Memories of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

Story by Mike Foley, originally published in my blog on December 9, 2008

Thousands of people have been paying tribute to Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, at age 91 the oldest member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he passed away on December 1, 2008…and because I had the great privilege of knowing him personally as my bishop over 50 years ago, I would like to add my own small homage:

Just before I turned 12 years old, my family moved from Sugarhouse into the old Bonneville Ward in Salt Lake City — a most amazing congregation with over 1,000 members. In fact, if I recall correctly, every ward in Bonneville Stake at that time had about 1,000 members, which is unheard of now days but provided some surprising advantages. For example, we probably had almost 200 youth in our Mutual program. We averaged about 20-plus missionaries in the field, all the time; and with about 100 members, the High Priest group split into younger and older classes.

Elders Joseph Anderson and Mark E. Peterson were members of our ward. Sister Peterson played the organ for years. Sister Florence Jacobsen of the Relief Society General Presidency lived just up the street from our spectacular chapel. Eugene Hansen, who later served in the Seventy, also served as a bishop of Bonneville Ward. Bishop Doug Smith, son of Joseph Fielding Smith, wrote in the margins of my missionary application (because there was no line for it): This Elder wants to serve in Samoa.

The stake was no less impressive: Notable members included Elder Sterling W. Sill, Elder Richard L. Evans and President Joseph Fielding Smith. Elder Dallin H. Oaks also lived in the stake long before becoming a member of the Twelve, and BYU-Hawaii President Steven C. Wheelwright lived in that same ward. Stake President Russell M. Nelson interviewed me before I left on my mission to Samoa in 1965.

So, Bishop Wirthlin was in good company and right at home. He was an excellent leader who made sure the youth of Bonneville Ward had every opportunity, great teachers and advisors, and wonderful experiences. For example, Bishop Wirthlin was there when our Scout troop went to Yellowstone Park, and made the effort to drive up to Camp Steiner when we were there, too. Ever a big football fan, he rode the bus with us to games at Utah State in Logan and BYU in Provo. Our ward parties almost always included meat from his wholesale store on the menu. He also had lots of patience for our youthful foibles.

When he was a member of the Bonneville Stake presidency, he personally administered the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood to me as I prepared to become an Elder…and I was not surprised years later when he was called into the Quorum of the Twelve.

In that capacity, he eventually became a member of the Polynesian Cultural Center Board of Directors. During his regular visits to Laie, he always took the time to chat with me. Once he brough his entire family. Besides his dear wife, Elise, it was fun to see the three oldest children I remember best: Jane, who was two years ahead of me at East High,  Joe — the only boy — who was one year ahead of me at East, and my classmate Ann.

In those days the PCC Board members took the time to address the management team on a variety of subjects, and in more recent years Elder Wirthlin also spoke a number of times at BYU-Hawaii, which I covered as a writer.

On each of those occasions it felt warmly familiar to see and listen to Elder Wirthlin again, always taking my mind back to those boyhood days in Bonneville Ward. Though I have long since chosen to live my life in Hawaii and feel comfortable throughout Polynesia and Asia, I can never forget those early roots and the part Elder Wirthlin played. He was a tremendous and personal example to me, and I will miss him not coming to Laie again.

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