Church leader teaches by enabling others to `catch the vision'

In the summer of 1958, young BYU student Merrill C. Oaks was about as busy as a pre-med student could be. He was taking a compressed course in organic chemistry - a year of instruction in 10 weeks - and he was trying to get accepted to medical school.

He was also preparing for his wedding."I knew the grade from this course was important [toward acceptance to medical school]," he recalled. About every three weeks, the students in the course were given an exam. Thus far in his education, he had never studied on Sunday.

Then one weekend before a test, he and his fiance went to a family reunion. "I didn't get much time to study on Saturday," he related. "We got back and I didn't feel at all prepared. It was a defining moment."

He considered the "ox-in-the-mire" clause in the Bible and surmised he could justifiably study that Sunday. "But I thought, this is an important principle I've decided to keep. So I went to bed and got up at 4 in the morning [on Monday] and studied hard. At the end of that 10-week session there were three grades [that had been given] - I was the only student who got three A's."

This commitment to strict gospel observance has continued in the life of Elder Merrill C. Oaks up through his calling to the Second Quorum of the Seventy. He was sustained April 4 in general conference.

Sitting beside his wife, Josephine, the woman he married that summer nearly 40 years ago, Elder Oaks, 62, spoke of his new responsibility and the role his mother and wife have played in his life.

"You do a lot of thinking about the challenge that such a calling is," he said, speaking of his feelings about being a new General Authority. "I've been trying to think of the ways the Lord can use me, and I've thought a lot about the growth it takes to be prepared.

"And yet, my overall feeling is very upbeat. I know where the call comes from. So the bottom line is I'm full of faith," he added.

His wife agreed and said one of her husband's greatest attributes is the ability to see two sides of a situation. "In raising our children, he didn't get angry. He helped them to see that there are different ways of looking at something.

"He's very loving and warm," she said, and added that her husband enables others to catch the vision of what they can accomplish.

Elder Oaks is most appreciative of his wife's parenting skills. She was named National Young Mother of America in 1972. He said she is understanding and supportive. In many of his callings over the years, he served in BYU stakes away from his family. Thus, she often took their children alone to Church.

"In fact, there's a humorous episode," he related. "We must have had about six children at the time. I came back to my home ward. We looked across the way and there was a single mother with about six little children. I said, `My, isn't she doing well managing all those children alone.'

"My wife said to me, `Yes, and that's what I'm doing every Sunday with our children.' "

Seeing the humorous and warm side of life seems to come naturally to Elder and Sister Oaks. The new General Authority credits this characteristic to his mother. "Mother could always laugh at herself, even in some very difficult times."

One such time greatly shaped his life. When he was 4 years old, his father - an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist - contracted tuberculosis and died. He has a younger sister, Evelyn, and an older brother, Dallin, who today is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"Her faith was an anchor," Elder Oaks recalled. "She was just rock solid. When mother prayed, you knew the heavens could hear her," he added, his voice breaking with emotion.

Soon after his father's death, his mother moved the family to her parents' farm in Payson, Utah, for a year. "Lacking a father, we were really very close to our grandparents," he related. "My grandparents by economic standards were very poor, but by spiritual standards were very rich. I remember Grandmother's homemade bread. There were good, warm and wholesome feelings and teachings that just cemented everything."

And if the children did their chores well, Grandfather rewarded them by taking them to a nearby lake in the evenings to swim. But only if Grandmother said so, Elder Oaks added.

"Grandma was afraid the water would be too cold, so she would not let us go swimming until she could not see any more snow on top of [Mount] Timpanogos. So it usually took until late July before she'd let us go swimming," he said, laughing.

On the farm, where he continued to work summers as he got older, Elder Oaks learned to enjoy work. His responsibilities included hauling hay, milking cows and picking fruit.

"Work is an important part of life. People who don't learn that have a difficult time in life, if work is all just drudgery. If what you do is only drudgery, then life isn't any fun."

After his mother moved the family from the farm, they went to Vernal, Utah, where she taught school for six years, then to Provo, Utah, where she was an administrator in the school system. She was later elected assistant mayor of Provo. She died in 1980.

Elder Oaks graduated from high school in 1954, and from 1956-1958 served a mission in eastern Canada. When he returned, he continued his schooling at BYU. He also became reaquainted with a young lady - Josephine Ann Christensen - who had been his sister's friend in Payson. They started dating. Not long after, he gave her his social unit pin.

"She'd had it about two minutes and said, `You know what people are going to start asking me now, don't you?'

" `Well, yeah.'

" `What am I going to tell them?'

"I said, `How about a year from this summer?'

"She said, `How about this summer?' " he recalled, both of them chuckling.

They were married Sept. 10, 1958, in the Salt Lake Temple. From their union have come nine children and 19 grandchildren.

In 1959, the young couple moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he entered medical school at the University of Rochester. She had a degree in child development/

family relations and, thus, worked at a nursery school at the university. As soon as their first child was born, she cut back to part-time and later quit to stay home with the children.

After an internship in Lexington, Ky., and specializing in ophthalmology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Elder Oaks moved his growing family back to Provo, where he continued the family practice his uncle, L. Weston Oaks, had started years before. They remained there until Elder Oaks was called to preside over the Washington Seattle Mission in 1996.

Through the years in Provo, Elder Oaks has served in various callings in BYU stakes, including president of the BYU 17th Stake.

Through it all, he has relied on the Lord to qualify him for his responsibilities - both in career, community and Church. Sister Oaks said that often while praying together the night before doing an eye surgery, he'd ask, "Please help my hands be steady that I'll be able to improve this person's eyesight."

Seeking the Lord's help - something he has done throughout his life - will continue to be a major part of Elder Oaks' life as he begins his new responsibility.


Elder Merrill C. Oaks

Family: Born Jan. 12, 1936, in Twin Falls, Idaho, to Lloyd E. and Stella Harris Oaks. Married Josephine Ann Christensen Sept. 10, 1958, in the Salt Lake Temple. Nine children - Kathleen McLaren, Julianna Gee, Amy Josephine Long, Gregory, Marlow, Tarali, Leticia Strong, Dana, Sterling Clayton, 19 grandchildren.

Education: Bachelor's degree in zoology from BYU (1960), medical degree from University of Rochester (1963), internship at University of Kentucky in Lexington (1963-64), speciality in ophthalmology from Washington University in St. Louis (1964-67).

Employment: Ophthalmology practice in Provo, Utah, from 1967 to 1996.

Church service: President of Washington Seattle Mission at time of call to Second Quorum of the Seventy; former president of BYU 17th Stake, counselor in presidency of BYU 1st Stake, bishop and counselor in bishopric.

Community service: President of medical staff at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, president of Utah Ophthalmology Society.

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