Episode 96: Approaching his 90th birthday, President Dallin H. Oaks reflects on the lessons learned in nine decades
The first counselor in the First Presidency speaks about his youth and family life, unexpected tragedies, and the blessings of Church service
Episode 96: Approaching his 90th birthday, President Dallin H. Oaks reflects on the lessons learned in nine decades
The first counselor in the First Presidency speaks about his youth and family life, unexpected tragedies, and the blessings of Church service
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, will celebrate a landmark birthday on Aug. 12, 2022, turning 90 years old.
This episode of the Church News podcast features President Oaks sharing the lessons he has learned through nine decades of life. He speaks about his youth and family life, unexpected tragedies, and the blessings of Church service.
He also shares his testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — strengthened over 90 years.
President Dallin H. Oaks: When I was called as an Apostle, I was astonished, because unlike my experience with other positions I had been appointed to or called to, I had no inkling that this was coming. It was a total surprise to me and to my family and to the court where I served. The Lord soon made that clear to me that He had chosen me. And the first challenge I felt was trying to see what an Apostle is called to do, and I spent a lot of time searching the scriptures, reading what had been written, getting counsel from people like President Monson. That was at least a decade and a long period, a steep learning curve.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Dallin H. Oaks will celebrate a landmark birthday on Aug. 12. Born in 1932, the first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will turn 90. In this special episode of the Church News podcast, President Oaks talks about the lessons he has learned through nine decades of life — of his youth in rural Utah, the unexpected death of his father and the influence of his mother and grandmother.
President Oaks married June Dixon in 1952. They are the parents of six children. She died from cancer on July 21, 1998. In August of the year 2000, President Oaks married Kristen McMain, who has been by his side for 22 years. A graduate of BYU and the University of Chicago Law School, President Oaks served as an attorney, a law professor, as BYU president and as a justice on 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.
As we begin this podcast, we wish President Oaks a very happy 90th birthday. We hope you enjoy as he shares some of the lessons of his life and his testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
President Oaks, we’re here today to talk about your Aug. 12 birthday. This is a landmark birthday for you. You’ll be 90 years old and we just wanted to have you share some of the lessons you’ve learned in the nine decades of your life. So, thank you so much for being willing to take some time with us.
President Dallin H. Oaks: A major lesson I’ve learned in my life is that mortality has a lot of speed bumps and 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, a lot of choices — some easy, and some excruciatingly difficult.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I think one of the easiest ways for us to look at your life will be chronologically, and so if you are comfortable, let’s just go back to the beginning and have you share with us some of the things that you remember from your childhood and your youth.
President Dallin H. Oaks: I remember the goodness of my parents, both my father [Dr. Lloyd E. Oaks] — who died when I was seven — and my mother [Stella Oaks] — who was my lifelong teacher — were good people. I saw them treating others with respect and generosity. And it had an impact on my life, that I was supposed to be good like my parents. What a gift for someone growing up. For example, my father in the Depression did much medical work for people who couldn’t afford to pay him and after he died, I saw many of those people, as they got a little more able to pay medical bills, come to my mother, as a widow, and bring produce or some modest payments in the early period of her widowhood. And I saw that as an endorsement of the goodness of my father, who offered his medical skills on the basis of need of the persons involved, rather than profit or comfort for him.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Share some of your feelings as you think about your mother and what she did to raise three children, to instill testimonies in you, and those years when she had to do it alone.
President Dallin H. Oaks: I think my mother was one of the truly noble women of this dispensation, because — deprived of her husband when she had three children, oldest 7 years old, youngest about a year and a half — she had to be the breadwinner, and the teacher, the mother, and do it all. And I 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, Church leader. Women can do it all.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, in the years after you lost your father, you had to receive support from others besides your mother. Who else was influential in your life during this time?
President Dallin H. Oaks: After my father died, my mother went back to Columbia University [in New York City] to get her master’s degree to be a better qualified breadwinner. But she went back too soon and being separated from her children (that she left with her parents, my grandparents), and having lost her husband, she suffered a very serious nervous breakdown and was not functional. She had to drop out of school. She ultimately returned and got her degree, but she had to drop out of school and drop out of parenting and be cared for by professionals. And she was told she probably never would be able to function again.
So, in the two years following my father’s death, I was almost immediately an orphan, separated from my mother, and the raising of her family fell to her parents on a farm south of Payson, [Utah], and my grandmother, Chasty Olsen Harris, became my surrogate mother. And she continued in that role, even after mother recovered her health, and we lived in Vernal for quite a few years. In the summer, I would always return to the farm to work with my grandfather. So, my grandmother’s influence on me was multi-yeared and it was filled with experiences of pioneers and experiences of extended family. And I have to say that my grandmother was one of the really influential women in my life, because my faith in the Lord and my feeling for the pioneers [in this formative period] comes almost entirely from my grandmother, Chasty Olsen Harris, and my years on the farm with those dear grandparents.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Your brother went on to follow your father into a career in medicine and you chose a career in the law. Talk about your choices with education and what drove you to pursue a legal career.
President Dallin H. Oaks: I grew up assuming that I should be a doctor, because my father had been a doctor. And so, I didn’t give much thought, in my high school years, for example, to what I would do. I got to college at BYU, in my hometown of Provo, [Utah], and I took a course in zoology in my freshman year. I knew that medical studies were not for me when I had spent a couple of months in zoology. And I remember going to my mother, quite 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. And I drifted from one subject to another when I was in college and finally in the beginning of my junior year, I decided to major in Accounting, because it was a major that interested me, modestly. But I could graduate on time in that major, and I couldn’t have graduated in the prescribed four years with any other major.
Then, at about that time, I married June Dixon of Spanish Fork, [Utah], whose father was a banker. He encouraged me, on the basis of his own business study, to look into law. And also, in my own ward, was a distinguished lawyer whom I looked up to and I thought, “Well, that’s worth considering.” And I majored in Accounting and decided about, as I began my senior year, that I would apply for law school. So, I didn’t have any lawyers in my family. Only when my new father-in-law began to encourage me, did I consider law. And halfway through my senior year I had applied to several law schools and I got a full tuition scholarship from the University of Chicago Law School and that made up my mind. It was a very important tipping point in my life, because of the people I would meet and be influenced by there. Other schools that I had applied to — Harvard, I think Stanford — they were good schools and I think they later admitted me, but I had made my commitment to the first school that admitted me and gave me a scholarship.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I want to talk about your time at University of Chicago, but before we do that, I would love to hear about your courtship to June.
President Dallin H. Oaks: I’m glad to talk about that. I was very active in dating during my high school years and in my freshman year at BYU. I considered it was important to get to know a lot of girls and I dated scores and scores of girls, typically no more than once or twice, because I was not serious about anyone at that point in my life. And then, when I was a freshman at BYU, I met a girl at a high school basketball game that I was broadcasting in my employment with the radio station in Provo. And I met her and then the following week, by coincidence, I saw her at another game. I learned her name, got acquainted with her and asked her out, and I just proceeded from there. And after about six months, I was not dating anyone else. And after a year, I was serious enough to give her my Goldbricker pin. And we were engaged about a year and a half after we met. I was then an early sophomore at BYU, and she was an entering student at BYU, a year younger than I. And we were married in June of ‘52 at the conclusion of my sophomore year and the conclusion of her freshman year.
The military played a very important role in the timing of that, because when I was a senior in high school, in November of 1949, I got interested in joining the Utah National Guard. My father had been a member of that same artillery unit in the armory in Provo when he was in college. His duty, and his employment that helped him through school, was to care for the horses in a horse-drawn artillery of the 1920s. And I had a certain sentimental attachment to the same unit that my father had served in. And in my senior year of high school, I asked my mother if she had any objections to my joining the Utah National Guard. I think she felt the same attachment that I felt, and so, when I was 17 years old, I joined the Utah National Guard. That was ill-timed in terms of personal interest, because as I graduated from high school the following June, the North Koreans invaded South Korea. And my unit, the 145th Field Artillery group, was alerted for active duty in Korea. At that time, the Church limited the number of missionaries who could be called and there was no prospect of my serving a mission.
Before I was 18 years old, I was committed to a military future, whatever Uncle Sam decided, and a full time mission was out of the question. And in that circumstance, the following year, having met June Dixon, we decided to get married. I was very young to be married. She was too. But we loved each other and we were both committed and worthy to go to the Salt Lake Temple, where we were married in June of 1952. And my military activities dictated quite a bit for me, because the 145th Field Artillery group had a headquarters battery made up of senior officers that directed the activities of the group. That was the unit I, coincidentally, happened to join. It was just the office that I walked into in the Provo armory. But as part of the field artillery group, there were two battalions of artillery — one in southern Utah and one in central Utah. And both of those battalions were on their way to training and combat service in Korea before my freshman year was halfway over. But for reasons that only the military can understand, they did not activate the headquarters battery in which I was a member.
So, I went through BYU, not knowing if I would ever be activated, being under a continuing alert in case we were activated. And every quarter, I had to decide whether to pay the tuition, not knowing whether I would finish out the quarter. And I was in that condition through my four years of BYU studies. The Korean War got settled, largely — you remember the ongoing negotiations for a ceasefire — as I was graduating from BYU. And by that time, I had qualified to be a commissioned officer. I went on active duty just as I graduated from BYU and took the field artillery basic officer course at Fort Sill — 17-week course — and completed that, graduating first in that class of ‘85 or so artillery officers — some from the regular Army, some from National Guard, some from ROTC, some from the Marine Corps who had [already] served in Korea in combat. And so, I had a chance to get a good military education, but Uncle Sam had no more interest in me when the Korean war wound down.
So, I went to law school and stayed in the reserves in the Illinois National Guard. And when I went on to Washington [D.C.] for a clerkship, I transferred to the Army Reserve. And finally, after about nine years, having fulfilled my military obligation, I took an honorable release from part-time military service. That was an important part of my learning. I learned a lot of principles of leadership in the military, in the active duty time that I had, and in the reserve time, and in my access to such experiences as I had in Washington when I belonged to a unit made up of Congressmen and administrative assistants. I was the only person from the judicial branch, and we were flown to different Army facilities and learned a lot about the military of the late 1950s. But it was the leadership principles that benefited my future life. The knowledge of military life has helped me to relate to our men and women in the military.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So, you grew up in Utah County, went to BYU, which was not as big then as it would be to move to Chicago.
President Dallin H. Oaks: BYU, at the time I enrolled there, had about 4,000 students and it was on the quarter system and the tuition for a quarter was $50, as I recall. And I had to earn that $50 at the rate of 90 cents, or $1.00, or $1.10 an hour.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And then you find yourself newly married in Chicago…
President Dallin H. Oaks: With two children
Sarah Jane Weaver: Two children, young family. Talk about those years that you were in law school.
President Dallin H. Oaks: In earlier days, the University of Chicago [Law School] had some quite notable Latter-day Saint students. I learned by looking at the alumni pictures in the student lounge, that men named Steven L. Richards, Henry D. Moyle — then serving in the First Presidency — and Albert E. Bowen were early graduates of the University of Chicago. The interesting thing is that when my name was added to those as a Church leader, there are more members of the Quorum the Twelve who have graduated from the University of Chicago Law School than any other law school in the nation. That is really surprising when you think of the prominence of other law schools in the life of Latter-day Saints.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Especially law schools in the Western United States, where the Church would have been headquartered.
President Dallin H. Oaks: Yes, I was astonished to find that more graduated from the University of Chicago than from the University of Utah.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Can you detail some of the lessons that you learned during law school?
President Dallin H. Oaks: The first lesson I learned — and probably the most important one — was that I could compete in that highly selective, highly competitive atmosphere. I wondered if I could ever compete successfully and graduate at the University of Chicago Law School. Imagine my surprise, at the end of the first year, to find that I was first in the class. And to find that out was a great surprise, a great gratification and an affirmation of some advice my mother gave me when I left for law school. For six years in high school and at BYU, I worked 25 to 30 hours a week in radio, and that included working on Sunday, because radio stations are a seven-day-a-week operation. And as I left for the University of Chicago, my mother said this to me, and it affected my life profoundly, she said, “Dallin, 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.”
Up to then I’d worked every day of the week, as the employer’s hours required. When I went to law school, the only employment I had was the military in the Illinois National Guard. I was not employed, I was borrowing money to pay for expenses, and I decided that I would never study on Sunday. And 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.
When I went on [to work for] the United States Supreme Court, I had been chosen by [Chief Justice] Earl Warren as one of his three law clerks for a period of one year. He chose me on the basis of the recommendation of Dean Edward Levy and I was one of 18 law clerks in the Supreme Court in the year that I worked there — three in the chief justices’ chambers, and one or two in the chambers of other justices. We got acquainted on a personal basis with one another and with the judges that they served, and we worked closely enough with other justices that once Chief Justice Warren assigned me to work with another judge, who was preparing an opinion that the Chief Justice was very interested in. He said, “Dallin, I want you to help him with his, his opinion.” So, it was a very valuable educational experience in the workings of the nation’s highest court and also in the personalities of judges and the opinions of judges, who would have a major impact on America. For example, this was four years after the desegregation decision, which was written by Chief Justice Warren, my boss. And so desegregation and the litigation that followed was a very important part of the atmosphere I worked in. It was also important, to me, to meet the other law clerks. They went on to very distinguished careers — in judgeships, in American higher education, in the executive department of the government — and those contacts were very important to me in the years to come.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, during this time, you were also raising a young family. Talk about those years when your kids were young and some of the lessons you learned from being a father.
President Dallin H. Oaks: Our third child was born to us when I was a senior in law school. And the fourth and fifth children were born when I went back to practice law in Chicago. And our sixth child was born when I was president of Brigham Young University. In all of those years, I was working very hard in my profession and heavily engaged in Church callings and so, as is so often true in Latter-day Saint families, the mother was the major force in raising the children. And in that, before I speak of June, I need to say that I am a product of the teaching of women. Beginning with my mother, who was a great teacher, continuing with my wife June who was a great, a wonderful teacher, continuing with my wife, Kristen, after June’s death, who has been such an influence in my life. The most important teachers that I’ve had in the area of Church doctrine, and service and family responsibilities ranking right up there with the prophets of the Church, have been my mother, my grandmother, my wife, June, and my wife, Kristen.
June was a major figure in raising the family. And she came from a family of six faithful Latter-day Saints siblings and a faithful mother and father and she took up that pattern in the teaching of our children and attending to their needs. She was a remarkable partner in raising the children. And the best influence that I could give was to live my life so that she could point to me as an important husband and father and to be a teacher and a role model, especially for the sons — two sons and four daughters — who looked to their father to confirm by his behavior and teachings, the way the mother had brought them up.
Then, when June died after we were married 46 years, two years later, I married Kristen McMain and she is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known. She is a convert to the Church from a father who was not a member and a mother who was nominally a member, but not active in any way. She was converted. She attended Church in her Primary years, but then the parents moved to another neighborhood and she barely got the permission of her parents to be baptized when she was 10 years old. Up to then, they had refused her request — born of Primary teachings — but she had to be converted to the Church in her adult years and then submitted missionary papers. So, whereas neither my wife June or I served full time missions, Kristen served valiantly a full-time mission in Japan and she also had the experience of being converted to the Church and also having many years as a single woman. And in all those experiences, she saw things and experience things, that allowed her to teach me about single women, for example, a very significant group in the Church — things that I needed to know and could not have learned in any other way. And I learned them from a brilliant teacher, to whom, as I speak, I’ve been married for 22 happy years.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You’ve almost spent four decades as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 38 years, and the majority of those Kristen would have supported you in those callings.
President Dallin H. Oaks: Yes, June was my wife for 14 years of my 38 years as an Apostle and Kristen, 22 years. She has been a remarkable wife, and a remarkable mother, and grandmother and great grandmother to a very large family — which was six children and about 24 grandchildren when we married, and now about 65 great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. And she’s the only grandmother that most of those have ever known.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You spoke about some of the lessons you’ve learned in life coming during difficult times, during hard times. That time when you lost June had to be one of the most pivotal moments of your life.
President Dallin H. Oaks: It was. It was a very difficult time and it was two years before I met Kristen. I’d never heard of her, never met her until one year and 11 months after June died, just almost exactly two years. And 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.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, I want to go back a little, because for so many years in Chicago, you were also serving in the Church.
President Dallin H. Oaks: Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Talk about what and how Church service shaped who you would ultimately become and how that early service prepared you to be a member of the Twelve.
President Dallin H. Oaks: A formative period in my growing up in the Church was to be in Chicago under the influence of President John K. Edmunds of the Chicago Stake, ultimately serving for 20 years as stake president. He was part of an earlier generation that served for those times. He was a lawyer. He took a special interest in me [though] I had very few opportunities to be taught individually by him. His influence on my life was very great. As I attended my Church meetings and heard him speak, it always seemed to me that the Lord was speaking to me through my stake president. And then, when I returned to Chicago, after my law clerk experience, in about two years, as I recall, I was called on a stake mission and that was a formative event in my life.
At that time, I was working — in the law firm where I was employed — long hours, [including] about three or four evenings a week. After the 5 p.m. closing of the office, I typically worked on for two or three hours and I worked on Saturdays most of the day. It was a very stressful work experience for young lawyers and when this stake president that I admired so much called me on a stake mission, he told me that I would be expected to serve missionary time, 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. 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.
I served in the stake mission for a short time, and was called to be the stake mission president. [In two years] we taught a lot of people and baptized quite a few people, as many as most missionaries baptize [in] a full-time mission. And then Elders LeGrand Richards and Howard W. Hunter were assigned to reorganize the Chicago Stake, where I was the stake mission president. The stake boundaries covered parts of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. And they divided that stake and created three stakes from one, and I was called to be a counselor in the stake presidency of the Chicago South Stake, which had 13 units in Indiana and Illinois. And that began my senior Church service and I served in the stake presidency there under two different state presidents for about eight years. And I learned so much about Church administration. I had never served as a full-time missionary. I had never served as a bishop. I had served in a stake presidency. But it was a great period of learning and also a period of giving Church talks. Of course, with 13 units, we were on the road almost every Sunday, holding ward conferences, and branch conferences in two different states. And I was challenged to prepare Church talks, something I’d never had experience doing. I continued in that calling until I was appointed President of Brigham Young University, a position for which I did not apply. I was, at that time, 38 years old, which seems to be quite a young age to succeed Ernest Wilkinson, who had been the president when I attended Brigham Young University. Not long after I was called to the BYU calling, I was called as a regional representative of the Twelve, the predecessor of current Area Seventy. And in that capacity, supervising the work of different stakes, I had further important preparation for what would turn out after 13 years to be what I would do for the rest of my life.
Sarah Jane Weaver: How was it to go home to BYU? The BYU assignment took you back to Utah, back to the communities where both you and June had grown up and gave you an opportunity to interact with young people.
President Dallin H. Oaks: It was a wonderful blessing to know that the Lord had called me to be the leader of that university. And I did have that witness when I was called. To go back to BYU, 17 years after I had graduated, was a great experience, for me personally and professionally. Seventeen years after my own graduation, there were still men who had been my teachers, who were still on the faculty. Stewart Grow would be an example of that. He stayed in close touch with me during my years in Chicago and in Washington. Quite a few others were still there.
The campus had grown incredibly under the leadership of President Wilkinson. So, a university of a few thousand students from which I graduated was a university of 25,000 to which I returned. But I had been prepared by my service as a tenured faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School and by my service on the University of Chicago Academic Senate and also from being appointed to different university positions, such as chairman of the disciplinary council that had to resolve cases of discipline for 150 university students who had taken over the university administration building during that troubled period in the late 1960s when there was great disruption in universities across the country.
My scholarly experience and my administrative experience [included] being appointed acting dean of the law school, when I was only about four years out of law school myself. Dean Levi [just appointed provost of the university] had faith that I was responsible enough that I would not mess things up, [until] a more experienced person was chosen as dean. I was never a candidate to be the dean, but the process of selecting a new dean took about eight months. And in eight months as the acting dean of the school where I’d graduated four years earlier was a marvelous experience in university administration. All of that served me very well at BYU, especially when questions of student disruption came up. I was more experienced with that subject than anybody on the campus. And I was not easily intimidated by threats of demonstration and we worked through that without making a headline. I had made enough headlines on that subject in the Chicago papers.
My first assignment when I was appointed president of BYU, was to organize the J. Reuben Clark Law School. And of all things in university administration, I knew more about that, than anything else. And I had such capable people advising me in the other areas of university administration that I could give an inordinate amount of time to putting that new law school on a sound footing and getting the right Dean, Rex Lee, who had been my student at Chicago. Getting the right dean and the right faculty — committed Latter-day Saints, experienced and committed in legal education, as well as Church service. That was my first job at BYU and it was one in which I took great pleasure.
Also, I enjoyed working with young people. A major reason why I left the law practice and I accepted the offer to go as a law professor at the University of Chicago, just four years after I graduated, is that I wanted to work with young people. I had been working with young people for my 10 years at the University of Chicago Law School. So, working with students was not a new experience for me. And I was close enough to their own age that they could look on me as their generation, in contrast to Ernest Wilkinson, who by that time was in his late 60s. I was 38, so I started off in a honeymoon period with the students of Brigham Young University.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And your time at BYU was not as long as, as many people expected it would be, because then you are asked and appointed to the Utah Supreme Court.
President Dallin H. Oaks: Well, it really worked the other way around. When I had been at BYU for five or six years, that was more than the average period of a president of the university in that troubled period. And I wrote a letter to — a very confidential letter, I penned it so that not even my secretary would know, I wrote it by hand — and sent it to Gordon B. Hinckley, who was then the chairman of the executive committee of the board of trustees. And I said, “I think I’m no longer fresh as a leader and I think it’s in the best interest of the university to replace me so you can get fresh blood.” And he had me summoned to meet with the First Presidency the very next day. I say summoned, because I usually had routine meetings in Salt Lake, but in this case, I was called to come the next day. President Kimball had that letter in his hand as I went into meet with the First Presidency and he said, “Brother Oaks, what does this letter mean?” And I said, “Well, it just means what it says. I think the university needs a new leader and I’m no longer fresh and developing new ideas.” And he said, “Are you still worthy to serve?” And I said, “Yes, I’m still worthy to serve.” And he said, “Brother Oaks will decide when to release.” And so I continued to serve and then one day, just about two months short of nine years of service, I got another invitation to meet with the First Presidency. And they said, “We’ve decided to release you and we want you to give us three names that you would recommend to succeed you and also tell us when you think the transition ought to be.”
That meeting was in May and I said, “Well, I began in August, Aug. 1. That is a very good time for a new president to begin. [The current president] can finish out the existing year and [the new president can get] on board before a new year begins.” And they asked me for three names and Jeffrey R. Holland was one of them. And in about six or seven days, they advised me that they had chosen Jeffrey R. Holland to succeed me. That was announced soon, and the idea of my serving on the Utah Supreme Court came much later.
At that time, I needed to look for a new job. Effective Aug. 1, I had three months, I think, yes, three months, and I had quite a few offers from law firms and from university law schools and from other employment. And none of that felt good. By the way, the First Presidency said, “We want to offer you continued employment while you find other employment and how much time do you need?” I said, “Oh, I think about five months. I’ll teach in the BYU law school on a full time basis for five months and I think by the first of January, I would be able to find a new job.” They said, “That sounds good.” Sometimes an exiting president is given a golden parachute or a one-year contract or whatever, but mine was five months, which is what I asked for.
In the summer, just shortly after I began teaching at BYU law school, [I got] the idea of [applying for one of the] vacancies on the Utah Supreme Court; there were two vacancies that occurred right at that time. Of all the possibilities that had been suggested to me, that one felt best. And so to make a long story short, my serving on the Supreme Court is what I did to continue to be employed. When I was 48 I obviously needed to have continued employment. The governor, who was a Democrat, appointed me, who was known to be a Republican, to the Utah Supreme Court. And the Republican state legislature approved the appointment and I took office Jan. 1, .
Sarah Jane Weaver: And what lessons did you learn in that capacity?
President Dallin H. Oaks: When I was called to serve in the Church, I had been in the legal profession for about, exactly 30 years, counting my three years as a law student. And, basically, a tithe that of that time, was my three-and-a-half years as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court. And that was the best three years of my life in the legal profession. I was cut out to be an appellate judge. I was trained to be an appellate judge, not a practicing lawyer or a trial judge, but an appellate judge who writes opinions to define the law and who decides cases and directs the work of the judicial branch. I had seen that in my law clerkship with the Chief Justice of the United States and I was cut out to do that, educated to do that, and I loved it. And I assumed, at that time, that I would continue in that office until I was old enough to retire and then I would submit papers and my wife June and I would serve a full time mission. And it didn’t turn out to be that way, because after three and a half years as a judge, which I enjoyed immensely, I was called to the Quorum the Twelve — something I had never expected or anticipated. But in retrospect, I think I was prepared for that calling by many of the opportunities that I had, which have matched needs that I have felt in the Church as I tried to fulfill my responsibilities as an Apostle.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And can you tell us about some of the feelings you had when you were asked to serve in that capacity?
President Dallin H. Oaks: When I was called, I was astonished, because unlike my experience with other positions I had been appointed to or called to, I had no inkling that this was coming. It was a total surprise to me, and to my family and to the court where I served. And the Lord soon made that clear to me that He had chosen me and that His own purposes were served by my not knowing in advance. The first challenge I felt was trying to see what an Apostle is called to do. And 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, and obviously, looking to President [Spencer W.] Kimball, President [N. Eldon] Tanner and President [Marion G.] Romney, who were the First Presidency at that time. That was at least a decade and a long period of a steep learning curve in which I was helped by many.
Sarah Jane Weaver: What do you want Latter-day Saints to know about the time you spent in the Quorum of the Twelve?
President Dallin H. Oaks: Well, the first thing I would want members of the Church to know is that as I entered the senior leadership of the Church, I saw behind the curtain, if I can put it that way, the operations of the Church that I had previously observed as they observed them. I saw the Church as an elders group leader, and I saw it as a stake missionary and I saw it as a member of a stake presidency. [Then] suddenly, I saw behind the scenes and I had access to confidential information and documents and so on and that was part of my preparation as an Apostle, but it was also part of affirming my testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. Because nothing that I saw behind the curtain of confidentiality that surrounds the senior leaders of the Church, nothing that I saw, created any concern or gave any contradiction to what I had seen from the outside or heard in the teachings of the senior leaders. And I think that’s the most important thing I could say about my service in the Twelve, because I increased in testimony of the Savior, I increased in knowledge of what it means to be a witness of His name in all the world — which is the Doctrine and Covenants description of the duty of an Apostle — and in all that, 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, as well as 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. And then I had the same experience when I was later called into the First Presidency, because the First Presidency has added responsibilities, added access, and I went through another period of learning and I give the same testimony as to that period. 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. In the Quorum of the Twelve, we served together and in the First Presidency, we were called together. And I’ve seen the mantle of the prophet settle on President Nelson and I’ve felt the witness of the Spirit to what he is privileged to announce as prophet and president of the Church. That’s my testimony to the Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: As you look back on nine decades, is there something that you know, now, as you reflect on your life?
President Dallin H. Oaks: The first thing that comes to mind is this – growing up, I had a lot of questions about the Church. I knew what I was being taught in Sunday School, but I wanted to know for myself. And as I came through the experience of higher education, I had additional questions. The earlier questions were answered gradually, but more complex and troubling questions came up. And I didn’t know the answer to these questions, and 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, confirmed throughout my long years, and relied on throughout my long years, that the Lord does not answer every question — perhaps because it serves His purposes to keep them unanswered, perhaps because we’re not qualified to understand them, even if He revealed them. But there are quite a lot of questions that come up in relation to our faith and the policies and practices of the Church, that we take on faith and we put on the shelf and sometimes the answers come. Always in the Lord’s own time, but according to His own will, we get answers to those questions that come in unexpected ways and sometimes, we just leave them on the shelf in the faith that the great [doctrines] of the gospel, which we know to be true, cause us to hang on and wait for the questions whose answers are less important in the wisdom of the Lord than the things He’s already told us.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Can you talk about the painting that you keep in your office that’s titled “The Forgotten Man?”
President Dallin H. Oaks: During my service at BYU, I became acquainted with the remarkable collection in the BYU Art Museum of the paintings of an artist from the depression named Maynard Dixon. He was not a member of the Church, but he had many vivid paintings of depression area circumstances and, later on, some Utah scenery. And one painting spoke to my 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. Today, he’d be a homeless person. 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. It spoke to my heart and I got the original of that painting and it hung in my office at BYU for quite a few of the closing years of my service there. I was well known for my affection for the painting. So, when I left BYU, as a parting gift for the president, they had an art student do an oil-on-canvas copy of the painting and they presented it to me as a gift, and it’s been in my office in the Church [Administration] Building ever since I’ve been here. So, I have been with that painting for close to 40 years and it speaks to me and reminds me of things that I need to remember.
Sarah Jane Weaver: As we close, can you share your Apostolic testimony with us?
President Dallin H. Oaks: My testimony of the restored gospel is a very simple testimony, though profound in its effect on my life. I know that God our Heavenly Father created a plan for His children, a fundamental of the restored gospel, that we are here on Earth for a purpose. A loving Heavenly Father and knowing that we would suffer death and commit sin while we were in this period of preparation, He provided a Savior for us, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, and through Him, we are assured of immortality and we are [given] the opportunity to repent of our sins and proceed on what President [Russell M.] Nelson calls the covenant path toward our eternal destiny as children of God. I know that that plan was set in motion in these latter days by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the innocence of 14 years. In [his] faith in the holy scriptures and their promise that we could ask God for wisdom, he went into the grove and the Father and the Son initiated the restored gospel by a personal appearance and then by appointing Apostles to restore priesthood authority, priesthood keys, and to lead him to the discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon as a second witness of Jesus Christ, a scripture written for our day. 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, and I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.