What are we to make of the life and teachings of Claude “Corky” Rex Nowell/King/Nowell, aka Summum Bonum Amen Ra—Corky Ra, for short?
The public details of Mr. Ra’s life are copious. From a miscellany of sources—the substantial press he received, a few television interviews, and a pair of his own testimonies on the website he inspired—it’s possible to cobble together the main facts of his life and achievements.
Born in Salt Lake City on November 2, 1944, he was christened Claude Rex Nowell. After his parents divorced in 1948, his mother remarried, took her son with her to Southern California, and had his name legally changed to Claude Rex King. Along the way he picked up the nickname “Corky.” While still in California, he graduated from Orange Coast College, a large community college now advertised as having 25,000 members, with a degree in construction technology.
Corky moved back to Salt Lake City in 1964 at the behest of his birth father, who gave his son a job in his construction business and insisted that Corky attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; though his father himself wasn’t active in the church, Mr. Nowell thought his son would benefit financially from a tie to the dominant regional power. About this time Corky changed his name (legally) back to Claude Rex Nowell. Maintaining that name for the nonce, he became a Mormon missionary and an elder in the Church, rising to the position of assistant to the mission president, “which,” he once informed an audience, “is about the highest rank you can get to as a missionary.” After a two-year stint on the Central States mission field, he went on to attend Brigham Young University and then the University of Utah, from which he graduated, or did not graduate, with majors in business and, perhaps, philosophy (the sources on these two points are at variance).
In 1970, Corky and one Annette Hall were wed in an LDS temple. They moved into a home that his father had built for him in an affluent neighborhood of the Salt Lake Valley at the base of the grand Mount Olympus. Not long afterwards, he’d lost his interest in the Church, the couple had had two kids, he began to meditate—at the time he thought of it as “relaxation”—in the basement den, and he and Annette started to see things “from two totally unrelated perspectives.” In 1974, the two were divorced and he was doing his meditations in an apartment.
A year later, he says, “I was just having a regular old life like everybody else has. I would go to the clubs in town, and dance, and have a few drinks, and party and get involved with different people,” one of whom was a woman named Chris Miller, whose religious pilgrimage has not been preserved for the ages.
On October 28, 1975, while sitting on a couch in Ms. Miller’s apartment, Corky was purportedly visited by extraterrestrial beings he came to call “Summa Individuals.” This visit led to his founding of the religion Summum, which he registered with the IRS as a non-profit organization. On orders from the extraterrestrials, he claimed, he began to construct a pyramid cum temple in Salt Lake City. Two years later, in 1977, Summum initiated a student organization at his alma mater, making it possible for Corky to teach classes for night students; he later claimed that after two years of these classes, almost 20,000 had become members of Summum. Using donations and volunteer labor, his pyramid was completed in 1979; it was to serve as a sanctuary cum classroom, a winery, and a repository for the mummies of Summum devotees and their pets. In 1980 he changed his name (again legally) to Summum Bonum Amen Ra, though he was commonly and informally known as Corky Ra.
In 1988, once more claiming orders from the extraterrestrials, Corky published a book on the philosophy these visitors from elsewhere had taught him. He called it SUMMUM: Sealed Except for the Open Mind. A year later he married a woman named Grace (neither family name nor religious pedigree is given), whom he had met in a parking lot after one of his lectures. This wedding took place in another temple—this one housed in the pyramid; it was officiated by his disciple Summum Bonum Neffer Menu—Su Menu, aka Sue Parsons—who later succeeded him as president of the organization.
Six years on, he published an illustrated booklet, Sexual Ecstasy from Ancient Wisdom, with the subtitle The Joys of Permanent Sexual Ecstasy.
In 1997, Summum reported an American membership of 150,000.
But what placed Corky Ra in the public eye was the litigation. In late 2008 and early 2009, the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum was heard and decided by the U. S. Supreme Court. This case resulted from Corky’s wish to place a monument listing Summum’s basic teachings, called the Seven Aphorisms, alongside monuments of the Ten Commandment in the city park of a small town near Provo, Utah. On February 25, 2009, the Supreme Court ruled against this New Age religion. The vote was 9-0.
Summum Bonum Amen “Corky” Ra was unavailable for comment on this setback. He was suffering a setback of his own, in his beloved Temple, where he was undergoing the last stages of mummification. He had died on January 29, 2008 of what Su Menu described as complications from Vietnam-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a bad back.