Getting to know President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency

On April 6, 1984, Utah Supreme Court Justice Dallin H. Oaks was preparing for a confidential meeting with the Public Broadcasting Service board of directors. It was 9:30 p.m., and he was eating dinner in a restaurant in Arizona when he received a phone call from President Gordon B. Hinckley, then of the First Presidency.

“He told me to call him back when I got to my hotel room,” President Oaks recalled. “I assumed he wanted to know about something that happened while I was at BYU or someone I knew there” (Church News, April 1984).

Upon returning President Hinckley’s call, he heard the Church leader’s words — that the Lord had called him, Dallin Oaks, to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“I was stunned,” President Oaks has said of the experience. After “13 sleepless hours,” it was announced to the Church — while he was on an airplane traveling to his meeting in Chicago, Illinois — that he would be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Church members sustained President Russell M. Nelson to the Quorum on the same day.

“When I got off the plane, I called home to see if it had really happened,” he recalled.

Nearly 34 years later, the seasoned Church leader has responded again to a prophet’s call to serve, this time in the First Presidency. On Jan. 14, President Oaks was set apart to serve as first counselor to President Nelson.

President Russell M. Nelson, center, is announced as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. At left, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor.
President Russell M. Nelson, center, is announced as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. At left, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Childhood

Born on Aug. 12, 1932, in Provo, Utah, to Lloyd E. and Stella Harris Oaks, President Oaks is the oldest of the couple’s three children. His father, a trained ophthalmologist, died of tuberculosis when Dallin was only 7 years old, leaving his mother to raise the couple’s children alone.

After his father died, his mother tried to go back to school and work, but it proved to be too soon. Overwhelmed with responsibilities and overcome with grief, Stella Oaks had her children live with her parents for a time on a farm near Payson, Utah, just 12 miles south of Provo.

“I had a lot of problems in school,” President Oaks recalled in a Church News article. “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.”

The children eventually returned to live with their mother in Vernal, Utah, where she accepted a teaching position. With time — and the help of a loving teacher and supportive mother — Dallin found his bearings in school and went on to do very well in academics.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks with his mother, Stella, brother Merrill and sister Evelyn. Elder Oaks' father died when he was 8 years old, and his mother raised three children on her own.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks with his mother, Stella, brother Merrill and sister Evelyn. Elder Oaks’ father died when he was 8 years old, and his mother raised three children on her own. Credit: Courtesy President Dallin H. Oaks

“I was blessed with an extraordinary mother,” President Oaks said in an article on ChurchofJesusChrist.org. “She surely was one of the many noble women who have lived in the latter days. … She gave me a great deal of responsibility and freedom. She encouraged me to have a job.”

After a few years in Vernal the family moved back to Provo in an effort to be close to Brigham Young University — his parents’ alma mater. His mother would later become the first woman to sit on the Provo City Council, and she worked as director of adult education for Provo City Schools. Dallin graduated from Brigham Young High School in 1950, and enrolled at BYU.

Family life

As a young man, Dallin’s first job was sweeping out a radio repair shop. Those days sweeping turned into an interest in radio, where he, before age 16, obtained a radiotelephone operator’s license, allowing him to operate a commercial radio station’s transmitter. From that interest came a job in radio, where he would work as both an announcer and a transmitter engineer.

That job would prove to be more than a hobby or source of income. During his freshman year of college at BYU, President Oaks occasionally served as a radio announcer at high school basketball games. It was at one of those games he met June Dixon, a senior at a local high school. A year and a half after they met, the couple married in the Salt Lake Temple. Together they have six children.

Dallin Oaks was a radio announcer at KOVO when he was a student, became a distinguished lawyer, president of BYU, a Utah Supreme Court Justice and now a member of the Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Dallin Oaks was a radio announcer at KOVO when he was a student, became a distinguished lawyer, president of BYU, a Utah Supreme Court Justice and now a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Credit: Deseret News Archives

On July 21, 1998, June died from cancer. Two years later, Elder Oaks married Kristen M. McMain in the Salt Lake Temple.

Education and career

In 1954, President Oaks graduated in accounting from BYU with high honors and furthered his education at the University of Chicago Law School.

In a Church News article from April 1984, Sister June Oaks was quoted as saying, “He’d come home and say, ‘There may be smarter guys at that law school, but nobody studies as hard as I do.’”

After graduation, Elder Oaks began his law career as a clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court for a year and then moved to a private practice. After working for three years in a private law practice in Chicago, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he taught at the law school. While there he served as associate dean and acting dean.

In June of 1981 Justice Dallin H. Oaks speaks to an issue before him. The case was a Utah Power and Light probe of misuse of campaign contributions.
In June of 1981 Justice Dallin H. Oaks speaks to an issue before him. The case was a Utah Power and Light probe of misuse of campaign contributions. Credit: Deseret News Archives

In addition to a demanding career, he served in a stake presidency and later as a regional representative.

In 1971, Elder Oaks accepted the responsibility of serving as the eighth president of Brigham Young University. For the Oaks family, this was a “happy, exciting” nine years, and included the birth of their sixth child after not having a child for 13 years (Church News, 1984). While there, he oversaw the creation of the J. Reuben Clark Law School and the Graduate Business School.

From 1979 to 1984, he served as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Public Broadcasting Service.

Four months after he completed his service as president of BYU, Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson appointed him to the state Supreme Court.

Of that assignment, he said, “I was pleased to get back into the mainstream of the legal profession. And I loved the job. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d enjoy more than what I was doing on the Supreme Court.”

Dr. Dallin H. Oaks, Justice of the Utah Supreme Court.
Dr. Dallin H. Oaks, Justice of the Utah Supreme Court. Credit: Deseret News Archives

A call to serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

Although he planned to work on the Utah Supreme Court until his retirement, only three and a half years after his appointment in 1980 he was called to be an apostle. Sustained as a General Authority on April 7, 1984, during the Saturday morning session of general conference, President Oaks joined the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but because of his judicial commitments, he was not ordained an apostle until May 3, 1984.

Known for his bold teachings on religious freedom, the doctrine of the family and gender equality, as well as encouraging young adults to plan dates rather than just “hanging out,” President Oaks has been a strong voice in teaching the doctrines of the gospel during his 34 years as a General Authority.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks answers interview questions at his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks answers interview questions at his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

His assignments have taken him around the world; he presided over and lived in the Church’s Philippines Area from 2002 to 2004.

“With all my heart I pledge my loyalty and support for President Nelson’s loving and inspired leadership,” President Oaks said on the day of his call to the First Presidency. “I rejoice in the opportunity to give my full efforts to bear witness of Jesus Christ and proclaim the truth of His restored gospel.”