Editor’s note: A profile of President Dallin H. Oaks, now of the First Presidency, at the time of his call to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This article ran in the April 29, 1984 issue of the Church News.
“Everything I will be involved in as an apostle will fall into one of two categories — loving the Lord and loving my fellow man.”
Utah State Supreme Court Justice Dallin H. Oaks, one of two men sustained April 7 as members of the Council of the Twelve, was sitting in a blue velvet chair in his handsomely furnished living room, just a few blocks east of the BYU campus he presided over from 1971-1980. He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, as he responded to a reporter’s question about his hopes for his apostolic ministry, which will begin when he is ordained May 3 — the day after his resignation from the Supreme Court becomes effective.
“Love,” he continued, “is the most important thing.”
It is probably not coincidental that the earliest memories of a man with such a philosophy revolve around love. “Both my father and my mother (Lloyd E. and Stella Oaks) were loving people,” said the Provo native. He recalled a time during the Great Depression when he and his father were walking in Twin Falls, Idaho, where the family had moved soon after Dallin was born.
“We stopped to look in the window of a sporting goods store,” remembered Elder Oaks, who, like his father was, is an avid sportsman. “There were some pocket knives on display in the window, and we happened to notice a little boy about my age — a rag-tag looking little fellow — who was longingly studying the knives.
“My father watched him for a few minutes, then walked over to him and asked, ‘Which one do you like best?’ The little boy pointed to one. Father walked into the shop. Moments later, he emerged from the store with a knife just like the one the little boy liked so much. ‘Here,’ my father said as he handed the knife to the boy, ‘this is for you.’
“After the boy left, Father began to sense that I was a little upset that he hadn’t bought a knife for me. He put his arm around me and said, ‘I don’t think that little boy has a father to buy him a knife. You have your father.’ “
Ironically, it wasn’t long before young Dallin and his younger brother, Merrill, and sister, Evelyn, were likewise fatherless. “The death of my father was a great tragedy in my life,” he said “I was just 7 years old at the time. I had a very difficult time dealing with it.”
So did his mother. “Just after he died, Mother tried to go back to work,” said Elder Oaks. “It was too soon — she had a nervous breakdown.” Eight-year-old Dallin was sent to live with his mother’s parents on their farm near Payson, 12 miles south of Provo. Despite the kindness of his grandparents, it was a bleak period in his life.
“I had a lot of problems in school,” he said. “I just couldn’t concentrate. I remember when we were learning how to do long division. We had to do 20 long division problems a day. Your score was how many you missed. My scores were always around 15 or 16.
“Looking back on it, I’m sure my problems were due to the emotional disturbance of losing my father and mother at the same time. But as far as I was concerned at the time, I was just the dumbest boy in the world.”
However, he didn’t remain that way for long. Two years after his mother’s breakdown, she recovered. She obtained a teaching position in Vernal, Utah, 180 miles east of Salt Lake City, where the family was reunited. Vernal was also where young Dallin came under the influence of Pearl Schafer, his fifth-grade teacher.
“It was a combination of a loving teacher and putting our family back together that helped put me back together,” Elder Oaks said. “That first year in Vernal turned me around.”
Like a shot, “the dumbest boy in the class” became one of the brightest. A successful high school career in Vernal and Provo (where Sister Oaks moved so her children could be close to BYU, and where she was later elected to the City Council while working as director of adult education for Provo City Schools) led to an equally successful college career. In 1954, Elder Oaks graduated with high honors from BYU. He took his academic skills to the University of Chicago Law School, where he graduated at the top of his class.
His academic success in college and law school was no surprise to the former June Dixon, who met then-college freshman Dallin Oaks while she was a senior at Spanish Fork, Utah, High School and married him a year-and-a-half later. “He’d come home and say, ‘There may be smarter guys at that law school, but nobody studies as hard as I do,'” she said.
He began his law career as a clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court. After a year of clerking, he spent three years in private law practice in Chicago. Then he returned to the University of Chicago, where he taught at the law school and served, for several months, as associate dean and acting dean.
In 1971, the Oaks family moved back to Provo, where Elder Oaks became the eighth president of BYU. This was a “happy, exciting” period in the family’s life that included the birth of their sixth child after 13 childless years.
Elder Oaks’ release as president in 1980 was “very, very sudden,” he said. “But it wasn’t unexpected. I had, in fact, recommended it several years earlier. The actual notice was short, but that didn’t bother me. All I had to be told was that the prophet of the Lord had decided to release me.”
Just four months after Elder Oaks completed his assignment at BYU, the Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson appointed him to the state Supreme Court. “I was pleased to get back into the mainstream of the legal profession,” said the new apostle. “And I loved the job. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d enjoy more than what I was doing on the Supreme Court.”
He couldn’t, that is, until 9:30 p.m. on April 6. He was in Tucson, Ariz., preparing for a confidential meeting of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) board of directors, of which he is chairman — a post he will continue to hold until the expiration of his term in 1985. While eating dinner in a restaurant, he received a phone call from President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency.
“He told me to call him back when I got to my hotel room,” said Elder Oaks. “I assumed he wanted to know about something that happened while I was at BYU or someone I knew there.”
Elder Oaks’ assumption was incorrect. When he phoned back, President Hinckley informed him that the Lord had called him to the Council of the Twelve. “I was stunned,” said Elder Oaks.
After what he said was “13 nearly sleepless hours” for him, the rest of the world was informed of the call while Elder Oaks was in an airplane traveling to a PBS meeting in Chicago, Ill. “When I got off the plane, I called home to see if it had really happened.”
Even though the reality of the calling has had a little time to sink in, Elder Oaks said “the closer I get to the event, the more awe-struck I am by what has happened to me and by the responsibility I will have. It’s the sort of thing that causes one to realize how dependent we are on the Lord’s help. It’s a very humbling experience to live through.
“But I have decided to approach it in the same way I have approached every big step in my life — trust in the Lord and do the best you can.”