Bill, as he was known as a child and teenager, moved with his family to Oceanside, Calif., Where his father first served as a city planner and then a multi-term mayor. He graduated from Oceanside High in 1967 as Class President, State Debate Champion, and National Traction Champion. He studied for a year at BYU, which, as one of his cousins ââtactfully noted, may not have been the right school for the young rebel who ran for student body president. on an anti-Vietnam war board. In his second year, he transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied writing with Wallace Stegner’s son, Paige, and history with John Dizikes. While studying in Santa Cruz, he organized an independent study program to build a raft and travel from Rock Island, Illinois to the Mississippi Delta. It was the first of two trips on the Mississippi River, trips recounted in his latest book, River Fever. Lucky for us, he survived a near-fatal encounter with a barge. In the following years, he hitchhiked, biked and crossed the country in a van twice. He also spent time in a cabin in Spring Creek, North Carolina, writing, listening to traditional local musicians, playing music and growing an epic beard, which his mother says the made him “look like a fucking hippie.”
After returning to Salt Lake City, he worked in construction, played what he called ka-chunk guitar for various country groups, and recorded an LP, “The Legend of Jesse James”. When he married Janis Johnson in 1978 (divorced 2001), the required blood test revealed that he had type 1 diabetes, which he would struggle with for the rest of his life. After the birth of his daughter in 1980, Will gave up the precarious music business for a series of technical writing jobs in the emerging computer industry, working for the legendary computer graphics firm Evans and Sutherland and later at Dayna.
It was not until the 1990s that he took up his pen to write history. His first publication, A Road from El Dorado, appeared in 1991. Encouraged by mentors Floyd A. O’Neil and David Bigler, in 1990 he began researching the Mountain Meadows massacre, a project which resulted in the publication of Blood of the Prophets. in 2002. In 1996, he partnered with his brother Pat to produce an illustrated story for children of Utah, This is the Place. In 1997, publisher Robert A. Clark invited him to become editor-in-chief of a documentary history series that became Kingdom in the West, a project that occupied him until 2019 and produced 16 award-winning volumes. From 2000 to 2004, he wrote the popular column “History Matters” for the Salt Lake Tribune. During the decade, he also served on the executive committee of the Journal of Mormon History, which edited two volumes for Mormons in Utah. and the West series sponsored by the Marriott Library of the University of Utah and the Tanner Trust, prepared published research papers online for the Park Service and the Oregon California Trails Association, and provided information for several National Park Service trail maps. In 2003, he married Laura Bayer. From 2010 to 2015, he produced four major works, including Mormon Rebellion (with David L. Bigler), So Rugged and Mountainous, With Golden Visions Bright Before Them and South Pass.
In the end, he published over 25 books and hundreds of articles related to the history of Utah and the West. He has appeared in numerous videos including The Mormons by Helen Whitney, Burying the Past by Brian Patrick and numerous documentaries. He has won fellowships from Yale’s Beinecke Library, Huntington Library, and BYU’s Redd Center. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellowship at the University of Utah. He has appeared on local radio and television shows, including Doug Fabrizio’s Radio West show on KUER (26 times). He has lectured regularly throughout the state and country, even speaking in Morocco and other places around the world for the Center for the Study of New Religions. He enthusiastically mentored every student who came his way and generously gave advice to everyone who asked (and some who didn’t). Self-proclaimed Bear Lake Monster expert, he enjoyed giving presentations on the mythical beast. He compiled a second music CD, The Crows Will Pick Our Bones. He wrote a one-act play for the Salt Lake Acting Company’s short-lived Night On The Water. He has provided historical advice for fiction and non-fiction, theater, television programs, videos, podcasts, visitor centers, museums, government agencies and more.
Will has received recognition from dozens of professional organizations. Blood of the Prophets won the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Publication Prize, the Smith Petit Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Association, a Western Writers of America Spur Award, the Denver Public Library’s Caroline Bancroft History Prize, the Westerners International Co-founders Best Book Award, the Western History Association’s Caughey Award for Distinguished Great Book on the History of the American West. After awarding him several Spur Awards over the years, in 2016, WWA named The Blood of the Prophets as the 6th best book published in the association’s first 60 years. Three years later, they presented him with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in Western History. Along with other Wister Award winners, he is inducted into the WWA Hall of Fame at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. In 2010, he received the Wrangler, the highest honor awarded by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He has also been honored by the Utah Arts Council, Oregon California Trails Associations (OCTA), Salt Lake Weekly, Utah Historical Society, Mormon History Association, and others. In 2013, he was named to the Oceanside High School Hall of Fame. In 2014, he became a member of the Utah State Historical Society.
Throughout his career he has served in numerous organizations including Western Writers of America, Utah Westerners, Friends of the Marriott Library, Oregon California Trails Association, Utah Rivers Council, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Western History Association, Mormon History Association, Utah State Historical Society, Sunstone, Mountain Meadows Association, Mountain Meadows Foundation, E Clampus Vitus, Center for the Study of New Religions, and others.
The family would like to thank the staff at Legacy Village Sugarhouse and Suncrest Hospice, who provided excellent care to Will during his senior year.
A private family service took place; a public celebration of life will take place in the future. In lieu of flowers, we suggest donating to one of the many organizations Will has worked with throughout his life including Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Oregon California Trails Association (OCTA), Southern Utah Wilderness Association (SUWA), Rivers of Utah. Council, and Westerners of Utah.
Condolences can be shared on www.larkincares.com.
Published by The Salt Lake Tribune October 4-10, 2021.