Elder Richard G. Hinckley: Remembering an influential teacher who 'believed in me'

Years ago the Reader’s Digest ran a series of articles titled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” The subject matter and writing style captured my imagination. Some of those featured were novel, others had unique characteristics, but few were well-known. Even today, I occasionally meet someone or recall someone from my past and think, “She would be one of my Most Unforgettable Characters!”

Sister Lydia Stillman surely was one of my Most Unforgettable Characters. Sixty-five years have passed since I was in Junior Sunday School, where Sister Stillman was one of my teachers. In addition to teaching she served as the Coordinator of the Junior Sunday School — the largest in the Church at the time. For some 40 years she wrote the annual Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day programs for our ward, which were masterpieces.

I have reflected on her a great deal lately and am indebted to my friend Larry Stillman and to his sisters who helped refresh my memories concerning their remarkable mother.

Every boy and girl should have a teacher like Sister Stillman. Although she was pleasant and cheerful, she was not flashy or flamboyant. She was rather quiet and dignified. She did not draw attention to herself. We were typical rambunctious young boys but somehow we were drawn to her. We responded to her. We believed her because she believed in us. There was something about her that made us want to do our very best — to please her and make her proud of us. I don’t believe she ever raised her voice in class; she didn’t find it necessary. Somehow she managed to keep our attention simply because of who she was and how she handled us. We would not have disappointed her for anything in the world.

I have thought a great deal about why I loved her and her classes so. I think it was because she believed in us. She really believed in us. When it was time to participate in some way, or to give a two-and-a-half-minute talk in Sunday School’s “opening exercises” (which was the convention at that time), she didn’t need to beg or cajole, she simply said “I know you can do it.” And timid and reluctant as we were, we believed her!

And she believed what she taught. She loved the gospel. She loved the Lord. You can’t fake those feelings — you can’t pretend those things — young people see through it. We felt her sincerity and she conveyed it in such a convincing way that we, too, believed. I didn’t recognize it then as the Spirit, but in my later years, I came to realize that is what it was. It was just that simple. She believed in us and she believed what she taught.

She was living proof that the Lord loves His children. Here was this great lady, this serene, kind, and confident woman, who loved us. She didn’t just convey information; she personified the gospel in her life, and we sensed that. She was absolutely genuine.

Sister Stillman was always prepared. I’m sure we didn’t appreciate that at the time, but in retrospect, she never “wandered” off topic or simply rambled to fill time. Again, children sense when that is happening and become restless and distracted. She knew what she wanted to teach, and she never strayed from the message. She made the doctrine sound logical and coherent and spoke of it in a natural, easy-to-understand way. And she filled the time with wonderful and inspiring stories to reinforce and illustrate gospel principles. She actually memorized those stories (she didn’t simply read them) and told them with great feeling and conviction. Her lessons were not prepared at 11 o’clock on Saturday evening; she put a great deal of time and thought into them.

In speaking to teachers President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Your students deserve more than your knowledge. They deserve and hunger for your inspiration. They want the warm glow of personal relationship. This has always been the hallmark of a great teacher” (“A Charter for Youth,” Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, October 1965, pp. 50-54).

As I look back over my life, Sister Lydia Stillman epitomized that counsel. One of Sister Stillman’s grandchildren once said to her, “You should be born again. You’re sure good for kids!” And indeed she was. How grateful I am that this great lady instilled confidence in me; pushed me just the right amount; believed in me; inspired me.

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