Elder George Lee: “I Owe Every Opportunity to the Lord”
The boys tossed a football to him during recess and told him to run with it. Then they tackled him. “But gradually,” Elder Lee reminisced, “they explained to me what the game was all about. And soon word got around school that ‘this Lee boy is a great football player. Nobody can tackle him.’
“I’m not bragging,” Elder Lee continued, “but the boys used to get a kick out of all lining up on the field just to see who could tackle me. At a given signal I would start running toward them with the football under one arm. But I guess I was elusive and slippery enough that somehow I was never tackled.”
It is this same perseverance, but for deeper reasons, that enabled Elder Lee and his missionary companion to establish a branch of the Church in the Southwest Indian Mission in an area where LDS missionaries had never been successful before. It was 1964 and their mission president had sent them to Grease Point in northern Arizona. For six months Elder Lee and his companion slept out-of-doors in sleeping bags, trying, but without success, to gain access to that area. Finally their efforts were rewarded when an influential Indian family was converted to the gospel and offered their home as headquarters for the beginning branch.
George Lee looks back to his childhood with deep appreciation for his father and mother and for the rigorous family life he shared with twelve brothers and sisters. He was born of Navajo parents in Towaoc, Colorado, March 23, 1943.
“My father was an extraordinary man,” says Elder Lee. “He couldn’t understand English and was very close to his own culture. He was a sheepherder dedicated to hard work and didn’t believe in oversleeping. ‘Never let the sun beat you up,’ he always told us.
“Father taught us dignity and respect for the opposite sex. He reverenced nature and, while he didn’t assign any personality to God, he told us that the land, mountains, animals, insects, and all growing things were the handiwork of God and that they should be protected except when needed for food. We were close to every living thing.
“When a rattlesnake would come to our hogan, Father would talk to it quietly, then gently pick it up with a stick and carry it about a hundred yards from home where he would lay it down and command it to stay away, explaining that he meant it no harm.”
“Our mother and father used to walk six miles to get water and would carry it home on their shoulders. In wintertime when water would freeze on the mesa, they would chop up the ice and carry it home in a gunny sack where it was melted on the stove for drinking water.”
It was an LDS couple by the name of Bloomfield, who operated a trading post at Mancos Creek, Colorado, that first interested Elder Lee in the gospel. Even though he didn’t worship God the Eternal Father as he was to later understand him, George had prayed in times of stress to a heavenly being as long as he could remember.
The Bloomfields vividly recalled that when Elder Lee was eight years old he had miraculously recovered from a seven-day illness so severe that his heart had finally stopped beating and burial preparations had been made. When he subsequently revived, the first thing he asked for was a soda pop. After that the Bloomfields good-naturedly nicknamed him “The Soda Pop Kid.” Yet they felt in their hearts that the boy’s recovery had been no accident and that he had an important work to do.
George Lee was baptized when he was nine and when he was eleven he was one of the first students on the Indian placement program. He lived with the Glen Harker family in Orem, Utah.
Elder Lee says that during his school years, “I didn’t think of myself as an Indian. I grew up never seeing colors in people. Some of that feeling rubbed off on me from my father who taught me to respect all people.”
This humane view was of particular advantage to Elder Lee while he was a U.S. Office of Education Fellow in 1970–71. He served as an educational consultant for black, Chicano, Oriental, Indian, and Anglo groups.
“I worked with all groups equally well,” Elder Lee explained, “and never became homesick to be with any certain group of people, because all of them had the same basic needs, and I could see ways to help them.”
To emphasize his belief in the commonality of man, Elder Lee once gave an insightful address to a college audience entitled, “Leadership Is Colorblind.”
In December of 1967, Elder Lee was married to a pretty Comanche girl, Katherine Hettich, in the Salt Lake Temple by Elder Spencer W. Kimball. Elder and Sister Lee have two sons, Duane Michal who is six, and five-year-old Chad Thomas, and a ten-month-old daughter, Tricia.
Although still in his early thirties, George Lee’s academic accomplishments and numerous leadership awards are impressive by any measure. He has a Master of Education degree and has just completed his dissertation for a doctorate in educational administration. In 1974 he was president of the College of Ganado in Ganado, Arizona, a two-year college primarily for native Americans. He has been a consultant at national Indian conferences, and curriculum planner for the bilingual and bicultural Rough Rock Demonstration School on the Navajo reservation. He is a Phi Delta Kappa member.
Besides several fellowships he has been awarded, Elder Lee has received the “Spencer W. Kimball Indian Leadership Award,” and an “Outstanding Young Man of America Award.”
However, as important as all these things are, the things that mark George Lee are his sweet spirit and his complete faith in the Lord. He is a humble man and testifies that “every opportunity I have ever had I owe to the Lord. I want to be an instrument in his hands for doing good and for serving others.”
Long ago Elder Lee placed the Church and his family ahead of his Navajo Indianness. His new responsibilities as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and as president of the Arizona-Holbrook Mission will provide him and Sister Lee even greater opportunity to help our brothers and sisters back into the light of the gospel.
Carlos L. Pedraja: “I Didn’t Go to Russia”
An experience that helps me remember how important the Church is to me happened a few months before I found the Church. I had filled all the requirements to receive a study scholarship to go to school in Russia. For some reason my papers were lost in the mail and I was unable to go, which disturbed me a great deal. But because I was still in Bolivia, I met the missionaries. Thinking about the prospect of having received those papers and missing out on finding the Church has been a cause for special reflection.
During a visit President Kimball made to Bolivia eight years ago, he challenged me to go on a mission. I was the first missionary to be called from my country, and something that I will always appreciate was the opportunity to work among my own people for part of my mission. One time we were teaching an elderly man who only spoke Aymara. The day before his baptism we found him ill in bed with a very high fever. Through the brother who served as our interpreter, we counseled the elderly man to postpone his baptism. Extremely emotional, he sat up in bed and said, “The Lord wants me to be baptized tomorrow and so it will be. You have the priesthood and I beg you to give me a blessing of health.” It was a great lesson to us. We administered to the elderly man and the next day, early in the morning, he was waiting for us, healthy and strong and ready to go into the waters of baptism.
Many and very great are the blessings the Lord has given me, and I know that one of the greatest blessings to me is to know that my ancestors received wonderful promises that are now being fulfilled and that influence the destiny of my country and its inhabitants.
Larry EchoHawk: Someone’s Concerned about Me
Larry J. EchoHawk, twenty-seven, a Pawnee and the first Indian admitted to the Utah Bar Association, keeps the Book of Mormon on his desk. “I learned a lot about being an Indian from it,” he says. “As a boy, growing up in Farmington, New Mexico, I was ashamed to be an Indian. My parents weren’t, but I read those books and wondered if I was like that—savage and ignorant. The teacher would read ‘Indian’ and I’d cringe.”
He was baptized with his family at the age of fourteen. “For an Indian looking for pride, the Book of Mormon was a wonderful experience,” he remembers. “It was really an uplift to me.” The pride in heritage that his parents taught him, his experience going to Brigham Young University, and especially his research into Indian law at law school completed the process.
“Only one thing I don’t understand,” he grins. “It says we’ll be a white and delightsome people someday. I like the color I am. In fact, I don’t know any Indian who wants to change.”
There are certainly things he’d like to change about the way Indians are treated, though. About 95 percent of his clients are Indians and it “makes my blood boil” to see examples of discrimination by individuals, tokenism, especially in government, and paternalism, even in the Church.
“People still react to those old stereotypes,” he comments. “Some leaders don’t have faith in the capabilities of Lamanites. Occasionally when I moved into a new ward in California, I could see some reserve on the part of the bishop to use me—until he found out I was a lawyer. Do you have to have a law degree to be real?”
He’s equally quick to point out all the signs that times are changing. Indians are winning in the courts, taking advantage of higher education programs nationwide, and filling important positions in state and federal government. His sister Lucille is Utah’s first Indian educational specialist. He serves as first counselor in the Indian ward (Fifth Ward, Salt Lake Temple View Stake), where key leadership positions are all filled by Indians. Credit, he says, goes to the former bishop, a non-Indian, who had worked at that goal for more than twelve years.
“We see change. When we expect 100 percent home teaching, they become devoted home teachers. Our sacrament meeting attendance is well over Church average—somewhere between 60 and 80 percent. I hope the stereotypes are changing too. Maybe when people hear the word ‘Indian’ now, they’ll also think of George Lee, of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
“The Lord is helping us,” he stresses. “It’s a miracle I’m a lawyer. I wasn’t a good student in high school. The Lord made opportunities for me. I went from nothing on the football team to all-star and there was a scholarship to BYU. Then law school. I don’t even remember what I told the assistant dean who was looking at my transcript of badminton classes, but I got in and I’m a good lawyer. The Lord has never let me fall, even though I’ve stumbled a lot. I know he’s concerned about me. He’s blessed me with a fantastic wife and four beautiful children. He hears every prayer. The gospel is going to be restored to the Lamanites—to my family and friends. We’re not going to be a mediocre people. We’re going to be leaders in the Church and the nation. I know it’s going to happen. I can see it beginning now.”