Since his childhood, President John S. Tanner has found joy in learning. Quoting Emily Dickinson who once wrote she couldn’t define true poetry but “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” President Tanner said, “There have been times when teaching and learning have been so exciting, so joyful, that it feels like the top of my head is going to come off. I feel most alive when teaching and learning.”
That drive to learn has extended to both his education and career as a professor of English at BYU as well as to his many opportunities to teach the gospel, including his current assignment as mission president of the Brazil São Paulo South Mission and now in his recent call as first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency.
President Tanner calls his enthusiasm for learning a “gift from his parents,” William Coats Tanner Jr. and Athelia Sears Tanner, who raised their large family in South Pasadena, California.
As the fifth of 13 children, President Tanner explained that you could count on the fact that 12 birthdays a year were not going to be your own, and if you bought a dozen apples there weren’t enough for every one to have one. So he and his siblings learned not only to sacrifice, but to rejoice in each other’s successes. “We were happy in our relationships with each other. It was a wonderful, unselfish way to grow up,” he said.
Both of his parents loved the gospel and created a rich teaching environment in their home. “I don’t recall learning anything at Church that I hadn’t already learned at home,” President Tanner said.
In addition to developing a love of the beach and sports such as football, basketball and baseball, President Tanner also developed a love of reading. Every summer, he couldn’t wait for school to end so he could read all the books in the community library next door to his house. Eventually, the librarian would bring him a new requisition and ask him to provide feedback.
His love of literature was further nurtured as he went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in English at Brigham Young University.
After his mission to Brazil, President Tanner met Susan Winder while at BYU. The two developed a strong friendship that would eventually lead to courtship and marriage in the Salt Lake Temple in 1974. Both President Tanner and his wife feel their initial friendship has served as a solid foundation for their relationship through the years. “We shared friendship first and built a romantic relationship on top of that.”
Sister Tanner explained that when they were first married they were counseled to view their marriage as a duet. Sometimes one would step forward with a solo role while the other had a supportive role, such as when President Tanner was called as a bishop and stake president. Other times that would change, such as when Sister Tanner was called as Young Women general president from 2002-2008. “But we’ve always felt very supportive of each other. I’ve felt John’s support and I’ve been completely supportive of his callings. When you are in a family situation, life has challenges. It steadies your course to have that friendship. We’ve pulled together through the years.”
One of those challenges came soon after the couple was married and President Tanner felt prompted to pursue his doctorate degree. “Those were wonderful but trying years,” President Tanner said. “When I was accepted [to the doctorate program] at Berkeley, I was informed, ‘You are accepted but the likelihood of getting a job at the end is small.’ Even so, we decided to pursue a graduate degree in English and to have a family.”
President Tanner said the words to a verse of “Lead, Kindly Light,” (Hymn No. 97) became a theme song for their family during that time. In the first verse, it reads, “Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene — one step enough for me.”
“We felt the prompting to go to graduate school and [for me to] become a teacher,” President Tanner said. “We saw the light in front of us for one step but the distant scene seemed quite dark and ominous. We were really blessed along the way; the Lord just opened the way step by step.”
Both President and Sister Tanner were “thrilled” when they heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir open last general conference, where President Tanner would shortly be sustained in his new call to the Sunday School general presidency, with Hymn No. 97, “Lead, Kindly Light.”
After completing his doctorate at University of California, Berkeley, President Tanner began his academic career as an assistant professor at Florida State University. He became a member of the faculty at BYU in 1982 where he has worked as an assistant, associate and full professor of English as well as department chair and academic vice president.
Early on in his academic career, President Tanner began to evaluate his role as a teacher and asked himself, “What do I really think is important? What do I want to base my career and my profession on?” After much study and pondering, he decided he should do everything in his life, including his teaching, out of love, not out of fear or ambition or envy. “But what or who should I love as a teacher?” From there he developed a teaching triangle he has tried to follow throughout his life.
First, a teacher must love the subject. “In the Church, you need to love the gospel. You need to know the doctrine, the scriptures. You need to be committed to learning, and do it out of love.”
Second, a teacher must love those they teach. “You need to love your students. You need to care about their learning, their growth. Your teaching is not to impress but to bless them.”
Third, everything a teacher does should be reflective of his or her love of God and the Savior. “That love stands at the top of the triangle and lifts everything else.”
Sister Tanner said the teaching triangle has not only blessed his students but their five children as well. “He knows the subject, he loves the gospel, he loves our children and he loves the Lord. That has been a pattern in our home.”
President Tanner said that in all his assignments, whether academic or gospel-centered, he has tried first and foremost to be a teacher. Although this new calling came as a surprise, he said, “I feel like the clerk in The Canterbury Tales about whom Chaucer said, ‘And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.’ ”
The message President Tanner is most eager to share, he said, comes from the first line of a song he wrote which states: “I love the Lord, in Him my soul delights.”
Family: Born July 27, 1950, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to William Coats Tanner Jr. and Athelia Sears Tanner. Married Susan Winder in the Salt Lake Temple in September 1974. Children: Jonathan (Laura), Bobbie (Steve) Sandberg, Becky (Isaac) Bingham, Elizabeth (Sam) Lundstrom, and MaryAnne (Brad) Hunter; 18 grandchildren.
Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Brigham Young University, 1974; PhD in English from University of California, Berkeley, 1980.
Employment: Assistant professor at Florida State University; assistant, associate and full professor at BYU; Fulbright professor (Brazil); chair of English Department at BYU; associate academic vice president and academic vice president at BYU.
Church service: Full-time mission to the Brazil South Mission 1969-71; bishop, stake president, high councilor, gospel doctrine teacher, president of the Brazil São Paulo South Mission from 2011-current (to be concluded in July).