How Elder Marvin J. Ashton faced his ‘battle with time’

I think about Elder Marvin J. Ashton a lot, especially when I’m not using time wisely. He valued time as a precious commodity.

One day in early August of 1985, I interviewed Elder Ashton in his office in the Church Administration Building. I noticed an hourglass on the credenza behind his desk. The old-fashioned timepiece gave more than a quaint accent to his office’s décor. It symbolized a challenge the then-70-year-old member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles faced daily: He waged a constant battle with time, wresting from it a schedule that allowed him to meet his responsibilities as a General Authority, husband, father, brother and friend.

He told me that his most effective strategy in his “battle with time” lay in being organized and punctual and getting a head start on each day. When not traveling on assignments, he was the first to enter the Church Administration Building each morning. Regarding his almost obsessive fixation for punctuality, he said, “I don’t have time to be late.”

Nor did he allow a full agenda to make him appear anything but calm, courteous and considerate.

His smile was frequent and hinted of a youthful enthusiasm — even wonderment — for life’s experiences and challenges while showing evidence of wisdom he gleaned over the years.

I remember his voice as being kind and gentle. We visited for more than an hour the day of our interview in 1985; I had met with him many times before then and afterward. As we talked, I noticed the same soothing, calming and comforting voice I’d heard as he spoke in general conferences in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

I don’t have time to be late.

Someone told me that when Elder Ashton conveyed counsel or reprimand, his voice was edged with neither harshness nor judgment but with an aura of empathy and compassion. And when he said to a troubled person, “I understand,” there was no doubt that he did.

He, therefore, was a natural fit when he was named managing director of the then-newly formed Church Social Services Department in September of 1969. He was sustained less than a month later as an Assistant to the Twelve. He was ordained to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on Dec. 2, 1971.

Church members seemed to look forward to Elder Ashton’s general conference addresses. Trying to gain a little insight in how he prepared for those talks, I asked him to tell me about when he realized he had a firm testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He told me that he worked to pay for his mission to Great Britain, 1937-39.

He regarded his mission as an opportunity not only to preach the gospel but also gain a testimony. “When I arrived in the mission field, I decided that after just a few weeks I wanted to have that burning testimony others had spoken of. I decided I would read the Book of Mormon rapidly, meaning I would do it in a month between tracting and appointments. When I finished, I expected to hear the bells ring and a voice saying, ‘This is true.’ I thought I would feel all sorts of faith and humility.

“When I didn’t hear those bells or the voice or have those feelings, I was disappointed. So, I read the book again during the next three to four weeks. When I got through, I sort of said, ‘Father, I’ve done what I was supposed to do.’ But what I was expecting didn’t come.

“I read the Book of Mormon again. After finishing it the third time and praying about it, I had the impression, ‘You’ve known the Church is true all your life. Get off your knees and go to work.’

“That was a distinct impression. I had been seeking a testimony, but I already had it. All I had to do was exercise it. Since I’ve become a General Authority, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to missionaries about two types of testimonies. One is the kind that comes as a sudden impact, usually the type the convert comes to know. The other is the quiet testimony that is there and just needs the chance to blossom and grow.”

After his mission, he married Norma Bernston in the Salt Lake Temple. They had been friends since their early teens, when her family moved into a home down the street from his. “She had a fine personality and, besides, she had a tennis court in her backyard,” Elder Ashton said of the beginning days of their friendship. They played tennis together throughout their high school and college years while romance blossomed. They won the mixed doubles championship in the all-Church tennis tournament in 1954.

“We’re playing slower and more methodically now, but we still like to get up early and play,” he said. He and Sister Ashton walked two miles nearly every evening. Sometimes, while on vacation, he played golf. “I’m a poor golfer,” he said. “I don’t play golf very much. It takes too much time.”

Time was something Elder Ashton watched closely. He seemed to thrive on an active life. “I had a Primary teacher once who said to my mother, ‘There is only one way to get along with Marvin at Primary. He’s so squiggly and squirmy that I have to give him a lot to do.’

“I guess I’m still that way,” he said. “I like to have a lot to do.”

Elder Ashton died on Feb. 25, 1994, at age 78.