Walsh: Prop 8 rips friendship asunder

Salt Lake Tribune/November 9, 2008

Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton were student and teacher first. Then friends. Then business partners.

Now, it's safe to say, they might as well be enemies.

The founders of WordPerfect toiled on a word-processing program in a basement office at Orem City Hall 30 years ago, made a fortune together and built mansions just miles from each other in Utah County. They are now estranged.

The reasons for the rift are deeply personal: Bastian gave just over $1 million to fight California's Proposition 8. Ashton gave the same amount to the campaign to amend that state's Constitution to ban gay marriage.

But it's about more than money, more than politics. Bastian is a lapsed Mormon who came out as a gay man, divorced his wife and renounced his faith almost simultaneously. Ashton is still dedicated to his church, a former mission president and grandson of the late LDS Church President David O. McKay.

Two men whose friendship made both of them rich are now on opposing sides of a culture war. And their collective history is not enough to bridge the gap.

"It's a personal slap in the face from people I was close to, people I worked so hard for and stood up for in so many ways," says Bastian. "People I thought were my friends and saw me as an equal have helped push me back. They consider me second class."

Bastian was a young father and director of the BYU marching band when he took a computer science class from Ashton. Ashton became Bastian's thesis adviser. Together, they drafted a precocious computer program with early pull-down menus and function keys tailored for personal computers. In 1978, they founded WordPerfect. Sixteen years later, they sold to Novell.

At the same time, Bastian's marriage was coming apart. Things haven't been the same between them since.

With the money he made, Ashton provided the seed money for Thanksgiving Point. Bastian bankrolled Ballet West, bought pianos for the University of Utah and dedicated his time and a good bit of his fortune to the Human Rights Campaign.

This isn't the first time the former business partners have been financing two sides of the gay rights debate. In 2004, when Utah voters were considering banning gay marriage, Ashton, then serving as a Mormon mission president in Toronto, quietly dropped $175,000 into the campaign at the last minute. Bastian spent $350,000.

Then, Ashton declined to talk about his donation because of his assignment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This time, he said he was prodded to give, like all Mormons, by letters read from the pulpit this summer. His money was used as a challenge grant for California donors and was only disclosed a few days before the Nov. 4 election.

"I wanted to make sure the future is good for my children and grandchildren," he said. "That's why I gave."

Bastian feels a sense of betrayal that he believes Ashton does not understand. He figures Ashton and his wife have taken the "love the sinner/hate the sin" approach many Mormons do.

"It is all really painful for me," he says. "It hurts more than they will ever understand."

Ashton insists, "I've always had the highest regard and respect and love for Bruce. He's been a very good partner."

The two now have limited contact due to their remaining business interests. But a one-time close relationship is in shambles. WordPerfect was one of the first companies in Utah to extend benefits to lesbian and gay partners of its employees. Ashton, Bastian notes, did not protest the policy.

"He's not a bad man."

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