Get to Know President Russell M. Nelson, a Renaissance Man

Contributed By Sarah Jane Weaver, Church News editor

  • 16 January 2018

Elder Russell M. Nelson speaks at the press conference to announce the release of the first volume of the “Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations” book.

In the fall of 1965, Russell M. Nelson—a surgeon and Salt Lake City stake president—made several trips to Illinois to look into an attractive and generous offer to head cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Chicago.

He and his wife, Dantzel, selected a neighborhood where they could raise their nine daughters (the Nelson’s 10th child, a son, was born later) and contemplated the professional and research opportunities the job would afford. One evening they enjoyed dinner with a young University of Chicago law professor, Dallin H. Oaks, and his wife, June. As the couples ate dinner in the Oaks’ home and spoke about the Church in Chicago, a lasting friendship formed.

“Of course we did everything we could to persuade him to accept an offer that we knew was being extended,” recalled President Oaks, then a counselor in the Chicago stake presidency and now First Counselor in the new First Presidency, of the November 21, 1965, dinner.

Before accepting the position, however, Dr. Nelson sought and received advice from one additional source. He met with then-Church President David O. McKay.

Brother Russell M. Nelson when he was called as the Sunday School General President of the Church in 1971. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson performs cardiac surgery. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Elder Russell M. Nelson and his first wife, Sister Dantzel White Nelson, who died in 2005. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

 

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson holds a model of the human heart. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

“He was recruited very aggressively” by the University of Chicago, explained Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He would be made head of the department. He would have a salary through the roof. They would pay for all of his children’s education, wherever those children went on the face of the earth.”

But he turned the offer down.

“President McKay just said, ‘I don’t think you should go,’” explained Elder Holland. “Like that, Russell Nelson made the decision on the spot. He was not going to go.”

The experience illustrates “the childlike humility and simplicity of Russell Nelson’s faith.”

Ministry

President Nelson, 93, was set apart as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on January 14, after serving 34 years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Known as a Renaissance man by his colleagues, President Nelson brings to his new position a lifetime of preparation. A man of perfect pitch that plays the organ during quorum meetings, President Nelson often addresses Latter-day Saints in their native tongues and is “the best writer in the Quorum of the Twelve,” said President Oaks.

Sister Ardeth Kapp, former Young Women General President, said that President Nelson asks significant questions, then listens and encourages.

During his 34 years as an apostle, President Nelson has visited 133 countries, participating in the dedications of 31 of those countries and opening doors for the Church in Eastern Europe and China. At headquarters he has served as the chairman of each of the Church’s three governing committees—the Missionary Executive Council, the Temple and Family History Executive Council, and the Priesthood and Family Executive Council.

“I have seen the Lord magnify him and bless him and shape him for this hour,” said Elder Holland. “He gave the Lord a wonderful package of raw material to work with, but I have seen the Lord bless him and mold him into becoming the prophet of the Lord that we sustain him to be.”

First and foremost, he said, President Nelson is kind.

“He is a consummate gentleman,” said Elder Holland. “He may be the man for whom the word ‘gentleman’ was created. He is very, very kind.”

President Russell M. Nelson stands in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

President Russell M. Nelson reflects upon his new appointment as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Service

Those who serve with President Nelson also speak of his compassion.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said that when he had heart bypass surgery in 1995, he awoke to learn that President Nelson had “stood over the surgeon” during the entire procedure.

“That’s the kind of affection he has for his brethren,” said President Ballard.

President Ballard also recalled President Nelson checking on the late Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He would come over and feel his pulse and look him in the eye and get a report as to what happened overnight,” said President Ballard. In that capacity “he was a physician filled with love for those whom he could serve.”

He has lifted and sustained other quorum members with the same “kind of affection,” said President Ballard.

In 2007, the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin locked his knees while delivering a conference address; as he spoke he grew increasingly weak.

Elder Wirthlin's son, Joseph Wirthlin Jr., remembers leaving his seat in the Conference Center to help his father, only to see President Nelson quickly move to his father’s side at the pulpit. President Nelson put one hand on the Apostle’s shoulder and grabbed his belt with the other. Because of the lifting and stabilizing effort of President Nelson, Elder Wirthlin was able to complete the address.

Brother Joseph Wirthlin Jr. said President Nelson acted with “quiet humility.”

“He stood up, and let Dad finish his talk,” he said. “He didn’t make a big fanfare about things. He just stood up and did what was needed and would do that with anyone.”

Elder Holland remembers receiving a blessing from President Nelson before he underwent surgery. “I was moved to tears under his hands,” he said. “That’s what came through. It was not Dr. Nelson who would have known anything and every thing about whatever was going on with a few bones and joints. It was Elder Nelson, it was Apostle Nelson, it was Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Nelson. The language of that blessing wasn’t a medical opinion. It was faith.”

Elder Russell M. Nelson talks about the change in ages for missionaries after the Saturday morning session of general conference on Saturday, October 6, 2012. Photo by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News.

Health

President Nelson comes to the position as President of the Church at age 93—the oldest in the Quorum.

“Talk about someone who doesn’t look or act like he is 93,” Elder Holland said. “No one talks around here about age or how old we feel, how creaky our bones are.”

President Russell M. Nelson on a swing. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

With boundless energy—some say he has never taken a sick day—President Nelson descends the circular stairway after meeting in the upper room of Salt Lake Temple with other Church leaders every Thursday.

“I always try to keep up with him and I can’t do it,” said President Oaks. “I grab hold of the banister to balance and I skip along as well as I can.”

Elder Holland said President Nelson bounds “two stairs at a time.”

President Nelson enjoys gardening, mowing the lawn, or shoveling the sidewalks free of snow; when he is home he hauls his neighbors’ garbage cans in from the curb.

President Russell M. Nelson salmon fishing in Ketchikan, Alaska, in July 2016. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family. Photo courtesy of Elder Mervyn B. Arnold.

President Nelson’s son, Russell Nelson Jr., said his father can still snow ski all day.

Elder W. Craig Zwick, an emeritus General Authority Seventy, said he has been with President Nelson on black diamond ski runs, “scared to death for me and for him.”

“The man can ski with the best of them,” he said.

Nelson family ski outing. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Church members will discover, said Elder Zwick, “that although he is 93 years old, he has an absolute identity with the youth of the Church and that he will lead them along, just like he leads the most senior members of the Twelve.”

Medical career

President Nelson was born in Salt Lake City to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson on September 9, 1924, just five years before the stock market crash of 1929.

A young Russell Nelson was curious. He always wanted to know how things worked, said Sheri Dew, a former member of the Relief Society General Presidency.

As a 9- or 10-year-old boy, Russell Nelson got on a street car and made his way downtown to Deseret Book, she recounted. He asked an employee to recommend a book about the Church and “somehow left with one,” said Sister Dew.

He was baptized at age 16; “his desire and drive to be part of the Church came much from within,” said his son. Although his parents had not been active in the Church during President Nelson’s youth, they never discouraged his Church participation. They also supported their son in his education, which he pursued diligently.

He graduated first in his class from medical school at age 22. His career in medicine included receiving doctoral degrees from the University of Utah and University of Minnesota, and additional advanced work in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. He helped pioneer the development of the artificial heart-lung machine, a means of supporting a patient’s circulation during open heart surgery.

Sister Dew said many things can be learned from his pioneering surgical experiences.

The doctors who worked on the heart-lung machine were taught in medical school “never to touch a human heart.” Yet they were willing to defy conventional wisdom to figure out how to save lives.

“As the small group would go to medical conventions they would share information,” explained Sister Dew, who once asked President Nelson what the team did to protect their personal interests—in terms of patents or academic credit.

He told her, “Our competition wasn’t with each other. Our competition was with disease, death, and ignorance.“

Look, she added, ”what they went on to do.”

This development of the artificial heart-lung machine made open-heart surgery possible; President Nelson performed the first surgery of that kind in Utah in 1955.

Elder Gregory A. Schwitzer, a doctor and General Authority Seventy, said during his career Dr. Nelson was consistently described with “the words of inspiring, dedicated, competent, and highly consistent in everything he did.”

Dr. Nelson is renowned for what he has done, he said, explaining his creativity and innovation have saved countless lives. “He has always been one who has written extensively in the medical literature, he has participated in studies that have advanced the knowledge of cardiovascular surgery.”

His legacy is “now in the lives of many physicians who are cardiovascular surgeons who were trained under his watchful eye.”

Elder Schwitzer, himself, was once inspired by Dr. Nelson.

President Spencer W. Kimball speaks with Elder Russell M. Nelson, who performed life-saving open-heart surgery on President Kimball and now has followed in his footsteps to become President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

As a ninth grader, Gregory Schwitzer attended a career development day and heard a presentation by Dr. Nelson. “I remember him standing in front of the class .... talking to us about what he did. He held an artificial heart valve in his hand and explained how it worked.

“I don’t really remember understanding everything he said medically. I do remember how he inspired me.”

Dr. Russell M. Nelson performs surgery. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Husband and father

Sylvia Webster, one of President Nelson’s nine daughters, said her father accomplishes much because he knows how to balance his life. “When he’s at work, he’s 100 percent at work. When he’s home, he’s 100 percent at home. When he’s doing his Church duty, he’s 100 percent Church duty. I think maybe that’s how he balances things.”

Russell Nelson Jr. said people often ask him what it is like to be an Apostle’s son. “He’s always been the same,” he said. There isn’t much difference “in my father as the surgeon or as the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He’s always been consistent. As a father he has always been loving and always tried to make time.”

When he was home “he was really home,” said his daughter.

He taught his children to ski between his legs, to ride a bike, and to drive. He read to them often. The family played a lot of ping-pong. Russell Nelson Jr., however, does not remember ever beating his father in the game.

One constant in his father’s life was his wife, Danztel, whom he married in 1945. “It was always obvious that my parents loved each other very much,” Brother Russell Nelson Jr. said.

Russell and Dantzel Nelson cut their wedding cake on August 31, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Dantzel White Nelson and Russell M. Nelson. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Sister Webster said her father returned the unfailing support her mother offered him. The family loved music, with all 10 children learning a musical instrument in addition to the piano.

When Danztel Nelson joined the Tabernacle Choir, President Nelson stepped in. On Sunday mornings when the choir performed, President Nelson helped his nine daughters get ready for Church, trying “to curl our little hair and get everybody dressed.”

“He kept the home fires going,” said Sister Webster. “That’s the kind of relationship they had. It was very sweet and very giving to each other.”

Elder Russell M. Nelson and his first wife, Sister Dantzel White Nelson, who died in 2005. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Danztel died February 12, 2005, just shy of the Nelson’s 60th wedding anniversary. The Nelson posterity of 10 children and 57 grandchildren now includes 116 great-grandchildren.

Brother Russell Nelson Jr. said losing his mother was deeply sad, especially for his father. “The passing of our mother, we could tell, was a deep hit for him.”

“He was sad and he missed her, just like anybody would after so many years of life together,” said President Nelson’s granddaughter Katie Irion Owens.

In 2006, he married Wendy L. Watson. Russell Nelson Jr. said the family saw “an immediate change” in President Nelson’s countenance. “The sadness was gone and it did us all good to see that happiness back.”

Sister Wendy Nelson has been by his side now for 12 years and has been a “tremendous support for him,” he said.

Sister Wendy Watson Nelson and President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speak during Family Discovery Day at RootsTech on Saturday, February 11, 2017.

“I am sure it is hard to walk into a family of 200-plus people and feel like you are close friends,” said Sister Webster. “Wendy has made the effort and she has been amazing.”

Sister Owens said “with Wendy, he has now found another amazing complement and match.” When Sister Nelson accompanies President Nelson on assignments “she speaks to people’s hearts” in a way that can’t come “any other way than through Wendy Watson Nelson. She is so dynamic, so positive, so bright and brilliant.”

President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Watson Nelson in Pennsylvania at the dedication of the newly developed Priesthood Restoration Site in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

Sister Owens said President Nelson has a strong relationship with each of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren—sending handwritten birthday, Christmas, and anniversary cards. He loves to visit the hospital when new babies are born; two great-grandchildren—numbers 115 and 116—joined the family just last week.

The Nelsons and their vast posterity still hold monthly family home evenings, noted Sister Webster.

Nelson family photo. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

His life

Sister Webster said, on one occasion, her father was asked to respond to an award he had received in 30 seconds or less.

He stood, and said “It’s simple,” and then shared the words of a verse he penned:

“Our God is my maker.

Parents dear are my guide.

An angel wife, my true love,

children choice are my pride.

The Lord is my Light.

His endless truth, my law.

My joy is in service to others.

My message is, my life.”

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, at Machu Picchu in Peru. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson sits down with a puzzle in his spare time. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, at the dedication of the Brigham City Temple. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson holds a great-grandson. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson with his daughter Sylvia and three of his great-grandchildren. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson with a grandson. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson and family. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson with members of his family. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson spends time with his grandson. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson with a great-grandchild. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson with a granddaughter. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson with a grandson. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, with family at the temple. Photo courtesy of the Nelson family.