It seemed like an easy task: the Church News would photograph Elder Merrill J. Bateman and his wife, Marilyn, on the BYU campus, days before he was to complete his more than seven-year tenure as BYU president.
But at BYU everyone knows the Batemans. One step outside the campus administration building and they were busy with other things. Students wanted to wish them well, or thank them. A few asked if they could be photographed with the president. Faculty members stopped for a visit. Sister Bateman joked that she can't walk across campus with her husband if she is in a hurry.
President Bateman looked across the campus and talked about his time in Provo. He was excited that so many students are using the new underground library, built and dedicated on his watch. He reminisced about the day President Gordon B. Hinckley asked him to come to BYU.
Then he explained why it takes so long to walk across campus: The BYU community, he said, is family.
President Bateman said it will be hard to leave that community May 1 when he surrenders the BYU reins to Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, a former medical doctor now serving in the Presidency of the Seventy. (Please see March 29 Church News for an article featuring Elder Samuelson.)
Looking back on their time since January 1996 — when he was named BYU president — the Batemans said they now treasure many fond BYU memories.
They recalled going to the Palmyra New York Temple dedication, transmitted to BYU students via satellite to the Marriott Center. While they had some concerns about 14,000 students gathering for a sacred temple dedication in such a large, loud building, "it turned out to be the most spiritual experience we had in long time. . . . It was quiet as a mouse. It was unbelievable."
They also recalled Sept. 11, 2001. The Batemans had been scheduled to offer devotional addresses the day terrorists struck the United States, killing nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
While they did not feel it appropriate to go on with their devotional addresses, they did want to deliver a message.
President Bateman told the 17,000-strong audience to rely on the gospel and each other. He assured them they were safe at BYU. "We needed to be together, to share with them how important it was to be part of a strong community where you can support each other," recalled President Bateman.
He also challenged them to gather with the BYU community often, by participating in all BYU devotionals.
Students heeded his words; in the two school years since then, BYU devotional attendance nearly doubled, despite a decrease in the number of well-known speakers.
President Bateman isn't quick to name this or other efforts as a mark of the success of his administration, characterized, among other things, by discussions on academic freedom, technological developments and campus construction. However, he added, he is happy with what has been accomplished at the university in the last seven and a half years, some of which include:
The completion of 36 new campus buildings and the remodeling of four others.
The development of a mentored student learning program, in which undergraduate students work with faculty members on research. In its first year, $300,000 was distributed for this program, which by this year distributed $10 million and impacted 4,000 students.
BYU's Division of Continuing Education growing to one of the largest in the United States, with nearly 450,000 enrollments from all 50 states and many countries. More than 120,000 students from 40 countries are now also enrolled in more than 300 distance learning courses on the Internet.
The hiring of 600 new faculty members and the development of a new faculty seminar helping new employees come to understand BYU's mission.
A successful BYU campaign which resulted in the NCAA returning the "BYU rule" regarding Sunday play.
The establishment of the Ira & Mary Lou Fulton Supercomputer Center, with the facility now housing five supercomputers, giving BYU one of the largest educational computing capacities in the United States.
The launching of BYU-Television, a national network which broadcasts BYU devotionals and other programs to an estimated 20 million homes.
BYU's largest capital fund-raising campaign exceeding its goal of $250 million, raising more than $400 million.
The creation of the David O. McKay School of Education, School of Family Life, School of Technology and School of Music and the opening of several new centers, including the Student-Athlete Center.
The raising of BYU's enrollment cap from 27,000 to 29,000 and offering of open-enrollment summer programs and a Bachelor of General Studies degree than can be obtained entirely through continuing education courses.
"I cannot say enough good about his service here," said President Hinckley March 18 in announcing the change of leadership at BYU and that President Bateman would resume full-time responsibilities as a General Authority of the Church. "His great managerial skills, his buoyant spirit, his wonderful personality, all deserve the highest praise."
President Bateman said, although it will be hard to leave the BYU family, he knows it is time to move on.
"We know it will be in good hands," he said.
He also said he will never forget the close associations and experiences he has had at BYU. And it is likely the BYU community will not forget him; even a recent BYU creamery ice cream flavor — made from roasted almonds, chocolate and raspberry swirl — bears the name "Merrill's ABC's."