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'Different roles for different seasons': Wife, mother and scholar remembered for her achievements

At age 13, Ramona W. Cannon read a letter from her Uncle Ezra, a missionary returning from the Sandwich Islands via Germany, that changed her life.

He wrote of seeing the Passion play at the Bavarian village of Oberammergau. The letter was full of such vivid detail about the eight-hour drama depicting the life of Christ that it filled the girl with a surge of resolution."I'm going to see it," she vowed. "I am going to see the Passion play in 1910." (The play was presented every 10 years.)

She began from that time forward to save her money, giving up sweets and transitory pleasures. She realized her dream after graduating from the University of Utah - one of only eight women to do so - in 1908 and teaching for a year in Heber City, Utah.

In Germany she not only saw the play but also enrolled at the University of Berlin, where she excelled as a student.

The incident, according to her son Mark W. Cannon, exemplifies his mother's thirst for knowledge and intellectual achievement, a quality she balanced with meeting the challenges of being a wife and mother and giving meaningful service in the Church. She succeeded, he said, by emphasizing different roles at different periods of her life.

Sister Cannon, who died in 1979 at age 91, was remembered Sept. 7, at a dinner of the Sons of Utah Pioneers Twin Peaks Chapter in Salt Lake City. Remarks were delivered by Mark Cannon; his brother Bryant; and Ariel Clark, a graduate student from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has spent the summer working on a biography of Sister Cannon.

In his speech, Mark Cannon, former administrative assistant to Chief Justice Warren Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court, said his mother was the third woman to receive a master's degree at the University of Utah. He also noted:

  • She taught at the University of Utah and secondary schools in English, German, French, Spanish and Latin.
  • She married widower Joseph J. Cannon, and within four months was mother to three children with a fourth on the way. Her husband, illustrious in his own right, was president of the British Mission and editor of the Deseret News. He knew seven languges.
  • She raised seven challenging children, several of whom attained national reputations in their fields.
  • At a time when women were often discouraged from pursuing education, she believed that according to the gospel, women should be as zealous as men about education and personal growth.
  • She was one of the earliest Mormon women to publish articles on important women such as mothers of prophets, presidents of the Relief Society and women of attainment in arts and sciences.
  • She gave advice to thousands directly and tens of thousands indirectly by writing the "Mary Marker" column in the Deseret News for several decades.
  • She published more than 4,000 articles after she was 60. They included pieces on conservation, the lead article in a book on the University of Utah, a "Pettycoat Voyage down the Colorado," and an article on Simon Bolivar in the Rotarian International.

Mark Cannon said his mother received many honors, among which is the naming of the annual award for teaching excellence in the humanities at the University of Utah after her.

Bryant Cannon, in his address, gave an anecdote to illustrate how active his mother was up to the time of her death. He spearheaded a project to tape record her reminiscenses as oral history. After one session, he recalled, he asked his mother, then 88, what she had yet to accomplish.

"She said: `Well, I'd like to finish a Mary Marker book that I've started. I'd like to finish a biography of my family. I'd like to finish a novel that Dad and I started some years ago. I'd like to finish writing a television script on the life of Socrates that I'm rather in love with. I'd like to finish the South American novel that I've got about half written.' And so on and on about the things she intended to do for the rest of her life."

Sister Clark summarized Sister Cannon's philosophy of life in the following points:

  • Intellectual gifts heighten one's spirituality, and religion can refresh one's curiosity in many disciplines.
  • Measured out in seasons, one can complete one's work and fulfill one's intentions and designs. Life can be longer and more fruitful than one may think.
  • Provident living - that is, sacrifice and thrift in life coupled with a generosity for others - involves building and maintaining intellectual, emotional and spiritual, as well as material, reservoirs, and allows one to serve more creatively in the home, the Church and the community.

In a letter to the Church News, Mark Cannon suggested that his mother's life debunks the notion in some quarters that LDS women are "enslaved domestics, lacking in quality education and creative thought."

He wrote that she accomplished what she did "largely by emphasizing different roles during different periods of her life."

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