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In honor of his 90th birthday, President Oaks shares 12 lessons learned through the decades

Looking back on nine decades, President Dallin H. Oaks recalls his youth, education, career and service in the Church of Jesus Christ


President Dallin H. Oaks will celebrate a landmark birthday on Aug. 12. Born in 1932 to Stella and Lloyd E. Oaks, the first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will turn 90.

President Oaks married June Dixon in 1952; they are the parents of six children. She died from cancer on July 21, 1998. In August 2000, President Oaks married Kristen McMain — who has been by his side for 22 years.

A graduate of Brigham Young University and the University of Chicago Law School, President Oaks served as an attorney, a law professor, BYU president, and as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court. On April 7, 1984, he was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He has served as a counselor to President Russell M. Nelson in the First Presidency since January 2018.

During an interview held in honor of his birthday, President Oaks shared some of the lessons he has learned through nine decades of life:

Mortality has speed bumps. At the age of 7, President Oaks lost his father unexpectedly. Faced with gaining an education and supporting her family, his mother suffered an emotional breakdown, requiring his grandparents to step in and help with the family. “Whether you consider your own experiences, or those of your family, or those around you, or those you read about, life is full of a lot of difficulties,” said President Oaks.

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opens The Book of Mormon in his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. President Oaks turns 90 on Aug. 12.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Treat others with respect and generosity: During the Great Depression, President Oaks’ father offered care as a medical doctor to many who could not afford to pay him. After his father died and as an endorsement of his goodness, President Oaks saw many of those people bring his mother “produce or some modest payments” to help her through this early period of her widowhood.

‘Women can do it all’: After the death of his father, President Oaks’ mother had to be the breadwinner, the teacher and the mother to three children under the age of 7. As a result, President Oaks grew up “seeing a woman, my mother, just as capable as any man. And throughout my life, I have never felt to discount the wisdom, or the efforts, or the leadership, or the importance of women, because I was raised by a role model who was both father and mother, community leader, teacher and Church leader.” President Oaks said in addition to his mother, three other women have had a profound influence on his life: his grandmother, Chasty Olsen Harris; his wife and the mother of his children, June Dixon Oaks; and the spouse he found after June’s death, Kristen McMain Oaks, who has sustained him for more than two decades. 

Find a career to serve ‘your fellow man’: President Oaks grew up assuming that he should be a doctor because his father had been a doctor. But after starting college, he knew that studying medicine was not for him. “I remember going to my mother, apologetically, and saying, ‘Mother, what if I don’t become a doctor?’ And in the abundance of wisdom, typical of my mother, she said, ‘Oh, you don’t need to be a doctor like your father. I want you to find something that you want to do, that is a good, honest way of serving your fellow man.’ And that released me to go forward, looking for something that I would want to do.”

President Oaks graduated in accounting, attended the University of Chicago Law School and embarked on a career of service — as an attorney, professor, university president, supreme court justice and Apostle of Jesus Christ. 

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Elder Dallin H. Oaks with his mother, Stella, brother Merrill and sister Evelyn. Elder Oaks’ father died when he was 7 years old, and his mother raised three children on her own.

Courtesy photo: Dallin H. Oaks, Courtesy photo: Dallin H. Oaks, Deseret News

Honor the Sabbath day: For six years in high school and at BYU, President Oaks worked 25 to 30 hours a week in radio — including Sundays because radio stations are a seven-days-a-week operation. As he left for the University of Chicago, President Oaks’ mother gave him advice that affected his life profoundly: “Dallin,” she said, “when your father was in medical school, he never studied or worked on Sunday. He felt that he could do more with the Lord’s help in six days than others would do without the Lord’s help in seven days. I suggest you never work on Sunday as you begin your law studies.”

President Oaks said he determined that he would never study on Sunday. “I didn’t. And it fulfilled, for me, the experience of my father and the advice of my mother, because I did as well in six days as my classmates did in seven.”

The Lord will bless ‘us with what we need’: President Oaks said the almost two years after losing his wife June to cancer were difficult. Then, one year and 11 months later he met Kristen. “The Lord led me to her and I learned then that the Lord will bless us with what we need most in His own time and in His own way.”

The Lord will help His children serve: Early in his legal career, President Oaks worked long hours, six days a week. Then he was called by Chicago Stake President John K. Edmunds to serve as a stake missionary and work 40 hours a month. “I did not have 40 hours a month to spare from my professional work, and yet I was being called by a man I respected immensely and I had faith that the Lord would bless me,” recalled President Oaks. “So, I accepted that calling. And in a miraculous way, I began to serve as a stake missionary, fulfilling the full 40 hours a month of proselyting time, in the evenings and on weekends, and my progress in the firm, my handling of the cases I was assigned, did not suffer one bit. And it’s hard to explain how that happened, except I took it as the Lord’s witness that if I would serve Him, He would bless me to do whatever else I was called upon to do.

“That was a tipping point in my faith and experience, and it served me and has been reconfirmed and reconfirmed throughout my adult life.”

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Then-BYU President Dallin H. Oaks delights basketball fans as BYU mascot “Cosmo the Cougar” during a 1978 basketball game.

Deseret News Archives

Approach new callings with faith: The call for President Oaks to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came as “a total surprise to me, and to my family and to the court where I served.”

He immediately began to study what, as an Apostle, he was called to do. Over the next decade he embarked on a “steep learning curve,” during which he was helped by many Church leaders. “I spent a lot of time searching the scriptures, reading what had been written, getting counsel from people like President [Thomas S.] Monson and President [Boyd K.] Packer, who were both very prominent in counseling me.”

The organization of the Church is inspired: Entering the senior leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Oaks “saw behind the curtain.” He had access to confidential information and documents that were part of his preparation as an Apostle. Everything he learned and read affirmed his testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. “Nothing that I saw created any concern or gave any contradiction to what I had seen from the outside,” he said.

He said the most important thing he could say about his service in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “I simply increased my faith in and witness of the truth of the restored gospel, the First Vision of the Father and the Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the various policies and doctrines of the Church that the Lord has inspired His Church to do from time to time. All of that was part of my growth and part of what I testify to members of the Church today.”

The same was true when he joined the First Presidency. “I have seen up close how the Lord guides His Prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, whom I’ve been privileged to sit beside for all my years as an Apostle.”

Move forward in faith: President Oaks said he had many questions about the Church in his formative years. “More complex and troubling questions came up and I didn’t know the answer to these questions,” he said. “I saw people fall away from the Church because they couldn’t answer those questions, and I couldn’t answer them either. But I chose to stay faithful, because I experienced in my life … that the Lord does not answer every question.”

Sometimes those questions need to be viewed through the lens of faith as God’s children patiently await answers. “Always in the Lord’s own time, but according to His own will, we get answers to those questions that come in unexpected ways,” he said. 

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, poses for a portrait by “Forgotten Man,” a painting by Maynard Dixon, in his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. President Oaks turns 90 on Aug. 12.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

No one is forgotten by the Lord: During President Oaks’ service at BYU, he became acquainted with a painting by Maynard Dixon that spoke to his heart. “It is a painting called ‘The Forgotten Man.’ It is quite a famous painting. BYU has the original. And it depicts a man who’s down on his luck. … He is sitting on a curb, his feet extending into the street and behind him are crowds of people walking by, paying no attention to the man who’s down on his luck. And yet, you see the sun shining on his head. His Heavenly Father knows he’s there. He is forgotten by the passing crowd, but in his struggles, His Heavenly Father knows he’s there.”

To remember this important lesson, President Oaks has a copy of the painting in his office at Church headquarters. “It speaks to me and reminds me of things that I need to remember,” he said.

The Holy Ghost bears an incontrovertible witness of truth: “My testimony of the restored gospel is a very simple testimony, though profound in its effect on my life,” said President Oaks. He testified that Heavenly Father created a plan for His children and provided a Savior, and that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son, translated the Book of Mormon and restored the Church to the earth. “I know that all these things are true. I know it by the incontrovertible witness of the Holy Ghost, and by life’s experiences and the confirmation of these truths in the crucible of mortal experience and teaching.”

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