ST. GEORGE, UTAH — Early settlers built their homes and lives on the alkali soil of southern Utah, where hot, dusty wind always seemed to blow. They faced mosquito-borne illness, contended with rattlesnakes and fought back annual floods.
Determined that their city would be defined by the presence of both a temple and a university, they persevered and virtue grew.
“Call it faith, call it courage, call it determination or conviction, call it backbone or pluck or integrity or grit,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a St. George native. “It is a quality in individuals or institutions that gives strength to keep going when there is no strength to summon. It is a virtue that keeps feet moving when feet and legs and arms and back are weary to the bone. It is the intangible that prompted one writer to say: ‘There is no chance, no fate, no destiny, that can circumvent nor hinder nor control the firm resolve of a determined soul.’ ”
That pioneer faith — learned here in their youth — still flows through Elder Holland and his wife, Sister Patricia Terry Holland.
The couple returned home to St. George on Oct. 24-25 to attend their 60-year Dixie High School reunion and participate in a Dixie State University alumni homecoming event.
“Home is home for everyone,” he said. “But … there’s something special about southern Utah. For us, it’s the heritage, the faith and hard, hard circumstances with which this area was settled.”
Elder and Sister Holland and 61 of their classmates gathered on the campus of Dixie State University — the very location that his grandfather farmed when he was a child — for the reunion on Oct. 24.
The former classmates laughed, reminisced and listened to music common in 1959, the year they completed high school — when an average new home cost $12,400, and people pumped four gallons of gas for $1. They held a moment of silence for their classmates who are no longer with them.
“My memories are all good. That is because of all of you,” said Dale Larkin, also a member of the class of 1959.
Then Elder Holland addressed a familiar topic, a topic that has settled into the bones of those raised in southern Utah in the way the red sand here settles in their shoes.
There are so many different kinds of sorrow and so many different ways for it to come, Elder Holland said. “When we survive (hard times) — and we will — we need to remember how we felt, so we can help others when they face the same things.”
“Maybe that is why we have class reunions — to remember not only who we are but also who we were and some of the things we have faced in 60 years of traveling from past to present.”
So what can be learned from decades of experience that can include decline and loss? “For one thing, we can remember that there is purpose in all of this, even if we don’t always see it,” said Elder Holland.
There are numerous examples of men and women who have lived fully with a tremendous impact for good on others “regardless of their age or condition of their health and however limited their income and education, talents and opportunities may have appeared to be. …
“To get all out of life that we can, we should put everything into it that we can, for as many people as we can, for as long as we can.”
Amid the reminiscing, as thoughts turned back over more than half a century, Elder Holland asked his classmates to be charitable.
“(God) hath made everything beautiful in (its) time’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I love that thought, and I believe it, and you are living proof that it is true. Whether at 18, which we once were, or 80 which we nearly all now are, I hope you can see that beauty in yourselves.”
Dixie State University homecoming
Speaking again a day later at a DSU homecoming event, Elder Holland said the resolve for beauty to grow in southern Utah’s red sand dates back to the Church’s Nauvoo era — half a century before Dixie’s founding. In Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith laid out a plan for the ideal city of Zion. “At the very heart of the city would be two pivotal monuments, two institutions that would symbolize that faith’s moral compass and ongoing dream.” One was the temple, the other the university.
“We know from those early journals and diaries how miserable the early Dixie Mission was. Alkali soil, flooding river, mosquito-borne illness, heat — one problem after another, on and on and on.”
Why did they stay? Elder Holland questioned. “I have wondered if it had something to do with that dyed-in-the-wool, deep-in-the-soul devotion to the idea of Zion with its temple-and-university combination.”
Elder Holland said in this two-part model for a Zion-like settlement, the temple’s permanence was never in doubt. “But the school’s?” he said. “No academy-come-college in this state, perhaps none in these western United States, had to fight to survive and struggle to continue the way the institution we love and honor tonight did.”
The history of Dixie State University began with the opening of the St. George Academy in 1888 — just two dozen years after St. George was founded. The academy closed five years later. A new academy opened in 1911 but was always on the brink of financial crisis.
In 1933, “persistent beyond anything reason or good judgment would dictate, local citizens signed personal notes for virtually the entire funding of the school for the next several years.” Then in the 1950s, it looked like the school might close again, but it managed to remain open.
“Why fight so hard to hold on to, and for some of us to come back to, such a dry, miserable piece of alkali-laden soil?” he questioned. “Call it faith. Call it courage. Call it determination or conviction. Call it whatever it was those pioneer forebears had, but these are our roots and they indicate the stock from which we sprang and the kind of people we hoped someday to become.”
Even though the Hollands don’t visit St. George more than once or twice a year, the city and its heritage still hold “a tender, sweet” place in their hearts. The Hollands’ three children never lived in St. George but also call it home.
“We moved our children around a lot and they didn’t really seem to have a home,” said Sister Holland. “But when they hear us talk about St. George, and they see … their pioneer heritage on both sides, it’s home for them. So they, too, say of southern Utah, ‘We’re going home.’ ”
And although Elder and Sister Holland left the city to attend BYU and Yale University, and never returned to live there full time again, their friendships remain. Sister Holland gathered with eight of her high school girlfriends while she was in town this weekend, as she does on every trip home.
Elder Holland grew up hearing that the city would never grow, because there was not enough water to sustain a larger community. He is stunned by the growth today — but not surprised. “This is Dixie. This is St. George. This is the Cotton Mission,” he laughs. “It was destined to flourish!”
“You read those early pioneer stories of people fighting cholera and the flooding Virgin River. Every year it would flood and wipe out the farms and take what little top soil there was with it. Because of the alkali in the soil, they couldn’t make anything grow. There was, seemingly, just lava and sandstone in every direction. It was just hopeless. But they stayed.”
As a result of those and many, many more efforts, the Church has announced a second temple for the area. And Dixie State University now has 12,000 students and a student commons building bearing Elder Holland’s name. He and Sister Holland also own burial plots in the city “in anticipation of making their southern Utah journey complete someday.”
“We are so grateful to our parents and our grandparents, who just were sturdy stock,” said Sister Holland. And by the reception the Hollands received in this community this weekend, it would appear that those parents produced sturdy — and popular — stock as well.