The Times for Whitney


“Mommy, what’s that book?” My son called from the next room.

“Which book are you talking about?”

“The big book in here on top of daddy’s shelves. The tall one with the black cover.”

My husband was a college professor, and books crowded our home the way snapshots and school pictures crowded my grandmother’s home. Every conceivable inch of shelf space was stuffed with books of every size, description, and content.

Normally I would have been pleased that my son was showing an interest in our collection, but for some reason “black cover” had disturbed a memory that was beginning to coil and within a few seconds had sprung in my mind. “Black cover … Of course!” I raced to our remodeled bedroom-study and, grabbing my son from the danger I knew was lurking there, bundled him out of the room, out the front door, onto the porch, and told him to watch his two young sisters in the sandpile while mommy did some much needed tidying up.

“Grant, Grant, Grant,” I muttered as I strode back into the study. “I believed that you had thrown that book away.” As I positioned a chair under my feet and the black-cloaked book loomed closer, its peculiar size confirmed my fear. But gradually the fear subsided as I turned the book’s browned and aged pages. Whitney! The name echoed through my mind recalling long forgotten memories.

Whitney was my husband’s late grandfather, a dear, peculiar man whose unconventional life had touched the lives of many—especially my husband’s. Whitney’s philosophies of life were contained in the voluminous set of journals authored during the last twenty-five years of his life. After Whitney’s death, each of the journals was relegated to a grandchild. Grant had been on his mission when Whitney passed away, and when he returned he received the large black journal Whitney had entitled “The Eye of a Needle: Notes on Riches.” Grant had confided to me that his grandfather’s life had been characterized by anything but large sums of money, and consequently his relatives felt this particular journal was less valuable than Whitney’s treatises on Faith, Sacrifice, Love—all endeavors in which the family felt Whitney had succeeded. The journal had remained unclaimed until Grant asked for it.

As my eyes wandered over the pages, certain passages caught my attention. Whitney didn’t keep a normal, day-by-day journal. Instead, Whitney’s journals each dealt with a topic he felt was important. Prayer, Ambition, Justice, Repentance—Whitney had tackled them all. Nor had Whitney been satisfied with just his own thoughts on the subjects. Often the pages of his journals were filled with quotes of respected friends, writers, church leaders, poets, and philosophers. These entries were designated by a unique attribution: Lincoln and Whitney, Shakespeare and Whitney, Brigham Young and Whitney. …

Whitney himself had become quite a philosopher in his later years. After his wife Rose died and Whitney had retired from his job as county agent, he set forth on a new career. He decided to become a philosopher. Much to the chagrin of his children, Whitney, at sixty-four, sold his home, bought a large trailer, and settled down on a small piece of land near some woods and a small stream, where Grant and other grandchildren shared many happy memories with him.

Though the move had surprised Whitney’s relatives, what really surprised them was the intensity with which Whitney pursued his goal. Always a lover of books, Whitney began at the age of sixty-five to methodically give himself a classical education. First the poets—Homer, Virgil, Aristophanes, Lucian, and a smattering of Seneca and Plautus; then the historians—Thucydides, Tacitus, Livy, Caesar; and then the philosophers—Plato, the Sophists, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian.

After Whitney was thoroughly inculcated in the classics, he broadened his scope. Literature from the Medieval period to the Renaissance through the Neo-classicists, Romantics, Victorians, up to the contemporary authors—Whitney absorbed it all. Nor did he content himself with anything less than what he called a “world education.” His studies always included works from both European and Asian minds. Whitney’s only worry during his “golden age” was that he might pass away before he’d had a chance to read all of his recently acquired books. Time proved that he needn’t have worried.

Oddly enough, I mused, my thirty-two-year-old husband had the same major worry. It was remarkable how much of Whitney had been assimilated by Grant. Certainly not the typical inheritance that a grandfather leaves a grandson.

My fingers continued nervously through the entries until my eyes fixed on a particular passage in the journal. The passage recalled my first glimpse of Grant and my first introduction to Whitney.

It’s foolish to try to buy respectability through expensive clothing. Remember:

“As for clothing. … Let him who has work to do recollect that the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly … to cover nakedness.”

July 12, 1959 Thoreau and Whitney

I remembered an English class at the beginning of my junior year at college. I was sitting near the back of the room when in walked one of the cutest young men I’d seen: blond hair, green-blue eyes, masculine jaw line highlighted by a boyish smile. “What a combination of features!” I thought. But though his combination of facial features was striking, I quickly recognized that even more striking was the young man’s combination of clothes. Yellow and blue plaid pants, a forest-green sweater, and brown waffle stompers with bright red shoelaces quickly dampened my initial interest.

I chuckled as I recalled that first glimpse of the man who would later become my life’s companion. After our first date I remembered adeptly maneuvering the conversation to fashion and asking Grant his opinion of clothes in general.

“Clothes,” Grant replied, “are to cover one’s nakedness.”

“Oh brother,” I teased. “That sounds like something you read in Genesis.”

“Hardly,” Grant returned, “unless Whitney edited the Old Testament.”

Grant then went on to explain about his irrepressible grandpa and the unusual legacy which had become so important to him. Sensing his respect for Whitney, I toned down my kidding but raised the possibility that Whitney’s and Thoreau’s view might be a bit antiquated. “After all,” I pointed out, “in today’s society men and women are often initially measured by their appearance and by their clothing in particular.”

“But, Claire,” Grant remonstrated, “isn’t it our contemporary view of clothing that is really the primitive one? In an age of scientific inquiry, psychoanalysis, and critical sociology—all aimed at going beyond surface appearances—don’t you find it odd that we are still initially judging men and women by something so superficial as clothing?”

“I … I guess so,” I conceded, quickly changing the subject. Actually I was beginning to feel outnumbered. Grant, Whitney, and Thoreau combined were just too formidable for me to debate with.

As our courtship continued, I grew to love Grant’s sensitive and gentle ways and his great faith in the gospel. Eventually I even grew accustomed to hearing his grandfather’s common-sense aphorisms. It became clearer to me what a large influence Whitney had had in Grant’s life, and though I didn’t always see eye to eye with Whitney, I did find Grant too affable to resist. Ten months later we were married for time and eternity.

Our first six months of married life passed uneventfully. Each day brought new insights into marriage and a better understanding of each other. In fact, our only trial during our first half year was a common one—lack of money. This situation seemed to bother me more than it did Grant. He approached our financial needs with the same unwavering faith with which he approached non-fiscal matters.

It took me a while to understand Grant’s unconventional method of dealing with money, but it became clear to me one Saturday afternoon. Grant and I were living in a very small apartment not far from the university and close to an elementary school. This close proximity with the grade school brought a continuous flow of youngsters to our door selling everything from chocolate bars and Girl Scout calendars to newspaper subscriptions and raffle tickets—all pleading for our kind patronage of their various fund-raising activities.

My typical way of dealing with these kiddie crusaders was either to walk very slowly to the door after they knocked, hoping their youthful impatience would have prompted them on to the next door, or to briefly tell the child that I was sorry but we just couldn’t afford to buy anything right now. After all, that was the truth; and though I hated to see the youngster’s disappointment, I hated to see our checking account down to the danger level even more.

Grant, however, had an entirely different way of handling these situations. Whenever he answered a child’s knock he would listen intently to their memorized spiels, congratulate them on their salesmanship, and then buy one of whatever the child was selling. Seeing Grant’s pleasure in sending these children happily on their way helped me decide not to openly object to his soft-heartedness. Instead, I resolved to beat Grant to the door as often as possible and continue my practical method of handling the little solicitors.

One Saturday afternoon I heard a loud knock at the door. “Thank goodness Grant’s not home,” I thought as I slowly approached the door. Grant had managed to buy three chocolate bars, one box of lightbulbs, and one magazine subscription that week and I was determined to protect our remaining money with my life. Almost before I had opened the door the youthful solicitor began his sales pitch. The pitch was well-rehearsed and well-delivered. I was to have the opportunity of subscribing to the Weekly Herald and would consequently receive a free two-week subscription and at the same time supply this youth with the last subscription needed in order to win a trip for him and his family to Disneyland. For a moment I almost wavered, but quickly regaining my senses I told the boy that I was sorry but we couldn’t subscribe. Surprisingly, instead of turning away, the boy launched into his spiel again, this time emphasizing the low cost of the subscription. “I’m sorry,” I repeated, somewhat taken back, “but we just can’t afford to.” Then, as unbelievable as it seemed, the young boy began insisting that my family “could not deprive itself of the Weekly Herald no matter what the cost.”

“Well!” I thought. This persistence gimmick may have worked on others, but it isn’t going to work on me. I then invited the boy in and countered, “Take a look around you. See the stuffing falling out of these two chairs. See the three-legged couch. Do you think we’d be living under these conditions if we had money to spend on newspaper subscriptions?” The boy was obviously at a loss, and as he viewed our tiny living room’s humble furnishings he began to look quite sympathetic. As I opened the screen door and he walked down the driveway, I felt the exhilaration of victory.

Five minutes later Grant bounded through the front door with an unsettling grin on his face. “You look pleased with yourself,” I quipped, as he threw himself down on our balding shag-carpet.

“I am,” he returned. “I just met the cutest little kid with the most dynamic newspaper sales pitch you ever heard, and boy was he tickled when I bought his last subscription.”

“You didn’t,” I groaned, and then ignoring every principle I’d learned in my Family Relations classes, I pounced, “How could you, Grant? How could you?”

“How could I what?”

“Buy another worthless subscription just because some gabby child asked you to.”

“Oh,” Grant smiled. “I didn’t really care about the subscription—I just wanted the boy to be able to get to Disneyland.”

“Disneyland!” I gasped. “You’re helping some kid get to Disneyland when our checkbook shows a balance of $26.50?”

“Make that $19.5,” Grant chuckled.

“This is hardly a laughing matter!” I retorted. “I don’t enjoy being broke, yet I’m starting to realize that no matter how much money we make, you’ll find a way to give it away as fast as we earn it.”

Sensing that I was more serious about this matter than he had initially perceived, Grant crossed the room and pulled me down on the couch beside him.

“Claire,” he said. “I promise you we will never be broke or have to worry about money.” His earnestness and soothing voice calmed me. He continued. “I remember when I was first up at the university after my mission. My first few weeks were spent looking for a job—working on some way to meet my school and living expenses. Midway through the semester I realized that I wasn’t going to make it. I was studying and working and pinching every penny, but my money just didn’t stretch far enough. About this time I sat down one sad evening and began to look through Whitney’s journal, which had been gathering dust in my bedroom. Oddly enough I opened the book to a passage that seemed written just for me.”

“Just a minute,” Grant called as he ran back to our bedroom. “I want you to hear it in Whitney’s own words.” A minute later Grant emerged carrying Whitney’s journal. The entry read:

I’ve always found it interesting that so many good brethren spend their lives seeking, treasuring, and putting their trust in money, the one thing that the Savior and prophets have warned us not to be intent on. These good people jeopardize their earthly happiness and eternal salvation by being more concerned with economic laws than with God’s laws. Tithing, fast offerings, charity, and generosity don’t seem to make economic sense but they really are the keys to riches. Dwelling on money and counting your savings every day only generates worry. I propose we crown a new economic law. The “fish and bread” law I’ll call it. Freely give of your substance to those around you and your Eternal Father will see to it that your “basket” never empties.

“Beautiful homespun wisdom,” I agreed. “But can it work?”

“Well,” Grant concluded. “From that night on I realized money just wasn’t worth worrying about. I decided that if I had to leave the university and go to a smaller college nearer home, then that’s the way it would be; and I would make the most of my opportunities there. That night I began praying not for more money but for more opportunities to help those around me with the money I had. Two weeks later I received an unexpected scholarship from the department that covered all my tuition costs and included a monthly stipend. Since then, Whitney’s ‘bread and fish economics’ have kept me as rich as I’ve desired. Do you know how rich I feel to be married to you?”

The children’s laughter jarred me back to the present. “What memories this book prompts,” I sighed as I searched for that “fish and bread” entry. It took only a second to find. Over the years Grant had underlined the entry in red, blue, green, and black pen. May 26, 1963, was the date. St. Matthew and Whitney, the credited authors.

After checking on the children I situated myself in the more comfortable chair behind Grant’s desk. Whether it was the flood of memories these entries awakened or whether there was an unseen magnetism emanating from the journal, I can’t say; but I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I even began to regret that I had ever asked Grant to throw the journal away. “What a rash demand,” I thought. “And yet at the time it didn’t seem so rash. Maybe it was my youth, and yet. … Where is that entry anyway?”

As I gently leafed through the rest of the large and bulky journal, my eyes surveyed the pages. Entry after entry recalled memory upon memory. Emerson, Franklin, Goethe, Pratt, the thoughts and philosophies of so many great men lovingly interpreted and interpolated by their faithful student Whitney.

Finally I found it. It was on the second to the last page of the journal, cloistered between a few paragraphs on owning land and a short poem out of the Bhagavad Gita.

I quickly read the entry, a short quote by Socrates and some concluding comments by Whitney.

“Could I climb to the highest place in Athens, I would lift up my voice and proclaim, ‘Fellow citizens, why do ye turn and scrape every stone to gather wealth and take so little care of your children to whom one day you must relinquish it all?’”

The greatest legacy we can give a child is our time. Time to learn to know our children and for them to truly know us. Time to teach our children how to live instead of merely how to make a living. If it is wealth you feel you must leave your children, then leave them the wealth of the wisdom you have gained through the years. Remember:

“Seek not for riches, but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” D&C 6:7

November 4, 1963 Socrates, Joseph Smith & Whitney

I didn’t recall hearing the last two paragraphs. I must not have let Grant read them to me. At the time I was in my eighth month of pregnancy and was occasionally more emotional than rational. How vividly the memory came back to me. We had been married nearly two years and were anxiously awaiting the arrival of our first child.

Grant had completed his first year in the Master of Business Administration program. He was doing well in his classes and I felt my life was unwinding as it should—a good marriage, a child, and a husband in a profession where he could expect to earn a large salary within a few years. A nice upper-middle-class home with a pool and two-car garage danced in my dreams. Things couldn’t be going better. Then one evening:

“Claire, I need to talk to you about something.”

“Sure, honey,” I replied from the couch where I was elevating my swollen feet.

Grant continued. “I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the child we will soon be responsible for. I hope we’ll have several more children and that I will be the type of father to them that they deserve, as I’ve tried to be the type of husband you deserve. But something has been weighing on my mind lately, and I’m not sure how to broach the subject with you.”

“Is something wrong, Grant?” I asked anxiously.

“No, nothing is wrong; in fact, I feel like everything is starting to feel right—wait just a minute.” He sat down beside me and flipped through “The Eye of a Needle.” “Let me read you something.” Grant then proceeded to read Socrates’ comment on rearing children. “What do you think?” he asked.

“Sounds idealistic to me,” I said. “Why?”

“Well, Claire, I may as well get to the point. This last semester in the MBA program I’ve realized that certain of my needs just haven’t been met. I find certain parts of the program challenging but, on the whole, the content of the courses doesn’t excite me. I’ve realized my individual path toward fulfillment lies in a different academic direction.”

“Well, Grant, I hate to think we’ve wasted a year in the wrong program. Everyone else we know in the program seems very satisfied.”

“Actually, Claire, the year wasn’t wasted at all. I had to try the program to realize that my needs lay in a different direction. I’ve realized that the best way for me to be a good father and husband is to be happy with my occupation, and I think that I have hit on an occupation that Whitney, Socrates, and hopefully you will agree with me on. It’s an occupation in which I can read the greatest works of the world’s most talented men and women; I’ll be able to share these thoughts with others as well as with my family; and best of all, I’ll have a sizeable proportion of my time to spend with our children and with you. If you agree with me, I want to change from the MBA program to a graduate program in comparative literature.”

“What in the world can you do with a degree in comparative literature?” I flashed.

“Why, I could teach. In fact, if things work out as I’d like, I plan on getting a Ph.D. in the field.”

“Teaching?” I asked incredulously. “But, Grant, be practical; there’s no money in teaching.”

“Well, we may not become rich in the profession, but I am sure we could make a comfortable living. Remember Whitney’s ‘fish and bread economics.’ We’ve never been let down yet.”

“Whitney!” I exploded. “Whitney! This is all his fault. If you’d never started reading that stupid journal we’d be much better off.”

I then dramatized my frustration by awkwardly rising from the couch and defiantly storming out the front door. The cool night breeze felt soothing as I plopped down on the grass. It was a clear evening and the stars shone brilliantly as I gazed upward.

Fifteen minutes later the screen door squeaked and Grant sat down by my side. “Waiting for a deus ex machina?” he teased.

I ignored the comment, though interestingly enough Grant’s jest wasn’t far from the truth. I had been hoping, wishing, and praying that somehow Heavenly Father would remedy this confused situation. The Greek dramatists solved seemingly unsoluable problems by lowering one of their “gods” down from the “heavens” at the end of their plays. Right now, a visit by a heavenly messenger or the still but audible voice of the Spirit, even a rapturous burning in my bosom might have been sufficient to help me have a change of heart—to see things from Grant’s perspective—but no vision, no voice, no burning had occurred.

“Why did things have to become so confusing?” I thought. Everything I had counted on seemed suddenly to be fleeing from me. I had felt so secure with Grant in the MBA program. I could picture myself as the wife of a prosperous young business executive—not the wife of a struggling teacher. It had all seemed so right. But apparently it hadn’t been all right. Grant hadn’t been happy.

I glanced down where he lay beside me. He was systematically identifying the stars and constellations with unique adeptness. Whitney would be pleased. He had given all of his grandchildren backyard astronomy lessons and had instilled in them an atypical reverence for nature.

Atypical. That word seemed to describe Grant’s entire perspective. He was so unlike most of our friends. Granted, it was his uniqueness which had first attracted me to him, yet now it seemed to be placing a barrier between us. It was difficult for me to try to see things through his eyes. Our perspectives seemed so different.

Of course I wanted him to be happy. But oddly enough, Grant’s happiness was not tied to my dreams. An upper-middle-class home in a quaint suburb with one car in the garage, an expensive foreign import in the driveway, and a Carte Blanche card in the wallet meant nothing to Grant.

Looked at idealistically, teaching college sounded like a perfect profession, but during our undergraduate years Grant and I had both grown close to several professors, and we had seen them and their families working hard to make ends meet. Why didn’t Grant understand that in our consumer success-oriented society, teaching just wasn’t valued very highly?

I felt upset with myself. Why hadn’t I realized that Grant was different from the others in his program? When we would meet with several of these couples socially, Grant was often unusually quiet. Typically these conversations focused on current rates of inflation, or the difficulties in buying homes at the new mortgage rates, or the latest high-paying jobs their classmates had been offered. It now appeared obvious that Grant’s interests lay in a different direction. Books, learning, nature, music, family—his interests were clear. Our problem now centered on my interests and their direction.

One thing appeared certain.

“Grant … Grant!” He started suddenly. “Unfortunately I love you too much to ask you to spend the next forty years of your life in a profession that isn’t fulfilling for you. If comparative literature is the right field for you, then go at it wholeheartedly and I’ll try to support you as much as I can.”

Grant’s eyes brightened. His warm hand encircled my cold one.

“But I need to make one request.”

“Granted,” he assured me.

“Well, twenty-two years of dreaming about one particular lifestyle is not going to be forgotten in one evening. It’s going to be a long and difficult process for me, and I’ll need a great deal of help and understanding to share your dream. The thing I ask is that you assure me that this is your dream, your goal, not Whitney’s.”

“Don’t worry, Claire. This is me talking.”

“Sometimes I have difficulty knowing who is talking, Grant. I hear your voice but Whitney’s words. I’m afraid that Whitney has got to go. I can no longer deal with both of you. Can you understand my feelings?”

“Yes, honey,” he replied.

That night as we knelt beside our bed, I noticed “The Eye of the Needle” wasn’t in its usual place of honor on Grant’s nightstand. Nor could I locate it as I glanced at our bedroom bookshelves.

“Remarkable,” I now thought. “He’s managed to hide it from me these past seven years through several moves.” I realized that had we not recently converted the small spare bedroom into his study, the infamous journal might have remained hidden from me.

Seven years ago the journal had represented what I felt was a questionable influence on Grant, an influence that had pervaded his thoughts and actions and thus the direction of our life together. Now, with the journal resting in my hands, new questions arose: Had I been unfair in exiling Whitney? Had his backyard wisdom proven to be a detriment or a blessing? I smiled to myself as one of Grant’s favorite sayings came to mind: “Judge a tree by the fruit it bears.” Well, seven years later, and Whitney’s tree was still bearing. And the fruit—was it good to the taste?

Grant’s dream had been accomplished. He’d excelled in his graduate studies of comparative literature and received his Ph.D. five long years after he began the program. Now with my hindsight I looked back to those five years and surprised myself with the realization that, though difficult, those years had been happy.

I laughed. Practically speaking, they shouldn’t have been happy. We lived from paycheck to paycheck; we saw virtually all of our friends buying new homes and cars while we felt fortunate to be making rent payments and driving an old used two-door coupe.

There had been several periods when I regretted our decision. But those periods had been brief and always melted away when I juxtaposed them against Grant’s burning enthusiasm. In fact, Grant’s enthusiasm had proven so contagious that our entire lives were colored by it. I quickly learned to appreciate and admire the world literature that Grant studied. Our home became a place of lively discussion and discovery. Most of all, it became a place where Grant and I grew together as we learned together.

Upon the conferral of his Ph.D., Grant accepted a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. With his steady though modest income, we were able to purchase an old but spacious home. The two of us worked together to remodel it, and after two years, with Grant’s summers free, our home was really shaping up.

I laid the journal on Grant’s desk and moved to the window to check on the children. They had moved from the sandpile to the swing set, and our son was gently pushing his youngest sister in the swing.

Grant adored his children, and as a professor he was able to spend a good portion of his summers with his family. He was always playing with the children, reading to them, or trying to teach them a little backyard astronomy.

He always seemed to take great pleasure in his responsibility as a parent. He couldn’t understand why so many men put in long hours at their jobs, leaving their children’s rearing mainly to the mother.

In fact, Grant could change diapers faster than I could. He was an expert at bandaging knees and settling squabbles. Even when it came to housework, Grant shared the responsibility. And it was because of his encouragement that I take time for personal growth that I enrolled part-time in a program at the university.

I couldn’t have asked for a better husband or father for my children. But the question that the discovery of this journal provoked was “Could I have asked for a better provider?”

Though our life together was happy, there was no denying that we had not accumulated the wealth that many of our friends and neighbors had. But now as I pondered, it seemed clear to me that through the years, as the buying power of our friends increased, so had their desires. Analyzing our situation, I realized that Grant and I stayed content, not because our buying power had kept up with our desires, but because our desires weren’t based on our buying power. During our marriage I had learned that possessions and riches were not synonymous.

As I sat back down at Grant’s desk I flipped the journal open to the last page. My heart felt uncommonly full as I read the last entry in the “Eye of the Needle.”

If I could leave anything to my posterity, it would be the peace and contentment that I have come to know as I have practiced the principles in this journal.

“For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow. … And what is fear of need but need itself.”

October 11, 1969 Kahlil Gibran and Whitney

As I stood on the chair to return the journal to its place, the door bell rang. I hurriedly shoved the journal back on top of the shelves and then ran to answer the door.

“Hello, ma’am.”

A young, freckle-faced adolescent peered at me through the screen door.

“How would you like to help me win a trip to Catalina?”

“To Catalina?”

“All you need to do is order a subscription to the Times. It’s a great deal, eight weeks for the price of four. And you get it delivered to your front door. …”

A few weeks later our first edition of the Times arrived. When Grant asked me if I had ordered the subscription, I smiled. “Not me,” I said. “It must have been Whitney.”

[photos] Photography by Michael McConkie