At 99 years old, there aren’t a lot of things Nellie Leighton hasn’t seen or experienced.
Born Feb. 18, 1919, in Provo, Utah, she grew up in a small home with no plumbing, partial electricity and a large coal-burning stove for heat. Her teenage years were marked by the Great Depression and her early years of marriage and motherhood were similarly colored by the effects of World War II. In the 1950s and 60s, following the trend of many women, she joined the workforce when she took a job selling Tupperware. And, in 1999, a little over a year into her time serving as a senior missionary at the Family History Library at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, Leighton was shot in the head by an intruder who claimed the lives of two others.
By all who know her, Leighton is described as a kind, joyful, service-oriented, slightly stubborn, spiritual and strong woman. And when asked what is most important to her, Leighton doesn’t hesitate in her answer.
“I just want to serve my Heavenly Father,” she says smiling.
Determined not to slow down
Sitting across from each other in Leighton’s West Temple apartment overlooking Temple Square, Leighton and her long-time friend and neighbor Beverley Stephan, 91, joke about their old age.
“We’re a good pair,” Leighton said laughing. “She can’t hear, and I can’t see.”
“Yeah, we’re a good pair,” Stephan agreed.
Leighton added, “She’s the best medicine I’ve ever had. She makes me laugh.”
As Stephan described her, Leighton is a great neighbor and a great example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
“Her spirituality is without measure. It is so strong,” Stephan said. “And it is so important for her to go over every first Sunday of the month and give her testimony. Even if she doesn’t feel good, she goes over in the Jazzy and gets up there and gives her testimony, and it’s such a sweet testimony.”
With her deteriorating eyesight, Leighton is now legally blind, but her mind is as sharp as ever. If you ask her the phone number of one of her children or grandchildren, she chimes out the memorized number as if she were reading it out of the directory. And since she can no longer see to read, she spends much of her time continuing to learn and study with the help of audiobooks.
Stephan laughed as she described how Leighton gets back and forth to the library or church each week. “Nellie uses her Jazzy. And if you could see her roaring down West Temple … she has no fear. She just charges along, and I can’t keep up with her.”
Matching this 99-year-old’s energy level can be a feat. “I get tired, you know, but she is 99 and she’s still running around like a spring chicken,” Stephan said.
But that’s just the way she’s always been, said Leighton’s daughter Kathleen Bailey. Sharing a story from 1996 when Leighton was busy traveling around the world with her siblings and children, Bailey recounted her mother’s reaction when faced with the challenge of climbing stairs to the top on the Great Wall of China at the age of 77.
“We didn’t want to go up, but mom said, ‘I came all this way and I’m doing it,’ ” Bailey said. So they helped her climb the steps to the top.
“She’s a wonderful mother, and she just continues to support everyone. She tries to keep up with everybody, and she likes to run things,” Bailey said, noting that despite protests from her children and grandchildren, Leighton has tried to be involved in all the plans for her upcoming 100th birthday bash.
20 years of missionary service
As her 100th birthday approaches, Leighton said there is nothing she would rather be doing with her time than serving the Lord as a missionary in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It’s coming so fast,” Leighton said of her birthday. “I just want to be a 100-year-old missionary and live that long, if Heavenly Father lets me.”
For the past 20 years, she has served as a senior missionary in the Church’s Family History Library and, with any luck, that’s exactly what she’ll be doing when her birthday comes around this month.
At the library, Leighton’s main role is to sit at the third floor visitors’ desk two days a week where she greets visitors and points them in the right direction if they are looking for help with family history research.
“I just love being a missionary and serving Heavenly Father there, but also serving the people that come into the library,” Leighton said. “For 17 years I sat at the front door and greeted everybody that came in and went out, and I miss that.”
Leighton explained that the library was redone a few years ago and the visitors’ desk was moved from the first floor to the third floor. But even with the change, Leighton said, “It sure beats sitting at home and doing nothing.”
For Leighton, serving as a senior missionary gives her a sense of purpose each day.
“I look forward to going over there to greet and meet people. I have so many friends,” she said. “So I just enjoy getting up, getting dressed and looking nice and being able to smile. You don’t often get to laugh by yourself at home.”
“I think it’s unusual to have a missionary reach the age of 100. I can’t name another missionary who has reached that,” said Rick Turley, Leighton’s close friend, former Church historian and current managing director of the Church’s public affairs department. “When you add up her total years of missionary service, it’s phenomenal. But she’s an example of how, if you have a desire and your health and abilities allow it, you can continue to serve.”
A pattern of faith and forgiveness
Nearly 20 years ago, on April 15, 1999, a lone gunman entered the library on West Temple and opened fire, killing two and injuring another three — including Leighton. But if you ask her about that incident today, there is no animosity in her voice.
“I don’t even have a scar,” she said, turning her head to show the right side of her face where she was shot by the gunman. “I was the first one shot. He shot me right in the face … but somehow, I wasn’t afraid. I just kept praying and asking Heavenly Father for help, and I guess when talking to Heavenly Father, you can’t be afraid.”
Although surprising that no physical damage from the bullet is visible, it’s even more surprising that Leighton seems to have no emotional scars from the incident. She discussed the shooting in a calm, matter-of-fact tone, only showing the slightest hint of emotion when she mentioned the death of her friend, Don Thomas, who worked as a security guard at the library and died during the shooting; or when she notes that there were angels standing watch over her and the others spared in the library that day.
“I’ve learned to forgive and be kind. I never had any animosity towards him,” Leighton said of the shooter, Sergei Barbarin. “I just felt sorry for him and his family.”
For Turley, it’s Leighton’s ability to forgive and forget that make her such a remarkable person.
“I didn’t know Nellie on a personal level at that point. I got to know her afterwards … and when I learned later on that she went through repair surgery and then went right back to her post, I instantly had admiration for this 80-year-old woman. … To me, it was just a model of brave behavior, and she became my hero.”
Consistent for 100 years
That’s one of the amazing things about Leighton, explained her granddaughter Julie Roe. She couldn’t hold a grudge if she tried.
“I was practically raised by her … and I never saw her get angry, she never held a grudge, and was always very quick to forgive everything,” Roe said. “She never changes as a person. Her personality has been consistent for 100 years.”
Leighton is never focused on herself. Anytime a family member or a friend needs anything, Leighton is the first one there to help provide it, Roe explained.
“There’s never been any hesitation. You don’t have to prequalify for her generosity, it’s just given. No questions asked,” Roe said. “She believes in love, and that’s her guiding light.”
Recalling a poignant moment in their shared history, Roe recounted a time when she was staying with her grandmother and walked past her bedroom door before turning in for the night. “She was in her 70s ... and I saw her kneeling to pray,” Roe said. “At a time when most people probably wouldn’t be kneeling, that stood out to me. That was dedication.”
Up until now, her whole life has been about serving others and serving God, and if you ask her what she wants for the rest of the time she has left, the answer is the same.
“She genuinely cares about people. She has a great desire to serve,” Turley said.
She’s been through a lot in her 100 years of life, but with each speed bump she encounters, she gets up and moves on, Bailey said.
“That’s why she’s my hero,” Turley said. “She tends to take life’s challenges and just make the best of them. If there’s an obstacle, she just finds a way around it and keeps going.”
A previous version of the article stated that one of the shooting victims' names was John Thomas. His name was Don Thomas.