Deaf sealer serving in Salt Lake Temple

Rodney W. Walker is continuing the pioneering spirit in his family as he serves as a temple sealer, believed to be the first non-hearing sealer in the Church.

Brother Walker, 84, a descendant of Utah pioneers, was set apart recently as a sealer in the Salt Lake Temple. His calling is a "coming of age" of sorts for deaf members throughout the Church.When it was announced at the Salt Lake Park Stake conference - which includes the Salt Lake Valley Ward for the Deaf - that a deaf sealer had been called, members rejoiced. Now non-hearing members can receive the ceremonies in sign language directly and not through an interpreter.

"So many people in our stake are thrilled, and not just the deaf members," said Brother Walker. "Tears have flowed."

Brother Walker has long been actively making contributions in the deaf community. He served as president of the Utah Association for the Deaf, delegate to the National Association for the Deaf and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, president of the Utah Athletic Club of the Deaf and national chairman of the American Athletic Association of the Deaf basketball tournament in Salt Lake City.

A graduate of Gallaudet College for the deaf (now university) in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor's degree in math and chemistry, he worked for 38 years as a data integrator in the department of agricultural research of American Smelting and Refining Co. He also taught sign language at Salt Lake Community College, and was awarded its annual Teaching Excellence Award in 1992.

He was born in Driggs, Idaho, one of nine children. An older brother, who was also deaf, died of a ruptured appendix at age 5. Life was isolated for young Rodney as a child, he said. "My family used some minimal home signs, but I often felt a lack of full communication."

Brother Walker didn't learn about the gospel until he was taken as a young child to the School for the Deaf in Ogden, Utah. There, he attended the LDS branch for the deaf and was baptized. He advanced in the Aaronic Priesthood offices and graduated from high school, all at the appropriate ages. He then went to Washington, D.C., to attend college, and for five years was unable to benefit from Church attendance as there were limited services for the deaf there.

After graduating from college, he returned to Salt Lake City. He met and later married Georgia Hendricks from Richmond, Utah, who was also deaf. "I give her credit for my deep involvement in the Church," he said. Through study, his testimony grew.

His employer, George Hill, who was general superintendent of the Sunday School, once asked him: "As a deaf man, where do you go to Church? How many deaf, regardless of religion, live in Salt Lake City?"

So Brother Walker decided to do an informal statistical survey of the deaf in Salt Lake City and their status in the Church. The results of the survey found its way to the General Authorities of the Church. In 1948, the Sunday School for the Deaf was organized into the Salt Lake Valley Branch for the Deaf. Interestingly, the branch was first considered a foreign language branch.

Brother Walker was called as branch Sunday School teacher. Several months later, the branch was transferred to the Salt Lake Park Stake and a priesthood quorum was organized. He served as a quorum instructor and counselor in the YMMIA. The first ward for the deaf, the Salt Lake Valley Ward for the Deaf, was created in 1971. He later served as bishop of this ward and is currently high councilor in the Salt Lake Park Stake.

According to Brother Walker, it was not until the branch in Salt Lake City was created that its members experienced full participation in Church activities.

"For example, in the 1950s, our branch was asked to join the stake road show competition. We had never heard of a road show.

"So Gladys Hind, wife of the first deaf branch president, and I started working on it. We presented our version of Wizard of Oz,' and called itThe Road to Happiness.' To our surprise, we won first place, and we were even asked to present it for the General Authorities and also at the MIA Conference that spring. We were very honored. We felt we had done a small part to show that the deaf are capable people."

Temple attendance has always been difficult for deaf members, said Brother Walker. His wife, Georgia, who died in 1988, was an avid temple worker. She could read lips and often interpreted through sign language for other deaf patrons. However, the deaf patrons were moved to the back so the sign language interpreting would not distract hearing patrons.

In the early 1980s, the deaf members were very pleased when the temple information was put on a close-captioned video. Brother Walker and several other deaf patrons were invited to evaluate the video. "We were very satisfied," he said. "Now we could go to the temple any time we wanted to, and didn't have to rely on interpreters. This was a boon and a blessing to the deaf to have a close-captioned video."

In about 1985, 18 deaf members were called as temple workers in the Jordan River Temple. Three of these couples are now serving full-time missions to the deaf.

"In 1997, Pres. Carlos E. Asay of the Salt Lake Temple envisioned a full program for the deaf at that temple," said Brother Walker. "That vision included a deaf sealer. Now, through sign language, a patron can receive the full beauty of the temple ordinances."

In 1989, Brother Walker married Patricia Seegmiller, who became well-acquainted with the deaf community through her deaf son and late deaf father.

Brother Walker has long worked to strengthen his family history connections. In 1947, he helped start the first John Walker family reunion that developed into a strong family organization. From his research, he wrote a 1,300-page book, Ancestry and Descendants of John Walker. John Walker was a convert of 1832, and during his lifetime was associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith. The book includes some 23,000 family names. Brother Walker has been executive secretary of the John Walker Family Organization for 25 years. Each year, he mails out 3,700 newsletters.

"He does it alone," said Sister Walker. "If others try to help, they just interrupt his smoothly oiled system."

Brother Walker types the letters, has them printed, folds and staples them, and sorts the letters by ZIP code. His work is strictly "a labor of love."

At a recent family reunion, he was showered with appreciation for his untiring efforts.

"This is his way of bonding with his family," said Sister Walker.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed