Donna Packer Earns Family History Certificate
By Marianne Holman, Church News staff writer
“Often, when I talk to people about family history, I give the advice to ‘never give up.’ [Sister Packer is] a great example of someone who doesn’t give up.” —Don Harreld, chair of the history department at Brigham Young University.
When one student walked in to speak with Brigham Young University professor George Ryskamp on the first day of class in the fall semester of 2000, she asked a question professors have heard many times before. The lovely white-haired woman—who had been early to class—was wondering if it would be all right if she missed a few days during the semester.
“I told her that as long as she was able to do her work I would work with her,” the history professor recalled, and then he asked why she would be missing class.
“She answered me by saying, ‘I’m going to be traveling with my husband,’ ” he said. “I asked what her husband does, and she kind of smiled, and introduced herself as Donna Packer, indicating that she is President [Boyd K.] Packer’s wife.”
Although she might have missed a class or two during the semester to accompany her husband on Church assignments, that didn’t stop Sister Packer from doing well in her classes, ultimately earning a family history certificate from Brigham Young University.
Sister Packer, who in addition to her formal BYU education has spent countless hours over many decades participating in family history, was awarded her certificate of achievement during a small luncheon program on June 15 at BYU.
“We at the university were very pleased when we discovered Sister Packer qualified in every academic requirement for the family history certificate offered by the family history program,” said BYU president Cecil O. Samuelson. “Sister Packer has exemplified lifelong learning in her education endeavors both at Weber State and Brigham Young University—particularly the Salt Lake Center. ... Her current GPA is a model for all students here at BYU.”
In order to achieve the family history certificate, Sister Packer completed more than 20 credit hours in family history courses that included research methods, the use of records, family law, and historical writing classes.
“BYU is the only university in the United States that offers degrees in family history,” said Don Harreld, who is the history department chairman at BYU. “Often, when I talk to people about family history, I give the advice to ‘never give up.’ [Sister Packer is] a great example of someone who doesn’t give up.”
Although Sister Packer has completed the required classroom hours for the certificate, what is most impressive is her lifelong dedication to family history work.
Described by her teachers as an “engaged and excellent student,” whose “efforts always went beyond the classroom assignments and requirements,” Sister Packer has done more than just the required work for her certificate. She spent years gathering information about the Packer family and composed a 467-page book, On Footings from the Past: The Packers in England, which was published in 1988.
But family history work isn’t a pastime Sister Packer picked up on later in life.
“I remember playing with Matchbox cars out on the floor as a young boy, and my mother would be nearby with her papers out,” said Eldon Packer, the Packers’ youngest of 10 children. “She always had her eye on me but would be working on genealogy as I played.”
Eldon also said he remembers learning much about his genealogy during car rides to visit family.
“When I was young we would travel back and forth to see either her father, when he was alive, or his sister,” he said. “We used to drive back and forth from Brigham City to Salt Lake, which was quite a ways, and on the way back she would tell me stories of the ancestors. … I’d sit on the front seat and put my head on her lap and she would tell me those stories. That’s how I’d pass the time to get back.”
Those stories still have an impact on his life—as well as on his other family members—many years later, Eldon said.
“It brings your ancestors to you, and helps give you an understanding that they had hard times, too, and they got through it,” he said. “There are great examples that give you something to follow … giving you a place, something to be a part of. You realize you are a part of something bigger than just your own little world.”
Upon receiving her certificate, Sister Packer shared her love of family history work and looked to the legacy of those who went before her.
“There are a lot of statements from the early Brethren … that have influenced my life,” she said. “I thought that I’d like to quote one of those great souls. And then I thought, I don’t have to go there. I will quote from an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, and what he thinks. … I’ll quote from my own household.”
Looking to President Packer’s book, The Holy Temple, Sister Packer said, “‘No work is more of a protection to this Church than temple work and the genealogical research which supports it. No work is more spiritually refining. No work we do gives us more power. No work requires a higher standard of righteousness. Our labors in the temple cover us with a shield and a protection both individually and as a people.’”
When given an opportunity to speak of his wife, President Packer said, “I have a solemn obligation to tell the truth. Although Sister Packer cautions me a bit when I say one truth, it is very true. She’s perfect.”