As a young woman, Mary Nielsen Cook planned her life. Her mental script wasn't elaborate, but practical. It included college and marriage in her early 20s and children.
"My life didn't go according to my young woman plan," she said years later. "But I have always been happy. I have always chosen to be happy."
She also chose to serve during her single years and that's when she learned the Lord's plan for her. That plan included education and career opportunities, marriage in her late 30s to a widower, the chance to become an integral part of his family, and the opportunity for Church service across the globe.
Now, as second counselor in the Young Women general presidency, she has a message for other young women writing their script: "Trust in the Lord," she said. "That was the script that got me through hard times. My life didn't go according to my (original) script, but it has been wonderful."
Born June 8, 1951, to Kenneth N. and Fern S. Nielsen, Mary had a childhood that didn't go according to her mother's plan. When she was 16 months old, her father was injured during a mine explosion that left him legally blind. Her mother went to work to support her husband and two children.
Mary bonded with her father during those preschool years while he recuperated at home, helping him find his way down stairs and going on walks while holding his hand. Years later, a family friend wrote an essay about Mary and her father, entitled, "She Was His Eyes."
Those "financially and emotionally challenging experiences brought our family together," said Sister Cook.
Determined her children would have opportunities, Mary's mother would rise at 4 a.m. to type envelopes to earn money so her children could attend piano and voice lessons. "I have a really strong mother," said Sister Cook. "Her children were her No. 1 priority."
Mary studied hard; she knew the only way she could attend college was with a scholarship.
At BYU she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in speech pathology and audiology. She accepted a job teaching special education in Sandy, Utah. She was happy, but she longed for more.
When Church leaders asked her to leave her single's ward and attend a family ward she followed their counsel. She attended every ward activity even when it was hard to go alone and accepted every calling. She invited families in the ward to her apartment for dinner and was a faithful visiting teacher.
And when she got discouraged her mother made her a promise: "I just know that there is something special for you. I don't know what it is. You're just going to have to be patient."
A short time later, Mary was called to serve in the Relief Society presidency of her ward. A member of the presidency told her about a family friend who lived in Detroit. Richard E. Cook had lost his wife, Clea S. Cook, to cancer in 1984.
When Richard came to town, Mary agreed to a blind date. The pair had an instant connection. She saw that this father of four and a grandfather of eight loved the gospel and valued family. A year later just as Mary was completing an internship as an elementary school principal and had started a new job he proposed. The couple married July 16, 1988, in the Salt Lake Temple.
When people meet the couple, one question is always inevitable, said Elder Cook, a released General Authority who now serves as managing director of the Church's Perpetual Education Fund. "How did you two meet?"
Marriage, said Sister Cook, "has been wonderful."
"No, no, no," added Elder Cook, "it has been sensational."
After living a few years in Detroit, Elder and Sister Cook were called to serve as missionaries in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where the Church asked Sister Cook to use her experience in education to help the community. Soon, however, the Church organized the first mission in the country and called Elder Cook to preside over it.
"We went to Mongolia with fear in our hearts and came home with love in our hearts for the members and the country," said Sister Cook.
And after Elder Cook was sustained to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 1997 and assigned to serve in the Church's Asia Area presidency in Hong Kong, that love grew to include people throughout Asia. Traveling with her husband, Sister Cook met Church members in Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and numerous other countries.
When President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the formation of the Perpetual Education Fund, Elder Cook knew that somehow he would be a part of it. Six months later he returned to Salt Lake City and began service in the PEF office at Church headquarters. Sister Cook was called to the Young Women General Board.
Church service and family have brought the couple more happiness than they could have ever imagined.
Sometimes Sister Cook has heartache for the children she didn't physically have in this life. Then she thinks about her husband's family that is now her own. One of Elder Cook's daughters recently told him, "The best thing you did for this family was your marriage to Mary," he said in quoting his daughter and explaining what a great compliment that is coming from a daughter who loved and misses her mother terribly.
And on June 8, 2006, the Cooks' youngest granddaughter was born on Sister Cook's birthday. She was there for the delivery of her namesake, baby Hazel Mary Cook.
"My life has been amazing. I feel truly blessed," Sister Cook said, speaking of opportunities and accomplishments that weren't part of her original script.
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