In his address at Rex E. Lee's funeral March 15, President Gordon B. Hinckley acknowledged the many talents and achievements of the former president of BYU, who died at age 61 on March 11, 1996 (See Church News, March 16).
Other speakers during the funeral in the Provo Tabernacle recounted Pres. Lee's devotion to the Church, the legal profession and to BYU, and of the evidence of the hand of the Lord in his life. He was also praised as an outstanding husband, father and grandfather.The speakers included President Hinckley's counselors in the First Presidency, President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor, and President James E. Faust, second counselor; Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve; Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Seventy and Pres. Lee's successor as president of BYU; and BYU Provost Bruce Hafen, a longtime friend and colleague of Pres. Lee.
Several hundred people gathered in the tabernacle for the funeral while others viewed the proceedings on closed-circuit television at the Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake Center and at several locations on the BYU campus. Classes at the university were canceled during the funeral so students, staff and faculty could participate.
Born and raised in St. Johns, a small town in eastern Arizona, Pres. Lee graduated from BYU and the University of Chicago Law School. He served as assistant U.S. attorney general and U.S. solicitor general as well as founding dean of the BYU law school and president of BYU.
Among his callings in the Church, he served as a stake president, a high councilor and a bishop. He and his wife, Janet, have seven children and 10 grandchildren.
Speaking at a podium adorned with a large block "Y" made of yellow and white flowers and blue ribbon, President Hinckley emphasized the healing power of Pres. Lee's words.
He related an experience he had at a gathering of descendants from both sides of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. Pres. Lee and President Hinckley were speakers at the gathering in Southern Utah University's Centrum arena in Cedar City, Utah, on Sept. 15, 1990. Several people in attendance including two of the speakers, according to President Hinckley, were descendants of the Arkansas victims of the tragedy.
President Hinckley said that Pres. Lee "asked that all descendants of the Arkansas group and the Utah group stand and join hands. He said he hoped in the future that Mountain Meadows would symbolize `not only tragedy and grief, but also human dignity, mutual understanding, a willingness to look forward and not look back.'
"He invited those who joined hands to look at one another and create in their hearts a spirit of reconciliation and mutual respect, and then to say something of appreciation and concern one to another."
Although he wasn't a descendent of any of the participants, President Hinckley said he joined others in carrying out Pres. Lee's request and felt a spirit of reconciliation.
"The terrible bitterness that had been felt through 133 years evaporated," President Hinckley said. "A desire for peace and good will seemed to be felt by all who were present. No word of recrimination was spoken. Pres. Lee with his gesture and his language had overcome the long nurtured hatred which had existed."
Then President Hinckley added: "Rex Lee will be remembered by most as a great lawyer, of singular and remarkable accomplishments. I add my voice of admiration for what he did in that field. But that one shining moment in Cedar City, when he brought healing to those who had inherited the passions of the past will remain in my memory. It was wonderful. And it was true in character."
President Hinckley also repeated part of his devotional speech from last October when he was able, for the last time, to publicly thank Pres. Lee for his many contributions.
In that tribute, President Hinckley said: "Thank you for your dedicated service to the Church which you love. You have given unstintingly of your time, your talents, your means, and your heart. You have mingled with the great of the earth, but you never lost touch with those who walk in humble circumstances. We thank you for the great conviction you have carried in your heart concerning the living reality of God our Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the persuasiveness with which you have testified concerning these great and sacred matters."
President Hinckley said of the man who argued 59 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court: "Not many people in this nation have ever heard of St. Johns, Ariz. It is a long and remarkable trail from that quiet town to the halls of the Supreme Court of the United States. He did it. He made that journey by dint of hard work, a great intellect, and a demanding sense of the importance of excellence in whatever field one chooses to follow."
In his remarks, President Monson said: " Here and there, and now and then, God makes a giant among men.' Such a giant was and is Rex Edwin Lee." President Monson commented on Pres. Lee's middle name, and said, "TheE' in Rex Lee's name stands for `excellence.' "
President Monson spoke of having gone year's ago to St. John's, Ariz., where he met Pres. Lee's mother and step-father and other family members. "Rex Lee left a lot in St. John's, but he took a whole lot with him from St. Johns," he said. "He took the spirit of the people, the humility of the people, and the faith of the people, and it never departed from him, ever."
He commented on different settings in which he had seen Pres. Lee at BYU. One was at a graduation ceremony, before which one of Pres. Lee's daughters ran up, put her arms around him, kissed him and told him she loved him. "I recorded that in my journal," President Monson said.
He told of how Pres. Lee conducted in majesty and in dignity and with humor graduation exercises, after having just learned that his cancer had reappeared. President Monson said: "I wrote in my journal, `This is one of the most difficult days of my life to have composure under such condition.' " President Monson said that on that day, Pres. Lee had invited the parents to applaud the graduates, and then invited the graduates to stand and applaud the parents. "I then invited the student body to applaud their president, Rex E. Lee," President Monson said. "In an instant, every person in the Marriott Activities Center stood and gave a long and a thunderous applause to demonstrate their love for this man whom they honored, Pres. Lee."
President Monson said Pres. Lee was a pioneer at everything he did. He was, he said, one who had gone before, showing others the way to follow. "He gave new meaning to three words: courage, competence and compassion."
President Faust spoke of many of the traits that made Pres. Lee the outstanding man he was. Among those traits was a sense of humor.
President Faust spoke of a meeting of the BYU board of trustees where he was trying to make the point that academic grades shouldn't be the sole criteria for entrance into the university. "Even Abraham Lincoln couldn't qualify for admission to the J. Reuben Clark Law School," President Faust reported saying. "Then Rex, quick as a flash, said, `He showed up one day, but he had a beard.' "
President Faust also remembered Pres. Lee as a musician, "who serenaded Janet with his ukulele while they were courting at BYU, singing the song, `Hard-hearted Hannah.' Obviously, her heart softened."
After speaking of many other traits Pres. Lee will be remembered for, President Faust said: "Rex Lee will live on in this earth through his posterity. He will live on in the lives of thousands of his students. He will live on in the jurisprudence of this nation. And so, dear Janet, everything in life has a price. Most events are well worth the price. Being married to a princely husband is to lose a princely husband for a time.
"Rex, like Paul, can surely say, `I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim. 4:7.)' "
Elder Oaks said he first met Pres. Lee when the latter was student-body president of BYU. Elder Oaks was president of BYU when Pres. Lee was asked to be founding dean of the university's law school.
"Rex Lee sought first to build up the kingdom of God," Elder Oaks said. "His life was in balance. His mind did not overmatch his heart. His exceptional talents for reasoning did not overshadow his simple but powerful faith in God. He had the education to be learned and the faith to be wise and he was both of these."
Elder Bateman related an experience when he participated in giving Pres. Lee a priesthood blessing when he was first diagnosed with cancer. "The words came easily, and Rex was told that his mission on earth was not yet complete, Elder Bateman said. "The Lord still had an important work for him to do. And until his mission was finished, his life would be spared."
He said no one who heard that blessing knew what that mission would be, but two years later he received his call to serve as BYU president.
Speaking of a personal conversation he had with Pres. Lee shortly after the call came, Brother Hafen said: "Just a few years earlier he had nearly died from his first bout with cancer and he worried about a reoccurrence. I saw the tears in his eyes when he said, ` . . . this means I'm going to live for at least several more years.' He had total confidence in the prophetic spirit of the BYU board of trustees."