As an entering freshman at BYU in 1953, Monroe G. McKay was assigned to write an essay in a remedial English class; he literally did not know the meaning of the word essay.
A classmate suggested he look up the word in a dictionary. Again he was stymied."I had never used a dictionary," he recalled in a Church News interview. "My academic skills, including effective use of a dictionary, were just not the norm."
His college education appeared doomed until one day, his instructor, Ross Esplin, gave him this admonition: "Monroe, I think you have great ideas, but you will never persuade others unless you put those ideas in the same code others use."
Today, Monroe McKay, installed Sept. 16 as chief justice of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, is a recognized legal scholar and an able speaker and writer; this despite having enrolled at the university as an admitted "25-year-old semi-literate."
But Judge McKay, one of the first faculty members at the BYU law school, is something of a study in irony.
Reared in an active LDS home in the mountain community of Huntsville, Utah, (his father and President David O. McKay were cousins and next-door neighbors) young Monroe was acquainted with and influenced by the scriptures and the writings of modern prophets.
But another influence in his early life was the autobiography of Clarence Darrow, the legendary trial attorney whose agnosticism was well known. It was not Darrow's religious belief – or lack thereof – that appealed to Monroe; it was the lawyer's reverence for the rights of the individual in a free society.
"It was romantic to me," he said of the Darrow book. "It was my earliest emotional attachment to the Bill of Rights. Darrow represented despised and often despicable people."
Latter-day Saints could have been among Darrow's clients, Monroe reasoned. Only a generation or two removed from his pioneer forebears, Judge McKay was – and is – conscious of the price they paid to practice their religion, including oppression at the hands of the majority, some of whom held positions of authority and should have preserved the rights of the LDS people under the Constitution.
He recalled: "When I was growing up, we had three sermons:
Pay your tithing,'Live the Word of Wisdom' and `They're coming to get us.' ".
The propensity of government to interfere in matters of conscience and impose its collective view on minorities ought to be so rooted in LDS consciousness "that we would be the greatest civil libertarians that ever lived," he remarked.
Thus, while herding sheep and milking cows in Huntsville, Monroe nurtured an interest in law, government and public service that was fostered by his parents, James Gunn and Elizabeth (Bessie) Peterson McKay, and shared by his three brothers and four sisters. His eldest brother, Gunn, later served five terms in the U.S. Congress; another brother, Quinn, directed BYU's first master of business administration program at BYU; and his youngest brother, Barrie, practices law in Salt Lake City. His sisters, Elizabeth, Mary, Ann and Williamena, have been homemakers as well as serving as a nurse, school teacher, and secretaries, respectively.
Judge McKay's commitment to serving the public and the Lord found expression in the years from 1946 to 1952. During that time he served a two-year stint in the Marine Corps, followed by a mission for the Church to South Africa.
But it was not until his senior year at BYU that he made the firm decision to pursue law as a career. Graduating in 1957, he went on to the University of Chicago Law School, where he received his law degree in 1960.
He met his bride-to-be, Lucy Kinnison, during his undergraduate years at BYU. A convert to the Church from Pendleton, Ore., she was dating his brother when they first met. A romance blossomed between Monroe and Lucy and they were later married.
They have raised nine children, the eldest two adopted and being only 25 days apart in age.
After law school, he began a practice in Phoenix, Ariz. There he continued a close relationship with another LDS attorney, Rex Lee, now president of BYU. The two had met in September 1953 as members of the same freshman class at BYU.
"He was one of the very first people I met there, and I was immediately drawn to him," Pres. Lee said. "He has always had a magnetic personality."
Rex Lee went on a mission after enrolling at BYU, so Monroe graduated first and preceded him at the University of Chicago Law School.
"He was one of the ones who advised me on some important things about my upcoming expectations at the law school," Pres. Lee noted.
In 1973, when Lee was appointed the first dean of the new BYU law school, he immediately set out to recruit his old friend.
"One of the persons on whose doorstep I camped was Monroe McKay," he said. "He was not here the first year. He needed time to wind down his practice in Phoenix. He came the second year, in 1974."
Beyond his intelligence and outstanding professional qualifications, Judge McKay's dominant characteristic is his magnanimity, Pres. Lee said.
"I literally do not know anyone so genuinely concerned about others. The fact that he would take off in the middle of a successful partnership in one of the best firms in Arizona and go off to Africa to join the Peace Corps demonstrates that."
That was in 1966, and McKay directed the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, for two years.
"He is truly the ideal of the Savior's injunction to love other people as he does himself," Pres. Lee commented. "The fact he cares about me among other people is moving. I say that against the background of the fact that we disagree more than we agree on matters of politics and policy, although we are in total agreement when it comes to the restored gospel."
McKay had been at the law school for three years, when in 1977, he was appointed to the appellate bench by President Jimmy Carter. The appointment came, Pres. Lee said, "because he is a very smart and able lawyer. Also, he has those qualities we look for in a judge: the ability to be fair and open minded, the ability not to make up one's mind in advance, to treat advocates who come before him in a firm but respectful manner."
Judge McKay's chambers are in Salt Lake City. Most of the circuit court's cases are heard in Denver, Colo., and it is the tradition for each of the five judges to live in his home state.
But the McKays continue to make their home in Provo, where they belong to the Edgemont 6th Ward. He is a Sunday School teacher in the ward.
"The family had been living out of packing boxes all our married life – BYU, Chicago, Arizona, Africa and Provo," he said. "So when I got the appointment to the circuit bench in 1977, we were living here already, and they said, `You bear the burden this time.' "
So the judge commutes from Provo to Salt Lake City each day.
As for leisure activities, he spends time reading and in family activities. Outside of those, he said, he has few hobbies that he can afford.
"I enjoy horses," he said, "but they're expensive as to money and time, although my brothers, without much money or time, manage to keep them."
He also admitted to being addicted at one time to television as a form of escape after a day of grappling with the weighty matters of the law. "But I have largely become weaned."
These days, he watches mainly public television when he watches at all.
Among many scriptures that have guided his life, Judge McKay cited Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, applying it to his and his family's interest in the law and government.
That section speaks of the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, to exercise unrighteous dominion. "It was really an injunction to the Church," he said, "but it applies to our roles in families and in society. It is a universal principle."
He also feels an attachment to the four gospels of the New Testament.
"Part of the lesson Jesus was trying to teach the people was to take a substantive approach to spirituality. That frightens all of us, because the answers are not always clear. We have to do what we were created to, and that is to make difficult choices. I hated that process when I was young, but I have rejoiced in it now that I am older and prepared to accept full responsibility for my choices and not blame somebody's speech or some bishop or Relief Society president."
One fear that nags him, he admitted, is that somehow he will not live up to the legacy left by his Scottish forebears who accepted the gospel in the midst of persecution and endured hardship to gather to Zion.
"We all harvest fields we did not plant," he remarked.