A hero on Temple Square: 8 lessons Elder Gong has learned from Mack Wilberg’s life

Every person has something amazing, extraordinary and remarkable about each of them, said Elder Gerrit W. Gong.

With that in mind, Elder Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles focused his devotional address to LDS Business College students on the life and example of someone he considers a hero on Temple Square.

Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, met with Elder Gong in his office on Jan. 10 and the two shared an open, candid, fun, insightful and spiritual conversation. In the Feb. 26 devotional, Elder Gong shared eight lessons he learned.

1. Success and the opportunity to lift others do not depend on one's birthplace.

Mack Wilberg is from Castle Dale, a small town in central-eastern Utah. While growing up, his town population fluctuated between 500 and 600 people.

"Goodness, talent and ability to contribute can and do come from everywhere," Elder Gong said.

2. Challenges and obstacles can be met with the help, love and support of others.

When Wilberg was 9 years old, his father died. Though his widowed mother worked five days a week as a public school teacher, she made sacrifices to help him develop his talents. Elder Gong quoted Wilberg as saying that "she sacrificed her Saturdays to drive me to piano lessons."

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Susan share a smile prior to his speaking to a group of LDS Business College Students and staff in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Susan share a smile prior to his speaking to a group of LDS Business College Students and staff in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Deseret News

Each person has people who believe in, trust and support, and sacrifice and help them, Elder Gong said. "Please, let's each of us become such an individual to those around us. Please remember, thank, and be grateful for those who help."

3. Everyone can find his or her aptitude, capacity, talent, passion and ambition.

At the age of 4, Wilberg learned to play the piano by ear. He liked playing piano so much he asked friends if he could play the piano at their homes.

Wilberg's piano teacher had a gift for nurturing talent in others, Elder Gong said. "Often it is not only what we can do, but what we can see and help others do and become that constitutes a great gift."

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints greets students and staff from LDS Business College in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints greets students and staff from LDS Business College in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Deseret News

One skill that this piano teacher helped Wilberg develop was a habit for preparation and practicing. Due to his natural skills, Wilberg could often play well without much practice. Once when Wilberg was young, "his piano teacher surprisingly withdrew (Wilberg) from a piano competition because he had not prepared sufficiently to perform the concerto he was supposed to play," Elder Gong said.

To this day, some 50 years later, Wilberg remembers how disappointed his mother was, and he committed to never be unprepared again.

"Not all of us find a passion or interest so early or clearly," Elder Gong said. "Nor should you feel you cannot choose a major or a profession if you have not yet identified such a passion. Usually we learn and discover our interests and aptitudes as we go, one step at a time."

4. Preparation creates opportunity.

Wilberg told Elder Gong that opportunity comes when one is prepared and qualified for that opportunity.

Elder Gong learned from Brother Wilberg that "in the arts, talent, preparation, and development are all required."

This preparation includes education, which is a key to long-term self-reliance. "Here self-reliance includes our ability to trust the Lord and to develop the attitudes and abilities to sustain ourselves and our loved ones, and to help others around us."

5. Some achievements are possible only when we work in harmony.
Erick Tshimp smiles up at Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Elder Gong greets students and staff from LDS Business College in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.
Erick Tshimp smiles up at Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Elder Gong greets students and staff from LDS Business College in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Deseret News

Wilberg knows from experience that even talented and gifted individuals cannot achieve what a dedicated group working together can accomplish, Elder Gong said.

"Something remarkable happens when talent collaborates, when individual interests blend, when parts become a greater whole," Elder Gong said.

"When we connect by covenant, our ties of belonging to the Lord and to each other are especially strong and motivating. We become our best, greatest selves when we lose our narrow, self-centered selves."

6. Inspiration is a spiritual quality.

Inspiration comes with preparation, which comes with determined, disciplined, hard work.

Wilberg has said that musical inspiration has come to him at the "oddest times and places," like when mowing the lawn, sweeping the floor, driving the car or taking a shower.

Inspiration also comes by recognizing that one doesn't lean on his or her own intellect, but stands on the shoulders of others. Wilberg is constantly studying other master composers. Elder Gong quoted him as saying, "So much can be done when we recognize the inspiration of others and build on or from it."

7. Our interests need not become our profession.
Audience members sing the opening song prior to Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaking to a group of LDS Business College Students and staff in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.
Audience members sing the opening song prior to Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaking to a group of LDS Business College Students and staff in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Deseret News

In Wilberg's case, passion and profession overlapped. This is not always the case, however. For instance, one of the first trumpet players in the Orchestra at Temple Square is a dentist by profession and "a very fine trumpet player by avocation and service,” according to Wilberg.

"Love for something and aptitude can help us identify our life's interests and profession," Elder Gong continued. "Education, experience and diligent improvement are all part of discovering, growing and becoming."

8. Humility and gratitude bless.

Wilberg has conducted on many famous stages in important venues with well-known artists. His arrangements have been performed at the funerals of three presidents of the United States — President Ronald Reagan, President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush.

"His music is performed and loved all over the world," Elder Gong said.

But despite all these accomplishments, "Brother Mack Wilberg has never lost or forgotten his small-town roots," Elder Gong said. "With a twinkle in his eye and a tenderness in his heart and in his voice, he also says, 'I have a soft spot whenever someone comes to audition and they come from a small town.' "

Audience members listen as Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to a group of LDS Business College Students and staff in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.
Audience members listen as Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to a group of LDS Business College Students and staff in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Deseret News

Wilberg also believes in giving back to the community. Every Wednesday, he goes to the Utah State Prison to conduct the inmate chorus. Elder Gong quoted Wilberg as saying, "We work and rehearse like we do with the Tabernacle Choir."

The perfect example

In all things, the Savior is ultimately the perfect example, Elder Gong said. Like Wilberg, Jesus Christ was born in what many would consider a small and obscure place. "He observed, learned and grew, line by line, grace by grace, until He received a fulness," Elder Gong said.

The Savior loves each person individually and has compassion for all, whatever their backgrounds or circumstances.

Elder Gong closed with a plea for students to do their very best. "At the same time, please remember perfection is in Christ, not in the perfectionism of the world," he said. "Whatever your background or talents, study and work with the sincere desire to bless those around you, including your family. … As you do so with humility and gratitude, the Lord will help you."