In the early 1970s, BYU student Susan Winder felt she was at the end of her rope. "I was heartbroken and tired and sick. I remember just over and over in my mind, saying, 'Heavenly Father loves me. My parents love me and finals will be over in two weeks.' That's what got me through. I know I'm loved and there's an end in sight."
Thirty years have gone by now. That frazzled, tired student is now a tall, slim soft-spoken wife, mother and grandmother. She is also the new Young Women general president, sustained Oct. 5 during general conference. In an interview with the Church News, she spoke of what she calls her "foundation" the knowledge of who she is as a daughter of God.
"That's why I love the Young Women Theme so much. That's such a foundation thing for me and for that to be the very first phrase, 'We are daughters of our Heavenly Father.' Then, 'He loves me and I love Him,' and you start building on that. Then, 'I will stand as a witness.' We make our covenants. I really do think it's got me through."
Speaking of feeling "just so overwhelmed" by her calling, Sister Tanner spoke of turning to general conference counsel given by President Gordon B. Hinckley to just "do your best. That's all the prophet is asking me. The Lord magnifies you. You just put your hand in the Lord's and say, 'I'll do it. Just lead me.' "
Sitting by his wife in their home in Provo, Utah, John S. Tanner said he had always secretly wished the young women of the Church could "rub shoulders with her. She is a very service-oriented person. She is loving and caring and good and thoughtful and sensitive."
Sister Tanner's open home and heart were instilled as a young girl growing up on the Winder Dairy in Granger, Utah, west of Salt Lake City. "It was a rural community at the time," she recalled. "And a real idyllic place to grow up. My grandparents lived on one side of me. My aunts and uncles lived on this little private lane. It was a very old-fashioned thing to live with all your relatives. It provided a great sense of security and belonging."
Smiling, she recalled the some 20 cousins playing baseball in cow pastures, using cow pies as bases. They built tree houses and swam in the pool, which was actually used to hold water for the dairy's cooling systems and in case of fire. Her grandfather had a big family garden and every year, the cousins would help in the harvest. "I'd stand in the garden and eat tomatoes, with the juice dripping. I just loved all that."
Sister Tanner speaks with emotion of the gratitude and love she feels for her parents, Richard William and Barbara Woodhead Winder, whom she calls "wise and so good and so loving." Her father was the first mission president to serve in what was then Czechoslovakia after communism's fall. Sister Winder served as Relief Society general president from 1984 to 1990. Brother Winder is president of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple; Sister Winder is matron of the temple.
Sister Tanner vividly recalls their support during a particularly trying time in her youth. From the age of 11 through about 25, Sister Tanner had a severe acne condition. She tried everything; nothing worked. "I went off chocolate for 14 years. I didn't eat potato chips. I didn't eat donuts. My mother took me to a dermatologist. The thing about that problem is it's out there for the world to see."
And sometimes the world can be cruel. Sister Tanner recalled comments made to her by peers at Girl's State in high school. And while at BYU, she went to the health center one day for treatment for a bad cut. While attending her, she said, the doctor just stared. "Do you ever wash your face?" he asked. She ran home crying.
Helping her through this time, she said, was her knowledge of who she was as a daughter of God. She also said her mother taught her: "You do everything you can to look your best and once you walk out the door you quit thinking about yourself. Turn your attention to everyone else."
And she did. In the process, not only did her skin clear, over time, but she also drew the attention of another student, John Tanner. They were good friends for nearly a year, double dating and talking at parties, when he said he fell "head over heels" in love. After a month of official dating, he proposed on top of a haystack at Winder Dairy. They were married Sept. 3, 1974, in the Salt Lake Temple.
After Brother Tanner graduated from BYU with a bachelor's degree, the young couple headed to the University of California, Berkeley, where he entered the graduate program in English. They were there from 1974 to 1980, and during that time had four children. He went to school and taught early morning seminary, earning a $60 monthly stipend, and worked as a night watchman. She taught piano lessons and did typing to earn extra money. They also saved money by housesitting for three of those six years.
After Brother Tanner earned his doctorate, he received a teaching position at Florida State University, but getting the family there was a challenge. Sister Tanner was due with their fourth child, and Florida State's insurance would not yet cover the cost of the Cesarean section she needed. In addition, they would not allow Brother Tanner to postpone arriving until after the birth of the baby. So he packed up the family's belongings and headed east. In Texas, he called his wife to find out he had a daughter.
The family, finally reunited, were in Florida two years. In 1982, they headed back to Utah, where Brother Tanner has taught at BYU since. His career, through study abroad programs and a teaching scholarship, has also taken the family to England and Brazil for a semester of teaching.
In all, Brother and Sister Tanner, through his career, have traveled to some 29 countries. But she remembers vividly the farmhouse in Brazil where rats ran through the rafters and there were "spiders the size of my hand."
On the way home from Brazil, they asked their children if they would do it again. "Oh, yeah!" was the reply.
Sister Tanner thinks of those young women she knew in Brazil. She wants to take that sense of belonging she felt as a child to them and other young women of the Church throughout the world.
E-mail: [email protected]