What 3 of President Russell M. Nelson’s children have learned from him as a father

‘The way he is leading the Church is exactly an example of the way we were raised,” a daughter said

In the early years of the Russell and Dantzel Nelson family, daughter Gloria Irion can remember nights when her mother had finally placed a sleeping baby in the crib — only to have her father, just home from work, walk in and retrieve the infant. He couldn’t resist.

“He would come find that baby in the crib, pick her up, nuzzle his nose in her neck, hold her and smell her and sing to her and coo to her, and put her back down,” Irion said. “He was a very calm, patient and loving father. He really didn’t raise his voice. He was stern to us if we were rude to mom, but very, very Christlike.”

The tender memory of President Russell M. Nelson as a young father is also reflective of how he has led The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Laurie Marsh, another daughter.

“I feel like the way he is leading the Church is exactly an example of the way we were raised,” Marsh said. “I feel like there was a high level of love in our home. There was a high expectation that we would be an eternal family, and we were going to be working together to see how we could accomplish that goal.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints poses in his office.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints poses in his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s been five years since President Nelson was sustained and set apart on Jan. 14, 2018, as the Church’s 17th President. During that period, the Latter-day Saint Prophet has embarked on a fast-paced global ministry that has taken him to 35 countries, guided the Church through a pandemic, extended many invitations and continued to oversee the ongoing restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In timing with this milestone, three of President Nelson’s 10 children — Irion, Marsh and son Russell Nelson Jr. — recently discussed with the Church News growing up in the Nelson home and his role as a father.

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Qualities of President Nelson

President Nelson’s children admire their father for his discipline, optimism and activity, among many other qualities.

“He’s very disciplined,” Irion said, noting the word “disciplined” is tied to the word “disciple.” “Those are words that I think describe him well.”

Marsh appreciates her father’s glass-half-full perspective.

“Nothing is ever too hard, just have faith in the Lord, do your best, and everything is going to be OK,” she said. “I often think of Doctrine and Covenants 6:36, ‘Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not,’ and that is my dad.”

For his only son, it’s President Nelson’s activity and energy.

“He always is going and doing things,” Russell Nelson Jr. said. “He’s always doing something, always engaged.”

A family photo of President Russell M. Nelson on a swing.
A family photo of President Russell M. Nelson on a swing. | Provided by the Nelson family

President Nelson’s home routine

Before holding his babies, the world-renowned heart surgeon had something of a routine when he came home each day, Marsh remembers.

First, he would find and greet his late wife, Dantzel Nelson. “That was always No. 1,” she said.

He tended to walk through their home, turning off extra lights or the television, before sitting down to dinner with the family. If he didn’t have other responsibilities or obligations, he was fully present.

“When he was home, he was home,” Marsh said. “I don’t remember him watching TV. I do remember him changing diapers, reading books and helping us with homework. When he was home, it was time for the family.”

Russell Nelson Jr. remembers his father teaching him how to maintain the home, from changing a light bulb to shoveling the walks and taking out the garbage, as well as other home duties.

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How he treated their mother

Often on Mother’s Day, President Nelson bought his wife a corsage. He also purchased one for each of his nine daughters, delivered with a note that read, “With love as a potential mother.”

It was one way he modeled how their mother and women in general should be treated.

“This is the way we treat this person. She’s precious and an ‘angel mother,’ he called her,” Irion said. “There is no surprise to me that we were all so excited to be mothers because of the way he felt that position was such a place of honor, such a calling of honor. He honored us as women as well as potential mothers.”

President Nelson supported his wife in becoming a member of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for a few years. He assisted with house chores and helped get the children ready for church and ready for bed.

The children noticed when their father complimented their mother.

“He treated her like royalty,” Russell Nelson Jr. said. “That was always at the top of the priority list — to treat not only my mother, but my sisters and all women, with respect.”

“He noticed every little thing and taught us by example that our mother was of huge value to us, and No. 1 with him,” Marsh said.

“I remember him saying it once, but living it always, ‘the best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother,’” Irion said. “I just feel like, wow, he did that so well and just exemplified that. I feel like we were so secure because we knew they were secure. He lived that saying.”

A photo of Dantzel White Nelson and Russell M. Nelson as a young couple.
A photo of Dantzel White Nelson and Russell M. Nelson as a young couple. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The ‘brain’ and ‘heart’ of the home

Russell Nelson Jr. described another lesson he learned in the home that wasn’t deliberately expressed but something he observed through his parents’ daily example.

“Just like a heart and a brain worked together to keep your body going, that’s how I felt our mom and dad ran our home,” he said.

“They each had their specific roles but one couldn’t operate properly without the other. There was no question he was the head of the home. But there was also no question that our mom was the heart of the home. So the two of them working together was just a nice example of how a husband and wife and the mother and father work together.”

Influence of a lifelong learner

What was it like for the Nelson children to grow up in a home with a world-famous heart surgeon? How did President Nelson’s academic and professional accomplishments influence his children’s education and career paths?

The children agreed that both parents made education a high priority and fostered a love of lifelong learning.

President Russell M. Nelson with daughter Sylvia Webster and three great-grandchildren. | Provided by the Nelson family

“He’s very driven, very bright and catches on fast. He’s curious. He loves to be up on the latest technology. He knew decades before I did that there was such a thing as airdropping photos,” Irion said of her 98-year-old father. “He set a great example of studying and doing well in school, but we never felt that it was tied to their feelings for us.”

Russell Nelson Jr. knew he could ask his father anything and he would always provide the answer. He made everything look easy.

“He knew everything,” he said. “Not because he’s a know-it-all, but because he legitimately has a thirst for knowledge and learning.”

President Nelson did not push his children one way or another in their career choices. He wanted that to be their own inspired decisions, his son said.

“He is proud of who we are and who we have become and for our own accomplishments,” Russell Nelson Jr. said.

President Russell M. Nelson, second from right, skiing with three daughters and a son-in-law, prior to becoming President of the Church. From left: Marjorie Lowder; Elder Michael T. Ringwood, a General Authority Seventy; Sister Rosalie Ringwood; and Wendy Maxfield. | Nelson family photo

Spending time together

At the end of each year, President Nelson set up a folding table in the living room, set out spreadsheets and paperwork, and invited his children to participate in preparing the family taxes.

“He had a good way of making very mundane and plain things feel like it was great to do, and great to do together,” Russell Nelson Jr. said. “We just loved to help him. Doing taxes doesn’t sound like fun at all as an adult, but it’s something we just did together and had fun doing together.”

Other Nelson family activities included skiing, summer family trips, swimming and other outings. Sometimes President Nelson took his children on business trips. Family bonds were also strengthened through holiday traditions and large gatherings.

Both parents played the piano and their mother was a talented singer. Most of the children learned to play the piano and at least one additional instrument.

“Music was something we love to do together,” Irion said.

President Russell M. Nelson with family after a press conference.
Church President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, pose for photographs with family members after a press conference at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Invitations in the Nelson home

None of the Nelson children was told they must go to weekly church services.

They went because they were “invited,” Marsh said.

“My parents consistently had family prayer, family home evening, family scripture reading, and we were invited, with all their love, to come and participate,” she said. “But none of us were ever forced to come.”

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To not join in meant missing out on something fun.

“We chose to come. I don’t know what their secret was that made it look so awesome to participate, but out of love, we participated,” Marsh said.

Both parents knew how to teach their children about the “why” of things, their son said.

“Obedience or adherence to rules and laws came with the understanding of why we were doing it,” Russell Nelson Jr. said. “I know for myself that I didn’t want to break the rules because I didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Coping with loss

The children learned from their father about keeping an eternal perspective when dealing with the loss of their mother — Dantzel Nelson died Feb. 12, 2005 — and two sisters. Emily Nelson Wittwer died of cancer in 1995. Wendy Nelson Maxfield died of cancer in 2019. 

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“He used it as a teaching moment for us, to help us and comfort us,” Irion said. “But there was a deep level of grief all three times.” 

Despite his own sorrow, President Nelson encouraged his children to be with their children, to love them and teach them about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation.

“That was a good window into the eternities and how we just keep going,” Russell Nelson Jr. said.

“As I’ve watched Daddy go through those times, and they are difficult times for us, I’ve been so grateful for the teachings that our parents have given us about the importance of being centered in Jesus Christ,” Marsh said.

President Russell M. Nelson speaks at his daughter’s funeral.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, exits the Cottonwood Heights Utah Brighton Stake Center as the casket is placed into the hearse after President Nelson spoke at funeral services for his daughter Wendy Nelson Maxfield, on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Wendy Watson Nelson

The children were grateful to see their father’s cheerful countenance return after he married Wendy Watson. They agree she has been a “marvelous” companion for President Nelson.

“His health and strength is due in large part to her efforts and all the things she does to support him,” Russell Nelson Jr. said.

“I tell people all the time that I think we owe Wendy Nelson and the Lord for his longevity and his ability to serve in his capacity right now,” Marsh said. “We love Wendy. She, like my mother, is a very Christ-centered person. I think she’s a great sounding board for Daddy and plays a critical role.”

President Russell M. Nelson, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson are interviewed.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson, are interviewed in Salt Lake City on Friday May 29, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Lessons learned

The three children concluded the interview with key lessons learned from their father, President Nelson.

“How do you sum up a lifetime of being taught?” Russell Nelson Jr. said. “I would say that I know a key part of life is to learn and to grow, to love one another, to love the Lord and enjoy the blessings that come from Him as we keep our covenants.”

Marsh has learned the importance of developing a relationship with Jesus Christ and following the prophet. She knows her father has been called as Prophet for this time and is grateful to be his daughter.

“If we can be obedient, and make and keep our covenants, we’ll be able to live eternally as a family with Heavenly Father again,” she said.

Irion added her witness that President Nelson has been prepared and preserved to lead the Church.

“Every one of us has such a strong testimony that he’s here for such a time. His wife and my mother had an amazing role in that as well,” she said. “We have strong testimonies and gratitude that the Lord has blessed us with prophets to have that guidance in our lives.”

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