OREM, Utah — Joyce Nixon, 93, recently sat down on the edge of her seat across from her husband, Reed Nixon, also 93 years old, in their home in Orem, Utah, to talk about some of their adventures over their last 72 years together.
“I don’t know why you’d want to speak to us. We’re ordinary,” Joyce said.
But in many ways, Reed and Joyce’s life together has been anything but common, starting with their journey to the altar and continuing on through their serving more than 23 missions worldwide.
An unconventional beginning
Reed graduated from the California Institute of Technology, served for two and a half years as a decoding officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, taught for two quarters at Brigham Young University, married his sweetheart, Joyce Johnson, and left on a mission — all before his 21st birthday.
Reed met Joyce through mutual friends at BYU when they were both 20 years old — he was a math teacher and she was a student.
“He fell for me 73 years ago and he’s been falling ever since, just in other ways,” joked Joyce, referring to Reed’s bad fall two years ago when he broke a hip and femur. “He’s gotta quit falling for me.”
In March 1947, Reed received a two-year mission call to the Western Canadian Mission. As Reed’s time at BYU was quickly winding down, he brought Joyce to meet his colleague and good friend, Hugh B. Brown (who later served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles). Joyce said her conversation with Brother Brown was completely unexpected.
“Brother Brown told me, ‘Why wait? Get married before Reed leaves.’”
Reed and Joyce were on a walk down University Avenue in Provo later that day when Reed blurted, “Why not?” Joyce asked him what he meant and he responded, “Why don’t we get married before I leave?”
But it wasn’t that simple. After going through all the necessary interviews with their ecclesiastical leaders, a stake leader asked them to receive approval from a General Authority before a temple recommend could be issued. On a Monday night two weeks before Reed was to leave, Reed and Joyce ended up on a phone call with President David O. McKay, then the second counselor in the First Presidency.
He assured the couple that he could meet with them on Wednesday, but after Reed expressed that the situation was urgent, President McKay asked, “Is it something that I can help you with over the phone?”
“I have my call to the Western Canadian Mission to leave in two weeks, but I’d like to get married before I leave,” Reed said.
A long, tense silence ensued as Reed and Joyce held their breaths and waited for President McKay’s response.
“Do you love her?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Reed said.
“Does she love you?”
“Does her mother object?”
“Does your mother object?”
“Then I don’t know why I should object. Go right ahead, and Lord bless you.”
Reed and Joyce sent a telegram to Reed’s stake president that read: “Marriage OK’d by President David O. McKay. Please send recommend.”
On March 27, 1947, Reed and Joyce were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple by then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball. Reed left for Canada 10 days later.
Five days short of a year from when Reed had left, Joyce received an unexpected mission call stating that she was to report to the Western Canadian Mission seven days from the postdate on the letter. Though she had planned on meeting with ward and stake leaders to fill out the proper paperwork in order to serve a mission, she hadn’t actually gone through those steps when the call came.
Joyce’s college finals were the week after she was expected in Canada.
“I took my call around to all of my teachers and asked if I could take the finals early,” Joyce recalled. “Every one of them told me to forget about my finals and that they’d give me the grade I had at that point.”
Joyce and Reed were reunited just after Reed’s 21st birthday and just before he was called as a branch president in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Throughout the years, Reed and Joyce have served Church callings in Relief Society, elders quorum, Primary and Cub Scouts; they also had six sons. During Reed’s work as a nuclear engineer, he helped design the reactor on the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus.
But their mission service at the onset of their marriage set the stage for the rest of their life together — they have served an estimated 23 missions.
A legacy of love
After serving as senior missionaries in the West Indies during the early ’90s, Reed and Joyce Nixon were called to lead the Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission in 1992.
Bob Anderson, a longtime friend and neighbor, said that before the Nixons left, Reed told him and his wife, Carol, they should come with Reed and Joyce to Wisconsin.
“He wanted me to be the financial clerk for the mission,” Anderson said. “But I made it clear that I hadn’t retired yet and couldn’t think of a mission because I was still working. But Reed just responded, ‘Well then, get retired!’ ”
The Andersons joined the Nixons in Wisconsin two months later.
While serving as a mission president, Reed was known to think of each stranger as someone with divine potential and the blessing they would be for the Church if they were a Church member.
When the Andersons and the Nixons went to a restaurant, Anderson recalled, “the server would leave to put our order in and Reed would lean over and say something like, ‘Wouldn’t she make a great Relief Society president?’” Reed would be sure to give her a copy of the Book of Mormon and invite her to read it when she came back. “They’re just good people,” Anderson said of the Nixons.
The Nixons had noticed the Milwaukee mission had a difficult time with retention of new members. “We didn’t want to just focus on baptisms because we wanted these new members to get to the temple. The temple should be the ultimate goal, and baptism is just one step toward the temple,” Reed said.
Immediately following a baptismal service, President and Sister Nixon would have a set of senior missionaries present each new member with a booklet made by the Nixons. The homemade booklet had five or six scrapbook-like pages to it, Joyce said, with their baptismal date and their anticipated temple date listed.
At the baptism, the senior couple would set up a future meeting time to begin temple preparation. They would ask the new converts to think of someone who had passed on that they’d like to have the same experience through proxy baptisms that they’d just had with their own baptism.
These new members then participated in family history research to prepare relatives’ names for the temple. Additionally, the Nixons found success in having new converts meet with their bishop for a limited-use temple recommend a week after baptism.
They didn’t call their retention work a new program because, Reed said, “Everything was taken from the existing handbook.” Instead, Reed and Joyce called their idea the “legacy of love.”
And it took off.
When the Nixons arrived in their mission, 25 percent of converts stayed active in the Church, Joyce said. While there, the convert retention rate increased more than threefold.
“Eighty percent of our recent converts went to the temple, and every person that went to the temple, while we were there at least, stayed in the Church,” she recalled.
A new mission
The Nixons returned from Wisconsin in 1995, but Reed and Joyce couldn’t stay put. They served some year-long family history or proselytizing missions in places such as in California, South Africa and three times in Germany. They also served several short missions teaching the “legacy of love” retention plan.
Between these long and short missions, the Nixons served approximately 23 missions throughout Germany, the West Indies, England, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Hawaii and other areas of the mainland United States.
During the Nixons’ mission service in Australia, their son Jay passed away unexpectedly. Lois Park, family friend and neighbor to the Nixons, said though the Nixons were heartbroken, they have always sought to use their experience to help those around them.
Later, when Park’s son passed away, Joyce was a particular blessing to her. The Nixons, she said, “are exactly what we should all be doing.”
Joyce turned 80 years old while serving a mission in South Africa. After seeing many newborns wrapped in newspapers and wanting to do something about it, she knew “it was time for a new mission” — making quilts.
Using “all the fabric I can get my hands on,” Joyce pieces together quilts in her basement, where her sewing room is set up in an assembly-line style. Currently, she has approximately 200 quilts in the making and donates each one to the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City.
As of July 1, Joyce had donated 2,697 humanitarian quilts.
Additionally, Joyce’s friend Helen Prescott said Joyce is quite the painter — countless works fill her home, and she’s given away many as gifts. “I just really enjoy dabbling,” Joyce said.
Reed enjoys anything having to do with family history work. Whenever friends or family are looking for a solution to questions or problems, Prescott said Reed’s first solution is always to ask whether they are doing indexing, sure that if they are, things will work out.
One thing that has remained the same through it all, though, is how they have relied on each other.
“We’ve always done things together,” Reed said. “Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Joyce and Reed Nixon's son who passed away unexpectedly was named Jeff. His name was Jay.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Joyce Nixon received her mission call from President Heber J. Grant.