and engaging and had people laughing at times, when she talked about federal government employees’ role in the development of the American West in her lecture, titled “Hair-Raising Tales from the Department of the Interior” at the annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture sponsored by Utah State University. 

But more than telling stories, Limerick’s lecture argued more attention should be paid to clerks, surveyors, engineers, rangers, agents and others in their role in shaping the American West. 

“My hope is that ‘bureaucrat’ can become a reclaimed epithet,” Limerick said. 

Limerick noted her talk came at a time when society has “reached a critical mass of really good articles and books tracking the ground life of bureaucrats” and their contributions to the American West. 

But Limerick’s lecture also came at a time, she said, when numerous bureaucracies — such as the TSA, the IRS and the U.S. State Department — are “at the center of civic discontent and dismay.” 

Nevertheless, Limerick said we should look at history of the American West and how bureaucrats — including the early Mormon settlers in Utah — shaped the western United States. 

Limerick said it’s common for people to label government workers whose conduct they like as “public servants” and remove the “bureaucrat” label. 

“This produces a situation where public servants are removed into a separate category and only tedious, vexing, small-minded people are left in the category of ‘bureaucrat,’” Limerick said. “Can ‘bureaucrat’ became a reclaimed epithet?” 

Limerick argued the Mormons’ land allocation in the mid-1800s “had features and qualities that presented an alternative and in some ways a better alternative to federal land policy” — that Mormons knew how to manage land in a way the federal government would only learn how to do later, when it created the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

She even drew a few laughs when she said she would “take joy in talking about that historical aspect” of land management with Logan congressman Rep. Rob Bishop. Bishop has been a strong proponent of Utah taking ownership of federally controlled public lands within the state. 

Limerick even wrote a limerick — “an obligation with my last name” — to Bishop to convince him think about the public lands issue a different way: 

“People are drawn to a fight 

To conflict, friction and plight 

But I’m forced to be bland 

On the subject of land 

And concede that the Mormons were right.” 

Limerick’s lecture was the 21st in the Arrington Lecture series. 

USU reached an agreement with Arrington before he passed away in 1999 that all of his papers would be donated to USU Special Collections and Archives and an annual lecture would be held in his name. The lecture has brought everyone from prominent Mormon historians to those people interested in the subject and just getting their feet wet in the realms of Mormon history. 

Brad Cole, dean for University Libraries and former director of Special Collections and Archives, told The Herald Journal that Limerick’s lecture reflects the goal of the Arrington Lecture. 

“Leonard Arrington was more than just a Mormon historian,” Cole said, noting Arrington’s involvement in founding the Western History Association and Western Historical Quarterly. “It reminds people that Leonard had a broader scope than just Mormon history, and we’re thrilled to have Patty, who is trying to bring out Western topics.” 

In a USU press release, Cole said Limerick’s lecture topic also “speaks to … how Mormon history fits under that greater umbrella of western history.” 

Stephen Sturgeon, who received his Ph.D. in American History from the University of Colorado-Boulder under Limerick, sharing what he called “the gospel of Patty Limerick, according to Steve.” 

Sturgeon talked about how lessons from his days as a student of Limerick’s translated into his life today as a minister of St John’s Episcopal Church. Before that, Sturgeon worked in USU’s Special Collections and Archives. 

In sharing his lessons, Sturgeon spoke to the students of the writing competition that accompanies the Arrington lecture. 

“Words matter,” Sturgeon said. “They help us communicate our ideas to the world so do not use them in a sloppy way. When I preach on Sundays, I give a Patty Limerick sermon.”