It was the first time that all the Saints in the British Isles had been invited to one great conference, and in June 1935 hundreds of Saints from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland assembled in the town of Kidderminster, just south of Birmingham, for an MIA conference. The conference had been months in the planning. And behind the project, from the first dream of such a conference to the last detail of its execution, was Elder G. Homer Durham, a missionary serving as president of the British Mission YMMIA.
He had gone throughout the entire mission, exciting the Saints about the project. Then other missionaries had tracted out the entire city of Kidderminster—not for investigators, but for room and board for conference visitors! And the three-day conference was a success, especially because it was the first time that the British Saints had been able to gather in one place and feel each other’s strength.
It was during the depression, and the seven shillings and sixpence for each night’s lodging cost dearly—but it was worth it when the Saints gathered in the town meetinghall and sang “Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise.” Elder Durham retells the story now with tears in his eyes: “I think it was the first time they had heard all those voices. It seemed to raise the roof. A great experience, feeling the testimonies of so many others along with yours.”
His mission was the foundation on which the rest of his life was built. During a train trip with European Mission President Joseph F. Merrill, the apostle said, “You must go get a Ph.D.”
“But President Merrill, do you think I could really qualify?”
Elder Merrill answered, “No question about it.”
No question indeed! Since that interview, Elder Durham not only earned that Ph.D., but also went on to preside over Arizona State University after years of service in teaching and administration (including service as academic vice-president at the University of Utah). From 1969 to 1976 he served as the first commissioner and executive officer of the Utah System of Higher Education.
Elder Durham was born on 4 February 1911 in Parowan, Utah, but was raised in Salt Lake City, where his father, George Henry Durham, came to teach after five years at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts. The whole Durham family was musical, and though Elder G. Homer Durham pursued a career outside of music, he helped support himself during his undergraduate years by playing trumpet and later piano in small dance bands. Also, he used his musical training throughout his mission.
Not only did his mission launch his long career of Church and educational service, but also it was the start of what he considers the most important part of his life: for there he met Leah Eudora Widtsoe, youngest daughter of Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Council of the Twelve who was then presiding over the European Mission. They corresponded after Elder Widtsoe returned to Utah, and less than a year after Elder Durham came home from his mission the young couple were married. The parents of two daughters and a son, they now have eighteen grandchildren.
Elder Durham has long been known in the Church for his more than two decades of columns in the Improvement Era and for his excellent compilations of the writings and addresses of Church Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Heber J. Grant, and David O. McKay. He has also served on the high councils of the Emigration, Maricopa, Tempe, and Bonneville stakes, as president of the Salt Lake Central Stake, on the Sunday School general board, and as a Regional Representative of the Twelve.
After a lifetime in education, Elder Durham urges young Latter-day Saints to “get as much education as you can afford—and profit by. The world needs no ‘professional students’ but workers, and the time must come for students to get out of the academy and serve.
“The benefit of education to the individual is unquestionable, and the benefit to society is enormous. We need trained people who can think straight and do the work of the world and the Church. Whether this requires a lot of education or a little depends on the individual’s needs and the direction in which he is going. But one of the great glories of this church is its support of education.”