Age is a quality of mind.
If your dreams you’ve left behind,
If hope is cold,
And you no longer look ahead,
And your ambitious fires are dead,
Why then, you’re old.
But, if in life you do your best,
And if in life you keep your zest,
And love you hold,
No matter how the years go by,
No matter how the birthdays fly,
You are not old.
(Age, a poem frequently recitedby 102-year-old Willard LaGrand Nielsen)
For Willard LaGrand Nielsen, age is simply a word found near the front of a dictionary.
Indeed, the lifelong member with the firm handshake has lived a life in full. He’s an Eagle Scout, a globe-trotting athlete and an accomplished dentist who counted General Dwight D. Eisenhower among his patients. He’s beloved by his posterity and appreciated by the many, many members he served as their branch president or bishop. And he’s more than two years removed from his 100th birthday party.
Still, Brother Nielsen is not, well, sitting still.
“I’m not perfect,” he told the Church News. “I can do better.”
That daily drive to be the best he can be has defined Brother Nielsen’s century (plus two years) on this earth. He’s not as spry as he once was, but his example continues to inspire others. To wit, he recently celebrated his 102nd birthday with a group of Cub Scouts from his Sandy, Utah, neighborhood. He shared with those boys the same counsel he has given to many other Scout and youth groups.
“Don’t give up. Stick with it until you achieve your goals. Don’t be a quitter.”
Brother Nielsen learned the work ethic growing up on the family farm in Hyrum, Utah. The Nielsens raised sugar beets. Young LaGrand learned the ins-and-outs of harvesting sugar beets — and learned he didn’t want to be a farmer forever. So he studied hard and was accepted into Northwestern University’s dental school, graduating in 1932.
He would practice dentistry in Salt Lake City for five years and marry his hometown sweetheart, Beatrice Allen. Then World War II arrived. Brother Nielsen was eager to wear the uniform and serve his country, so he joined the U.S. Army Dental Corps. During the next 29 years he would work on Ike’s teeth and countless others while fulfilling leadership assignments in military posts from Panama to Germany. He smiles when asked about his memories of the five-star general who would later become the country’s 34th president.
“[Eisenhower] was a regular guy — he was always nice to me.”
Brother Nielsen had been warned that his Church membership might hinder his military career. It wasn’t true. He quickly rose through the officer ranks, becoming a full colonel. He and other faithful members were respected by their fellow soldiers. On one occasion, the company commander of the post where Brother Nielsen was stationed ordered all the soldiers into a 6 a.m. formation. He then asked all the Mormons to step forward. The commanding officer pointed at the LDS soldiers and said, “If you follow these boys, you won’t get into any trouble.”
A soldier’s life is transient, so Brother and Sister Nielsen and their five children (four daughters and a son) would call several places home. At each assignment, he would serve as the branch president or bishop. The Church was small in most of the areas the family lived, so Brother Nielsen’s testimony and capacity were utilized and appreciated. As a worthy priesthood holder, he was often called upon to administer to soldiers who were sick or injured.
“The gospel gives you something to live for,” he said.
Brother Nielsen is a staunch supporter of Scouting. Even during his busy military career, the Eagle Scout made time to work with Boy Scouts in a variety of leadership capacities. “Scouting,” he said, “has taught me to stick with something until the job is finished.”
In 2002, Brother Nielsen was awarded the Good Scout Award by the California Inland Empire Council. Five years later, in conjunction with his 100th birthday, he was presented the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award by the executive board of the Boy Scouts of America.
Once he was retired from dentistry, Brother and Sister Nielsen dedicated their lives to missionary work, fulfilling assignments in Australia, New York City, Salt Lake City and Sri Lanka. Near the end of their service, Sister Nielsen developed Alzheimer’s disease. Brother Nielsen would care for his wife for eight years, until her death on Christmas Day in 1988.
A few years before Sister Nielsen’s death, Brother Nielsen discovered another passion: running. He was a full-fledged senior citizen when he began lacing up his running shoes each day to pound mile after mile of pavement. “Running cleared my mind; it gave me serenity,” he said. “You forget your worries.”
He would become a familiar competitor at road races around the world (including China, South Africa, Finland and Italy) and was typically the oldest participant at each event. He competed in triathlons and ran barefoot and in a toga several times in the Nemean Panhellanic Games in Greece. Three years ago he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Huntsman World Senior Games Hall of Fame after participating in those events for almost two decades.
A stroke has forced Brother Nielsen to slow down. But the 102-year-old’s enthusiasm for the gospel, Scouting and his family remains vigorous and quick.
“The Lord has blessed me more than I deserve,” he said.