Joseph B. Wirthlin, oldest Apostle, dies, age 91

Related story, Christmas memory: Silent night, Holy night — By Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

Elder Joseph Bitner Wirthlin, endeared to all by his gentle spirit and enthusiasm for righteous living, died peacefully in his sleep about 11:30 p.m., on Dec. 1, 2008, of causes incident to age.

At age 91, Elder Wirthlin lived to be the oldest living General Authority. "My life has been filled with adventure, spiritual experiences, and joy that surpasses understanding," he once said.

He returned to his office to work following the Thanksgiving holiday and was working at his desk during the day of his death.

His passion for life, and making the most of his time and talents, can be measured in his success as an athlete, business man, father and husband, and priesthood leader. Above all, he prized a kind word and quiet caring for a silent sufferer.

Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Joseph Wirthlin speak with the University of Utah football team p
Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Joseph Wirthlin speak with the University of Utah football team prior to the red/white scrimmage, April 19, 2003. Elder Wirthlin was presented with a game jersey. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The comical irony of life's unexpected fortunes was not lost on Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin when he spoke during the October 2001 general priesthood meeting.

Once known for his speed and power as a halfback for the University of Utah football team, he said, "I loved to run."

"And I did win a few races. I'm not so fast anymore. In fact, I'm not sure how well I would do in a race if the only contestants were the members of the Quorum of the Twelve."

The unexpected humor from his deadpan delivery caused a burst of laughter. "My ability to run is not so swift now," he continued.. . . I am looking forward to that future time when, with a resurrected body, I can once again sprint over a field and feel the wind blowing through my hair."

Joseph Bitner Wirthlin, the 88th member to be called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in this dispensation, lived a life rich in experience, a testament to the Lord's promise that those who do the works of righteousness find peace and happiness in this life.

He was sustained a member of the Twelve on Oct. 4, 1986, during general conference. He began full-time Church service on April 4, 1975, when he was sustained as an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve. He was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in April 1976.

He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 11, 1917, the eldest of five children of Joseph L. Wirthlin, who served in the Presiding Bishopric, and Madeline Bitner Wirthlin.

"I was born of goodly parents," he said, beginning his address in the October 2006 general conference. "From my father, Joseph L. Wirthlin, I learned the values of hard work and compassion. He was bishop of our ward during the Great Depression. He possessed a genuine concern for those in distress. He reached out to those in need not because it was his duty, but because it was his sincere desire.

"He tirelessly cared for and blessed the lives of many who suffered. In my mind, he was an ideal bishop."

Elder Wirthlin's mother was another great influence in his life. "In her youth she was a fine athlete and a champion sprinter. She was always kind and loving, but her pace was exhausting. Often she would say, 'Hurry up.' And when she did, we picked up the pace. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I had quick acceleration when I played football."

The young Joseph exhibited a variety of talents, including a nice singing voice that he shared in operettas in elementary and junior high school. He also won the Intermountain Foul-Pitching Contest during these years, sinking 19 out of 20 basketball free throws.

Interests in athletics won out over the theater. In high school he became known as "Mr. Touchdown" as the quarterback of the East High School football team before playing halfback at the University of Utah.

"I had always dreamed of playing football at the university level, and during my freshman, sophomore and junior years, I wore a crimson uniform and played running back," he said in BYU fireside on Nov. 7, 1999.

After the 1936 football season, with the world on the brink of war, Elder Wirthlin's father came to him and said, "Joseph, do you want to go on a mission?"

He replied that he did.

"Then you must go now. If you wait any longer, you'll never go."

Elder Joseph Wirthlin and his wife, Elisa, ride the  bus after the University of Utah beat San Diego
Elder Joseph Wirthlin and his wife, Elisa, ride the bus after the University of Utah beat San Diego State University, 51-28, in San Diego, Calif., Oct. 20, 2004. | Photo by Tom Smart/Deseret News

Elder Wirthlin said, "I didn't want to believe him. I wanted to pursue my dream of continuing to play football and to graduate from the university. If I were to accept a mission call, I would have to give up everything. . . . If I accepted, there was a good chance I would never play football again — perhaps I would not even be able to graduate. But I also knew what my father had said was true."

He approached his bishop, Marion G. Romney, who later became a member of the First Presidency. A few months later, in the late 1930s, he stepped aboard the SS Manhattan bound for the German-Austria Mission for a two-and-a-half year mission in the heart of a world crisis.

He was alone in Salzburg for the first six weeks of his mission, a challenging time for a new missionary in a strange, new country, not knowing if, or when, Hitler's tanks would flood across the border.

His mission was an intense time of gospel study where he learned to teach, preach and "love people more than ever before, and to accept them for what they were."

A defining moment for Elder Wirthlin came on a cold, clear, snowy night on Christmas Eve in the quaint village of Oberndorf nestled in the Austrian Alps. After listening to organ music in a humble Church, Elder Wirthlin and his companion started for home and became engaged in a serious discussion about what they wanted to do with their lives.

"The spirit was so strong as I walked with my companion that it's hard to express," Elder Wirthlin said, "I really had a burning testimony that the Church is true as never before in my life."

On Nov. 29, just two days prior to his death, the Church News published Elder Wirthlin's account of that Christmas Eve experience.

Years later, Elder Wirthlin said, "As I look back on it now, I wonder if those times of trial and loneliness weren't instrumental in strengthening my character and heightening my desire to succeed. Those times of seeming failure may have been some of the most instrumental of my life, because they prepared me for greater things to come."

Approximately 24 months later, at the conclusion of his mission while laboring in Germany, he was boarding a train that would lead him home while watching thousands of Nazi troops boarding other trains bound for an invasion of Poland. Had he not followed his father's counsel, he would have missed his opportunity to serve because of the commencement of World War II.

During his mission, Elder Wirthlin also contemplated the type of woman he would marry. After returning home, he said he knew the first time he laid eyes on Elisa Rogers that she would be his wife.

One night in 1940, he had opportunity to escort Elisa to her home following a basketball game, the first step of a one-year courtship that led to their marriage on May 26, 1941, in the Salt Lake Temple, performed by President David O. McKay.

He was kind, gentle, and "I liked his spirituality," Sister Wirthlin said of Elder Wirthlin. He was drawn to her "sterling character."

Over the coming years, all of their eight children worked in the family food processing business where he helped them learn the lessons of life that included the value of work, honesty, saving money and serving customers.

Life was busy as the children grew to maturity, but family was always utmost in his mind; whether it was lunchtime with his children, letting his son play stowaway in his car to the office, or taking family vacations where they always seemed to get lost. Sunday also became an important family time when they rested from work, attended Church and held family home evening.

Sister Wirthlin died Aug. 16, 2006.

Elder Wirthlin's commitment to family mirrored his commitment to serving the Lord. After serving in countless Church positions spanning decades that included Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, and a member of the Seventy, Elder Wirthlin was sustained an apostle on Oct. 9, 1986.

In his last general conference address, on Oct. 4, Elder Wirthlin shared advice his mother gave him: "Come what may, and love it."

Elder Wirthlin spoke of adversity and said, "The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude. . . . The Lord Jesus Christ is our partner, helper and advocate. He wants us to be happy. He wants us to be successful."

Sustained as an Assistant to the Twelve April 4, 1975, to the First Quorum of the Seventy Oct. 1, 1976, and to the presidency of the quorum Aug. 28, 1986; sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve Oct. 4, 1986, and ordained an apostle Oct. 9, 1986, at age 69. Served in the Sunday School general presidency, as stake president's counselor, and bishop. Graduate of University of Utah in business management; former president of trade association. Born June 11, 1917, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Joseph L. and Madeline Bitner Wirthlin. Wife, Elisa Young Rogers Wirthlin; parents of eight children. She died Aug. 16, 2006.

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