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Skousen evoked strong feelings

W. Cleon Skousen
W. Cleon Skousen

His friends and admirers saw W. Cleon Skousen as a deeply religious man who wasn't afraid to publicly marry his faith with his interpretation of constitutional principles and his disdain for communism.

Those who were leery of his many writings and speeches saw him as an ultra-conservative alarmist with a penchant for fueling political conspiracy theories.

So as family and friends prepare to bid him farewell at local funeral services scheduled for Saturday, Skousen's life and teachings are being remembered in a variety of ways. The former FBI special agent, Salt Lake City police chief, Brigham Young University religion teacher and founder of the Center for Constitutional Studies died on Monday at age 92.

Though they may view him in different spheres, both friends and foes knew he was passionate about his beliefs.

His son, Paul, said the modest family home in Salt Lake City has been deluged with condolences from "a lot of people from across the nation and overseas calling in once word started to get out. They're asking what was he working on, wondering whether they can get a plane in on time" for the funeral.

"He made a lot of friends in Israel, in Central and Latin America — just about everywhere. They had a great love for him. He counseled with them on politics, and on the drafting of a constitution he helped with in Canada and Latin America. Many of them admired his wisdom and understanding, and as a result want to come and offer due respect and honor for a man that helped them understand constitutional principles."

Author of 46 books, including Cold War-era tomes on communism and religious works directed at fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Skousen was most widely known for his devotion to America's Founding Fathers and his interpretation of their writings. The National Center for Constitutional Studies was an outgrowth of his original Freemen Institute, both conservative think tanks that published his articles, speeches and audio tapes. Paul Skousen said his father often made hundreds of speeches a year in a wide variety of venues.

Glenn Kimber, Cleon Skousen's son-in-law, said he had the chance to travel with Skousen for 20 years, working by his side and lecturing with him in all 50 states.

"I was absolutely thrilled watching his great desire for documentation. He covered the spectrum," leaving behind a library with some 7,000 volumes, he said.

While most are books he devoured on the Founding Fathers, politics and the LDS Church, many were penned by Skousen, including scores of personal journals and "scrapbook-type" histories he kept, Kimber said.

A few years ago, Skousen had planned to establish a private library to house his holdings, but plans fell through, Kimber said. Days before he died, Kimber said Skousen told his children about his desires for the library. A deal with what Kimber described as a Provo-based "educational organization" known as FranklinSquires is in the works, and he said the library will eventually be open to the public. Copies of Skousen's writings will also be donated to Brigham Young University's Special Collections library, he said.

"People would come up and say how much they appreciated his work. Different people found him to be their friend in so many different disciplines," Kimber said.

That included friendships with people from a variety of faiths.

One of those is the Rev. Donald Sills, a Baptist minister, fellow conservative and past president of the American Freedom Coalition. He said he first met Skousen as a young pastor in Spokane, Wash., back in 1964, when he put together a meeting called the "God Bless America Rally."

"I thought the only person to do it was Cleon Skousen, and I took a lot of flak for that," as church members asked why a Mormon would be invited to address them. But the two "developed a very close relationship. We traveled throughout different parts of the world teaching the basics of free enterprise system. He was the voice of real constitutionalism. I know he had read over 200 volumes of writings of the Founding Fathers." The Rev. Sills said he found Mr. Skousen in Washington, D.C., once, sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. When he asked what Mr. Skousen was doing, the reply came, " 'I'm talking to Tom Jefferson.' That's the kind of man he was," he said. Another personal experience further endeared him to Mr. Skousen when he was invited to stay at his home in Salt Lake City. "I got up the next morning, and there was Dr. Skousen and his wife in the kitchen. He asked me if I wanted to join them in morning prayer. There they were, getting down on their knees by the table. It was absolutely marvelous."

Both were friends with former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson and other conservative politicos. When Mr. Skousen and the Rev. Sills organized a three-day "Making of America" conference in Salt Lake City years ago, the Rev. Sills said President Benson quipped, "If they'll take a Mormon elder with a Baptist preacher on the platform for three days, we've got a winner."He dubbed Mr. Skousen "probably the greatest constitutionalist I know. I've been in ministry for 47 years, and I admired the man, I loved him." He told Mr. Skousen's family years ago that when their father died, he wanted to be at the funeral, and "by God's grace I hope to be there."

Another admirer is Joseph Ginat, former adviser to the prime minister of Israel and now director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"He was in Israel over 20 times, and I went with him to meet top politicians and government ministers," Ginat said. "He always had good questions and analyzed the situation in the Middle East. He had a great love for Israel, no question about it. I think that he followed the approach of President Ezra Taft Benson, who also loved Israel very much." The two talked biblical studies and the history of the Old Testament. "He was so articulate. He explained things so every person could understand . . . and he had an excellent sense of humor that came out in his lectures."

Skousen also had plenty of critics and clashed with former University of Utah professors J.D. Williams and Obert C. Tanner, according to U. law professor Ed Firmage, who remembers working with Skousen as a young employee in his father's store in Provo. "I had talks with him when he came in and we sold him a suit or tie or shirt." While he He appreciated Mr. Skousen as a person, and even invited him to speak once to his First Amendment class at the U. But "on the issues that mattered, he and I were on opposite sides of the fence. He was way to the right — a John Birchy kind of person who really appealed to a particular brand of right-wing Mormonism at a particular time. I don't view him as a significant constitutional scholar. He had a rightward song that was ideologically driven."

Firmage said he didn't read much of Skousen's work, so "I wouldn't be much of a commentator on his writing. I know he had definite views on Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, as most rightward Christian denominations do. But I think his defense of right-wing ideas was subversive of Mormonism and notions of the Constitution." Firmage spent his early career working with Martin Luther King and Hubert Humphrey during the Cold War. "He saw Russia as bigger than it was and saw various plots and plans and schemes against the country that I think didn't exist. It was the height of the McCarthy era and he was one of the chief spokespersons."

Wrapping religion and constitutional views together as Mr. Skousen did makes political views "a religious principle for some people. That makes it impossible to see the real defenders of the Constitution when you're looking for a bogeyman all the time. It was a somewhat paranoid period in American history that we're now somewhat free of. I think we are in a better and healthier period now."