"The inestimable work [women] do in the missionary field, as in the home, too seldom receives due recognition and praise. I have profound respect . . . for the mission president's wife who, while showing her deepest tenderness in helping her husband to do his duty, yet in her own sphere, by intelligent, superb planning and unselfish service, gives to any habitation the true spirit of home; and by tender admonition and encouragement, lightens the heart of homesick [missionaries] with the assurance that they can and will succeed." – President David O. McKay, April general conference, 1954.
"We do appreciate you [wives of mission presidents]. You're the ones who give verve, spirit, interest and marvelous spark to our missions. . . . If there's any wife of any mission president who has any question about how important you are: We need you very, very much. The Lord will inspire you and let you discover talents you never dreamed you had, and the power and ability to fulfill every need for every responsibility that will come to you." – Elder Richard G. Scott, at Mission Presidents' Seminar, June 1994.
"My wife and I have a true companionship. We work together. I don't think any mission can be successful without this kind of relationship." -Pennsylvania Pittsburgh Mission Pres. Thales A. Derrick, speaking of his wife, Sister Willa Brooks Derrick, in a Church News interview.
If asked, most members of the Church could give a fairly good description of the role of a mission president. But if they're asked about the role of the woman who serves by his side as companion, they might reply with a statement such as, "She's the mission president's wife."
While there is nothing wrong with the terminology of "mission president's wife," her role is much more encompassing than many realize. And the role differs from mission to mission.
Sister Willa Brooks Derrick of St. George, Utah, is one of the 303 women in the Church who currently bears the title "mission president's wife." She has been serving with her husband, Pres. Thales A. Derrick, in the Pennsylvania Pittsburg Mission since July 1992. They are to be released from their missionary service in July.
Sister Derrick hesitates to use the adjective "typical" in speaking of herself as "the typical mission president's wife."
"My situation might be different from that of the mission president's wife in the adjoining mission, or in a mission in another country," she said. "Some bring young children or teenagers with them into the mission field. They will have different kinds of responsibilities than those of us whose children are grown, or those who don't have children.
"At the mission president's seminar we attended before we came to the mission field, the wives were told that our first priority is our husbands and our families. We have four sons and a daughter. Our youngest son entered the Missionary Training Center at the same time we did; he recently returned from the Riga Latvia Mission and is a student at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. All our other children are married. When we left, we had four grandchildren; now we have nine. Being away from our grandchildren is one of the most challenging things about serving a mission, but we keep in close contact. I write a lot of letters!"
Sister Derrick spends time keeping in touch with missionaries. She makes a point of sending each missionary a card at Christmas and for his or her birthday.
She described one of her major duties as "just being here." She said one of her main, and most enjoyable, duties is, along with her husband, hosting missionaries at the mission home as they arrive in the mission and as they prepare to return home from their missions.
"It's very important for the mission president's wife to be on hand to greet the missionaries as they arrive from the Missionary Training Center and to bid them farewell as they leave the mission," she said. "We prepare a nice dinner for them on both occasions. We also prepare meals for other occasions. A mission president's wife has lots of meals to prepare. There is time spent in grocery shopping. I enjoy this."
Another major and crucial responsibility that has been delegated to Sister Derrick is that of assisting in looking after the health and well-being of the missionaries.
"I try to see that they're eating nutritious meals, following good hygiene, getting a good balance of rest and exercise," she said. "Sometimes, I'm able to help resolve health problems by giving some old-fashioned, common sense advice like, `Try gargling with salt water.' But there are times when permission is given for a missionary to call or go see a doctor. At zone conferences or other meetings with missionaries, I'll talk to them about personal hygiene, taking care of food and proper diet.
"A mission president's wife gives lots of talks – at stake and district conferences, at youth conferences, stake women's conferences, as well as zone conferences," Sister Derrick said. "In our zone conference this month, I'm giving a presentation about the importance of keeping a clean apartment. I've given talks about good manners and etiquette. The first time I did presentation on manners and etiquette, a number of missionaries thanked me. They said I taught them about things they had never heard of before. I also give talks on a variety of gospel-related topics.
"I talk a lot about obedience, because the only way to be a good missionary is to be obedient. Most missionaries come with a great desire to serve and to learn, and they come from families that are strong in the gospel. But some come to their missions without strong family ties, or with no families to support and encourage them. Some are the only members of the Church in their families.
"Missionaries are an outstanding group of people. I can't say enough about missionary couples and older sister missionaries. We appreciate their spiritual strength and wisdom. I marvel at the energy and enthusiasm of the young elders and sisters. We see such outstanding people among our missionaries. It's amazing to watch them, especially as they grow in spirituality and leadership."
Sister Derrick said she might be able to compile a list of all the things a mission president's wife does during her mission. "But," she added, "being a mission president's wife is a kind of experience I can't describe. I get weepy when I talk about it. It's a wonderful opportunity, one of the greatest blessings in my life. It's also quite difficult, especially when I realize how precious the young people of the Church are and how important it is for them to have a really good mission experience. I feel the responsibility of that a great deal."
Before he retired, Pres. Derrick was a career fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He and Sister Derrick lived in many places throughout the world, packing up their belongings and moving their family into different dwellings they made "home" for the duration of his assignments. At times, he went places where he could not take his family, such as to Vietnam.
"Being able to serve the Lord full-time is a special privilege, especially to be able to serve with my husband on this mission," Sister Derrick said. "This kind of opportunity comes in no other way in the Church or anywhere. We've been able to come here and focus only on the work of the Lord, to put the cares of the world behind us. We eliminated a lot of things from our lives that we would have had at home, such as going to movies or basketball and football games. Our whole emphasis has been on a different plane. That plane has been a great opportunity to assist in bringing souls to Christ. I feel we have grown spiritually."