Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning


She’s a quiet woman—but her quietness is the result of discipline and serenity, not passivity and indifference. Her hair is white, but her eyes are a sparkling blue, bright with pleasure. Her name is Camilla Eyring Kimball.

There is no question but that Sister Kimball’s husband, children, and grandchildren are integral parts of her life and that her Church service is central. There’s also no question that one of the things that makes her such a good woman is her eager mind and spirit. They launched her years ago into a lifetime of learning; and even today, she’s frustrated because there is still so much she wants to squeeze into each day.

Her home is modest, spotlessly clean, and very comfortable. The chairs in the living room and those surrounding her dining room table are in needlepoint, a tribute to a skill that she modestly says takes time, not talent. Greenhouse plants show the unwillingness of this avid gardener to submit to winter.

Camilla Eyring Kimball

Photo by Eldon Linschoten

But her favorite activity is reading. “Just give me a book and I can entertain myself indefinitely,” she says. “As a child I read everything available to me. I had an insatiable appetite.”

She remembers one summer she spent with her grandmother, a Swiss convert who thought it “wicked” to read novels. Young Camilla used to go upstairs right after supper and read until she heard her grandmother’s step on the stair. By the time that lady got upstairs, Camilla was, by all appearances, sound asleep. Her grandmother also rose at dawn to work in her garden, and out would pop Camilla’s book again until breakfast. She remembers her grandmother’s puzzlement: “Camilla, I don’t understand why you need so much sleep!”

As the oldest of a large family, Camilla was her mother’s right-hand woman. “Mother used to send me upstairs to make the beds, and that was another good chance to read. I knew I’d have to hurry when she’d call, ‘Camilla, aren’t you through with those beds yet?’”

Although President Kimball plays the piano himself, Camilla never profited from the organ lessons her parents gave her because she’d always prop a book on the music rack “and play enough to satisfy my mother, reading in between practicing.”

Sister Kimball comes by her love of reading honestly, for she remembers that her mother knit stockings for the whole family and read at the same time. “I can’t ever remember when we didn’t have books and books all over.”

Sister Kimball’s voracious appetite for books, however, never confused trash with class. “The worst trial I had was to read the funny papers to our oldest boy. I taught him to read as soon as I could so that he could read them himself by the time he was five.”

Even more important than her freedom to read, however, was the freedom granted her to explore ideas within the context of the gospel. “When I was in my second year of high school,” she recalls, “the teacher told us about evolution, and I got all excited and went home to teach my parents about it. My father very patiently heard me out, then said, ‘Well, daughter, there are theories and then there’s the truth, and you’ll come to know the theories from the truth if you’ll bide your time.’

“He didn’t overreact at all or make me feel uncomfortable, and that’s been the basis I’ve operated on ever since. My college major was dietetics, and there have been so many changes in the last sixty years in that field that theories obviously aren’t the thing to hang onto. The gospel is. I may not understand it fully, but I can have faith that eventually I will if I keep working.”

Because of her family’s hospitality toward searching and studying, Sister Kimball says, “I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.”

She twinkles, “I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.”

Reverently, she shares one experience of how a question was answered. At one time she served as a guide on Temple Square, a missionary responsibility she took seriously. Suddenly, one morning as she was dressing to go, she was struck by a shattering question: “‘How do I know that Joseph Smith actually saw the Savior and the Father? How could I know such a thing?’ I wondered how I had the temerity to say that this thing actually happened. I was terribly disturbed. I knelt and prayed about it, but left the house still troubled by that question.

“I can still feel the sensation I had when I stood up to tell the Joseph Smith story that day, as I’d told it so many times before. Suddenly I had a manifestation—a burning within my bosom—that was so assuring, so reassuring, that I had no question in myself that this was actually the testimony that is promised if you seek and really want to know.

“What’s amazing to me is that I’d never thought of that question before. My testimony was just such a fact of my existence. And then the question and the answer came in the same day! I wasn’t a youngster either. I was a mature woman, married for years.”

She increases her knowledge continually by magnifying her callings both as a student and as a teacher. As Relief Society spiritual living teacher “for the last twenty years” in their home ward, she issues a standing challenge to the sisters to read through a designated standard work each year, rewarding those who succeed with a legendary luncheon. Seventy-two women read the Book of Mormon one year; twelve of them read it three times. “I’ve been thrilled at the response,” she says. “How many sisters have said to me, ‘I’m glad you challenged us.’ I think most of us—at least I know I do—appreciate anything that prods us to study. I wish,” added Sister Kimball, “that somebody would prod me a bit more.”

Another teaching opportunity for her is visiting teaching. “I’ve been in the Relief Society for over fifty years, and I’ve been a visiting teacher for over fifty years,” she is proud to claim. “This is one of my very choicest opportunities: to get close to my companions, to help people meet their problems. In my mind, there’s no way you can really know a woman unless you know the spirit of her home; and visiting teaching gives us such an opportunity to get close to each other and to help each other.”

Sister Kimball prizes these friendships, for as sister of Henry Eyring, eminent American scientist, and as wife of Spencer W. Kimball, she finds people responding to her name instead of to her personal extremity” ity. When people ask her how it feels to be married to a prophet, she usually makes a joke out of it—with a very serious center: “I didn’t marry a prophet. I married a returned missionary.” And Spencer W. Kimball did not marry a prophet’s wife; he married a lively schoolteacher with an insatiable mind and a valiant spirit. Together, in different but mutually supportive styles, they have continued to grow.

She cheerfully admits that as far as their marriage goes, “not a thing would have been different” if her husband had not been called to be a General Authority over thirty years ago. “He was always completely dedicated to the Church and it’s been that way in our married life since the beginning. He’d be just as devoted if he were a ward clerk.” He was, in fact, called to be a stake clerk just six weeks after their marriage.

The only real difference in their lives is the crushing responsibility that came with his call to be President. “He’s the last resort of authority on earth now,” she says softly, “and it sets him apart so. He has the final responsibility for so many decisions; there’s no place for him to go except to the Lord.”

Sister Kimball tries to ease that burden by making their home “completely peaceful,” adding, “I take as much responsibility as I can for his health, relieve him of the business of the house, and, yes, I try to shelter him. It’s the hardest thing in the world for him to say ‘no,’ and it’s hard for me to see him under such pressure.” Another difficulty is the inevitably increased publicity. Not a “public” woman, she dislikes publicity, avoids appearances and interviews whenever possible, and cherishes privacy, both for herself and her husband.

A typical family home evening is for the two of them to sit in their comfortable chairs and study the scriptures together. Sister Kimball reads aloud to spare President Kimball’s voice, pausing when they want to discuss a point or underline a significant passage in books so often read and so frequently underlined that an unmarked passage is “the exception, rather than the rule.”

“He’s an easy man to live with.” says Sister Kimball warmly, She praises his “absolute faith and absolute loyalty” and relishes the difference in their styles of thinking that adds spice to their long friendship. “He never has been quite able to understand why I want to question and delve into things the way I do. The gospel is just something he doesn’t have questions about.”

It is obvious, though, that both of them have absolute respect for each other’s individuality—and for the best reason: deep trust in the other’s integrity founded on complete confidence in the other’s righteousness. “When it comes to principles of right and wrong,” says Sister Kimball, “we’re in complete accord. We both know that the atonement is a living reality, and neither of us knows how Christ was able to suffer for the sins of the world, but I sometimes wonder how it actually happened; he’s happy to wait till he finds out. And our opinions on the application of the gospel to different situations—politics, for instance—aren’t always the same. When that happens, we each pursue the question in our own way. Neither one of us needs to convince the other; and when we’ve worked it through, we find that we’ve come to a unity of the faith.”

This mutual trust and respect have characterized their marriage since the beginning. Sister Kimball’s intellectual interests have involved her deeply with clubs, civic groups, classes, and study groups. “I’ve taken classes every year we’ve been married except for these last two years when we’ve been traveling so much,” she says.

Camilla Eyring Kimball

Photo by Eldon Linschoten

These activities, however, do not mean that she finds her home an unstimulating place to be. “Anybody who thinks that being a wife and mother is a dull occupation doesn’t take the daily challenges seriously,” she exclaims. “The family is the biggest field for learning there is. That’s where you need to work double time to learn all you can. There’s no end for the need to study—knowing how to relate to children, or later, learning how to be a good mother-in-law or a good grandmother.”

Her lifelong commitment to excellence keeps her excited and exciting. “Some people feel that their responsibilities stifle them,” she says. “I feel that fulfilling obligations is the most direct opportunity to grow—the very best way. Any woman should be alive to opportunities—alive to public interests, to her family, to growth from Church service. Life is so interesting, it worries me that I can’t get it all done. And I have no patience with women whose lives ‘bore’ them.”