Born with a cleft palate and double cleft lip, June Leifson learned at a young age ‘with God nothing is impossible’

How this Latter-day Saint went from being rejected by 3 nursing programs to becoming BYU dean of nursing

OREM, Utah — On a bookshelf in June Leifson’s home sits a frayed, red Japanese-English grammar book she received on the first day of her full-time mission more than 60 years ago.

As a young woman, she arrived in Japan knowing exactly 10 words in Japanese: how to count to 10. In those days, there was no missionary training center or language training. 

On that first night, the young woman from Spanish Fork, Utah, received her books and supplies, including that red Japanese dictionary.

Instead of being crushed by the monumental task of trying to teach the gospel in a far-off land, in an unfamiliar cultural and foreign language, she opened the grammar book and wrote on the inside cover: “Don’t waste time wondering ‘Can I ever do it?’ You can! You have God on your side.”

In many ways, that became the theme of her life. Born with a cleft palate and lip, Leifson faced many challenges. But from a young age she learned “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). 

A faith-filled childhood

Leifson said she often wonders what her birth must have been like for her parents, J. Victor Leifson and Mary Bradford Leifson. She was born in 1933 — the height of the Great Depression — as the eighth of 11 children at their home in what-was-then small-town Spanish Fork.

It must have been a “shock,” Leifson said, when she was born with a severe cleft palate and double cleft lip, meaning there was an opening in the roof of her mouth and two openings in her upper lip. 

In a family photo with her parents, J. Victor Leifson and Mary Bradford Leifson, June Leifson sits on the lap of her father. June was born with a cleft palate and lip and had to undergo more than a dozen surgeries. | Provided by June Leifson

After being given a name and a blessing from her father, she was transported 60 miles north to Salt Lake City for medical care. For 10 days she was fed with an eye dropper before undergoing surgery — the first of nine surgeries by the time she was 9 years old.

Although other children could at times be unkind, Leifson described her childhood as happy, with parents and siblings who loved and supported her. 

Once when some other children made fun of her high nasal voice, her two older brothers told her, “Give me their names, and we’ll take care of it.”

“I don’t think they ever did anything,” Leifson said with a laugh, but it made her feel loved.

Every morning before breakfast the children would turn their chairs around and kneel to pray as a family. Leifson recalled her mother teaching Relief Society and her father serving as bishop and loving the stories of her faithful Latter-day Saint pioneer forebears.

When she was 8, she wanted to be baptized but was terrified of the water. With the openings in her palate and lip, there was nothing to stop the water from rushing in. With a prayer in her heart, she moved forward with the ordinance. “I did not drown, so those prayers were answered,” she said.

June Leifson, first row far right, is pictured with her elementary school class. June was born with a cleft palate and lip and had to undergo more than a dozen surgeries. | Provided by June Leifson

As a teenager, she longed to be beautiful and have clear perfect speech like others her age, but those prayers were not answered in the way she wanted, she said.

After graduating from high school she applied to three nursing programs but was denied admittance due to her facial disfigurements and speech impairments. 

“This was not a happy time for me,” Leifson described simply. Despite her disappointment, she decided to keep moving forward and enrolled in general education classes at Brigham Young University, including pre-nursing courses, and signed up for intensive speech therapy.


One day, the professors at the Speech Center informed her that her speech would never be normal, and they played a recording so she could hear for the first time what she sounded like to other people. 

It was a shock, Leifson said. “Even I could not understand what I had just said.”

By this time, Leifson had endured 16 surgeries and the doctors had told her they had done all they could. She had not realized or accepted how distorted her speech was. She was devastated.

“That night was one of the worst and yet one of the most spiritual nights of my life,” Leifson said. Seeking peace, she found a place to be alone in her family’s busy home — the garage — and wondered at the value of her life. “I thought, ‘Is my life worth it and do I have the courage to face it?’”

She poured out her heart to her Heavenly Father. “I did not hear His voice, but I felt His presence and His love, and I knew I could not give up.”

Soon after, her zoology professor asked to see her after class and referred her to a plastic surgeon who had just relocated to Salt Lake City: Dr. Thomas Ray Broadbent. He was a former student of this professor and had taught plastic surgery at Duke Medical College.

After a thorough examination, Broadbent told her he could help her, but it would require more surgeries. 

“He must have seen the distress on my face,” Leifson recalled, “because I did not want to have more surgery.”

Broadbent told her, “June, God will work through the use of my hands in helping restore your mouth, face and speech, but only with your faith will we accomplish anything.”

Trusting in him and the Lord, Leifson underwent five additional surgeries while in college. That fall, the dean of nursing reached out to her asking if she still had a desire to study nursing. After responding with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Leifson was admitted into BYU’s nursing program. 

“What a miracle to me,” Leifson said.

Serving the Lord

After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1957, Leifson worked for 18 months on the surgical floor at LDS Hospital. Although she loved hospital nursing, she and a friend decided to apply for a public health nursing position on the Big Island of Hawaii. Suddenly she was doing home visits to patients with tuberculosis and Hansen’s disease, operating clinics and working in schools and plantations in small villages in rural Hawaii. 

“I loved it,” Leifson said. 

In one of the most rural areas of Kona, Hawaii, Leifson implemented the small branch’s first Primary. She started with just three children, and that number grew to almost 10 in attendance. Many of them had never experienced running water or electricity.

The first Sunday, she taught about the Creation and drew the sun, the moon and the stars. In wonder, the children came up to touch the drawing. “They had never felt paper before,” Leifson recalled. 

Working in that small branch “was choice,” she said. “I had never felt such joy.”

June Leifson with her Primary class in the Opihaile Branch in a rural part of the Kona island of Hawaii in the 1950s.
June Leifson with her Primary class in the Opihaile Branch in a rural part of the Kona island of Hawaii in the 1950s. | Provided by June Leifson

One Sunday, Leifson was called by the mission president of Hawaii, whom she had met on one of his previous visits to the Big Island. He asked her to meet with him on Oahu. She agreed.

He met her at the airport and told her, “You are going to be interviewed by Elder Spencer W. Kimball for a mission.”

Leifson had always wanted to serve a mission but thought because of her speech and appearance it was impossible.

Her interview with then-Elder Kimball of the Quorum of the Apostles was tender but candid. After answering questions about her willingness to serve, Elder Kimball asked pointedly, “How would you react if the Brethren felt that you should not be called?”

With sincerity, Leifson replied that she knew there was still much she could do in the Church and, in some respects, she felt like she was already serving one.

Elder Kimball then said he would be her spokesman. Within 10 days she received an official call to the Northern Far East Mission.

In the missionary letter she received from President David O. McKay, he wrote: “The Lord will award the goodness of your life, and greater blessings and more happiness than you have yet experienced await you as you serve Him humbly and prayerfully in this labor of love among His children.”

That proved to be true, Leifson said.

Sister June Leifson, left, poses for a photo with a girl she and her companion were teaching while serving a full-time mission to the Northern Far East Mission (Japan) in 1959.
Sister June Leifson, left, poses for a photo with a girl she and her companion were teaching while serving a full-time mission to the Northern Far East Mission (Japan) in 1959. | Provided by June Leifson

It took her nine months of intense study before she felt comfortable sharing a lesson in Japanese, but she found Japanese easier for her to pronounce than English.

Through her missionary service she not only gained a greater love and testimony for the gospel, the Church, the people and her Savior, but it also reiterated the knowledge that with His help, she could do hard things, she said.

An exceptional career

After her mission, Leifson returned to Utah and got a job with the Salt Lake County Health Department. Eventually she was invited by the dean of nursing at the University of Utah to get a master’s degree and then to teach nursing there.

At the time, there were not many women with graduate degrees, and to this day, Leifson said she does not know how she got on the dean’s radar, but she accepted the offer.

After completing a master’s degree in 1964 in public health nursing education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, she mentored nursing students at the University of Utah for seven years. 

A photo of June Leifson when she graduated from nursing school at BYU. | Provided. by June Leifson

She then returned to BYU to teach and complete her doctorate in family studies. She loved her time at the University of Utah, Leifson said, but it was a relief to go where she felt she could incorporate the Savior into her teaching. “He’s the one who can truly teach the Healer’s art.”

She served as associate dean of the BYU Nursing Graduate Program until being called into then-BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland’s office early on a Monday morning and told, “Sister Leifson, you are to be the new dean of nursing. We’re going to call a faculty meeting in 15 minutes.”

“I was literally in shock,” Leifson said. As an 18-year-old college student she had been denied admittance to the program. Now she was going to be the dean of 350 students, 40 full-time faculty, 20 part-time faculty and many administrative staff.

She rode the elevator up four floors and went and knelt in her office. “Lord, I don’t know how I can do this,” she prayed.

But, typical of her, she put her trust in the Lord and started moving forward. 

“I had a number of choice experiences and challenges, but the joy of the calling outranked the challenges,” Leifson said of her time as dean. 

She served as dean for seven years, from 1986 to 1993, then taught part time for two more years before retiring. 

“I am grateful I accepted [the call to be dean], even though I felt so unprepared and unable to serve.” Working with students brought her “so much inner joy.” 

Looking back 

Now 89 years old, Leifson lives alone in her home, which sits on a ridge overlooking Utah Lake and the distant mountains.

Life might not be as hectic as it once was, but she can still drive herself to the FamilySearch center in nearby Spanish Fork, where she loves to work on her Icelandic family history, and attend the Provo and Payson temples. She keeps a large box of toys at the ready for when her many nieces and nephews — and now great-nieces and great-nephews — come to visit with their children.

Throughout her home are keepsakes that show glimpses into her remarkable life: a doll made for her during her mission to the Far East, a print of a painting that hung in the nursing department at BYU, an oil painting she made of an ancestral home in Iceland. 

In every room and on almost every wall is also a depiction of the Savior. 

“He really is there,” she said when asked about what her challenges have taught her. “Everyone will have trials that will test their faith. But you just turn to the Lord anyway.”

Last October she was asked to speak at a campus devotional at BYU–Hawaii. Her topic: trials and blessings. “Remember, with God, nothing is impossible,” she testified to students. “Do not give up when you have challenges or trials, for God is there.”

June Leifson gets a hug after speaking at the weekly campus devotional at BYU–Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii, on Oct. 11, 2022.
June Leifson gets a hug after speaking at the weekly campus devotional at BYU–Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii, on Oct. 11, 2022. | Camille Jovenes, BYU–Hawaii
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