Near the end of the school year in 1959 at Glendale High School in California, students and teachers crowded into a classroom to hear a young LDS man's speech assignment: Explain the Book of Mormon and its origins.
While others had to speak only 15 minutes, the LDS student, Douglas L. Callister, a senior, spoke for three class periods about the Prophet Joseph Smith and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
Unusual as the assignment was, however, it was a good fit for the young man who has since had many opportunities to speak, lead and teach both in the Church and in Southern California's Foothill communities.
The slender, 5-foot-9 tax attorney, with thinning hair and a deliberate way of speaking that indicates his penchant for precision and love of the language, was sustained to the Second Quorum of the Seventy April 1, 2000. He and his wife, Jeannette McKibben Callister, have been well schooled for his calling as a General Authority during lives filled with service and dedication to the gospel. His speaking to his classmates and teachers about the Book of Mormon as a young man "left a lasting impression."
That was a "great affirmation for me that even in the early hours of life, we didn't have to be ashamed of our testimony, and that the Book of Mormon would well stand the investigation of our contemporaries and our friends," he said. "Between that date and graduation, I spent much time responding to respectful questions of my associates and other teachers about this book for which I have so much affection."
Sister Callister said of her husband: "From his earliest days as a young husband, he has always had as his first priority to study the scriptures and the great leaders of the Church. He is strong in a wealth of knowledge. In our times of greatest need and stress, these things have been his rock and foundation."
His involvement in the community is shown by the fact that he is often asked to speak at the funerals of those of other faiths.
"There is almost never a day in our law practice that we fail to let it be known we are Latter-day Saints," he said.
The Callister family has been Latter-day Saints for several generations. His Callister ancestors were converted by John Taylor on the Isle of Man in 1840 along with the Cannon, Quayle and Cowley families.
Elder Callister has fond memories of his maternal grandfather, Apostle Le- Grand Richards. "I remember when I was a 17-year old freshman at BYU, I would go every weekend to Grandfathers's home in Salt Lake City. He was not always there, but once he said to me, 'Next weekend my appointment is at the Spanish Fork Stake, and you are at BYU, so you'll be my companion. I'll pick you up at Saturday noon; bring your toothbrush and your pajamas.'
As Elder Richards' companion, young Douglas went to presidency and leadership meetings and stayed in the stake president's home. He also spoke at the general stake conference gathering.
"As we made our way back to Provo, he [Grandfather] said: "I don't want you to ever forget this. This is what grandfathers are supposed to do — we are supposed to take our descendants with us when we honor our priesthood and let them see us do that, as we try to raise another generation in the Church who loves the gospel as much as we do."
By the time Elder Callister was called to the Swiss Austrian Mission, he had graduated from BYU. After completing his mission, he returned to Glendale, where he and his future wife met.
"We were at M-men and Gleaners," said Sister Callister. "We became acquainted there and it didn't take us very long to start dating and we were married shortly after that."
Elder Callister added the husband's point of view: "She, being on the dance committee, sold me a ticket to a dance. I went, and she saw me standing on the side, a very shy returned missionary, so during one of the intervals, she invited me to dance. She obviously came with the ticket — a long term ticket!"
Important things happened early in their lives, he observed. After their marriage, he completed law school at the University of Southern California and they moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he pursued advanced studies in law. Shortly after their return to Southern California, as he established his law practice, he was called to be bishop.
One rainy day in 1969, the young bishop went to the temple. While there, he was called from the middle of a session to learn that his home had been destroyed in a mudslide. His 7-month expectant wife and two children were inside at the time.
Sister Callister recalled:
"Moments before, I had felt impressed to move the two little children from the area of the home where the destruction primarily took place to the one corner where it did not." In the deluge, she was swept to the far corner of her home and buried chest high in mud. The children were safe, but she was extricated, bleeding, from the debris and rushed to the hospital, where she started labor.
"The doctor feared, in 1969, to deliver while she was only seven months pregnant," said Elder Callister. "But her labor stopped after a priesthood blessing." Later, when the baby was born, "we named him Matthew, which means 'Gift from God.'
"We learned that there wasn't anything that we cherished in life — covenants, faith, chastity, family — that the elements could take from us, but they did take every other thing," he said.
Less than a year after losing the family home, and after serving as bishop for three and a half years, he was called as stake president. Five years later he was called to preside over the Minnesota Minneapolis Mission. The mission was a glorious experience of leading, teaching, sharing the gospel and building missionaries, he said. "It was one of the happiest chapters of our lives because it was something we could do together."
The Callisters emphasized gospel study to the missionaries. After their release in 1978, he continued teaching young people in early morning seminary while she served as Relief Society president. In 1987 he was called as regional representative and, in 1995, was among the first Area Authorities called. He was named an Area Authority Seventy in 1997.
One December, he and a stake president visited a community near San Bernardino where a single grandmother was rearing three children, ages 9, 7 and 5, in "absolute poverty."
"The Christmas tree they had was not more than a foot tall, with only two or three red ribbons on it. After we blessed that grandmother, to our surprise all three children stepped forward and asked for a blessing.
"Of all the sermons we have given, were we ever closer to following the Savior than when we put our hands on the heads of those little children who didn't own anything in life?"
You can reach John L. Hart by E-mail at [email protected]