Carol Shelton Walker: Lessons from Adversity


“We have within us everything we need to succeed,” says Carol Walker. “We came here with it; it was part of the package when we were born, a gift from God. The kind of success I think our Heavenly Father intended for us to have is to be continually striving to achieve better things.”

It would not be particularly easy to pick Carol out of a crowd. She is a pleasant, unassuming woman who smiles warmly, speaks softly, and wishes you would come to her home in Idaho for a visit. She is also a devoted Latter-day Saint, a contented wife, mother, grandmother—and a self-made millionaire. Her own life’s experiences have deepened her conviction that human potential is virtually unlimited.

Born in the tiny farming community of Zurich, Montana, Carol was one of eight children. “When I was in the first grade,” she recalls, “my father left the farm and became an insurance salesman. The next ten years of my life were spent moving from place to place.” For a young child, it was a rootless, insecure existence. “I was very shy—not the kind of little girl that the crowd drew in. With all my heart, I wanted to be likable.”

It was partly her longing “to feel a part of something” that turned Carol toward the Church. “At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I began really studying the scriptures, and the gospel became the most important thing in my life. I became so enthusiastic about what I was learning that I had a great desire to be a missionary.”

A patriarchal blessing provided comfort, identity, and direction. “In that blessing, for the first time it came through to me that I was truly one of God’s children. What that did for me is hard to describe, because for so many years I had felt like I never quite measured up. But when I was given this blessing, and the patriarch told me what a special spirit I was, how much Heavenly Father loved me, and what I was capable of doing, it was just like a revelation. All of a sudden I said to myself, ‘You are important; you are of precious worth.’ And that’s when I really began studying the scriptures and got very much involved with the Church. I began a study class with my friends, and we learned the missionary lessons.”

With new-found purpose, Carol exercised the devotion and perseverance which would later characterize her quest for happiness. “Eventually I prevailed upon the branch president, who prevailed upon the mission president, to let me go on a mission.” She was called to a mission within the mission, comparable to a stake mission today, often working with the full-time sister missionaries. “I was seventeen, and it was the greatest time of my life. I was able to open up a passage of communication with Heavenly Father; I could feel his Spirit, and I knew what was right and wrong. I felt tremendous warmth and love from my Father in Heaven.”

One of Carol’s missionary “prospects,” a young man who joined the Church, eventually became her husband. Ten years and three children later, his relationship with the Church and their marriage ended. “That was like the end of my life at that time,” she says. “I felt like my whole world had been crushed to the ground, that all my dreams, everything I had ever desired in life was wiped out, over. We had no assets—just a lot of debt. Here I was with three beautiful little girls, but nothing else.”

Months of severe depression followed. “I remember it was summer when I felt the worst,” says Carol, “and my daughter’s birthday was approaching. She wanted a bicycle, but it was a time of absolute poverty. I scrounged around and found her a used bicycle and set it up the evening before her birthday so that when she woke in the morning it would be there.

“I was lying awake feeling sorry for myself when my daughter came into my bedroom that morning. She had seen her bike and was so excited, so thrilled. She had come running in to wake me and give me her thanks. I lay there watching her, and I began to cry—from the sorrow of realizing that I was so numb I couldn’t even share her joy. It was the first time in half a year that any emotion had penetrated my retreat from the world.

“Once the floodgates were opened, I didn’t do anything but cry. It wasn’t long after this that my three girls tenderly came to me and said, ‘Why do you cry all the time, mommy? You’re never happy anymore. Don’t you love us? Don’t you want us? We love you.’

“It was at this point that I vowed I would not let them pay the price for my misfortune, that somehow I would find a way to provide for them, that they would not have to be victims of something they were not responsible for.”

Resolve soon became determination, and Carol began to sell insurance. The nature of the work gave her the flexibility she needed to be home with her children much of the time. “There was a sort of camaraderie among us,” she recalls. “We understood each other. And we took time to go places and do things together.”

Her three little girls, now in their twenties, look back on those days with the fondest of memories. Kristine, the youngest at twenty-one, remembers that “Fridays were really special when we were children, because we would all go out to dinner. And we used to go on trips; every summer we’d take two or three weeks and either drive to California or to Washington to visit relatives.” Adds Karen, twenty-three, “We all had our assignments at home, and we pulled together. On Saturdays we used to play games with mom. The one who lost would have to do the worst job, and on up the ladder among the four of us.”

Says Kathy, twenty-four, now married with a child of her own, “I can remember the hard times. But I also remember that even though we didn’t have much money, mom insisted we have music lessons, and that we have nice things in life. Karen and I used to take singing lessons; I took piano from the time I was seven years old, and that has been a great help to me. Kristine is really good on the guitar. Mom instilled in us the importance of practicing; I remember she would sit down with us when we practiced.

“She has always celebrated holidays with us,” adds Kathy, “and made things exciting and fun. I remember on the 24th of July we’d go to the park and have a big picnic lunch. Even when it was just her and the three of us girls, she would make our holidays joyful. She’s a mother who will sit down and play games with you, and read—I remember as a little girl her reading to us all the time. And even though she may have had business meetings at night, she would spend time with us in the evenings.”

Kristine emphasized that “I never felt like she didn’t love us. We would call her office, and even if the secretary had been told not to interrupt, we would get through; she never put us off if we needed to talk to her. A lot of my friends were a little envious of that; even though they had both parents at home, they didn’t have as good a relationship, it seemed. She has been a really stable influence in my life.”

With Carol’s increasing professional success came her own personal realization that “you can overcome, you can pick up your life and put it together.” For the next few years she set personal and financial goals, achieved them—and discovered some valuable lessons. “I grew to understand,” she says, “that we have within us everything we need to make a happy life. So I put that knowledge to work. It was like discovering a power that I had had an inkling of years earlier when I was doing missionary work, but had forgotten was there. Now it was taking on some exciting new dimensions.”

Her viewpoint today is one of intense gratitude for the tutelage of experience and adversity. “Maybe some persons have to be humbled,” she muses, “before they can reach in and find their own power to overcome adversity. I’m not sure what has to happen in each of our lives, but I am convinced that its discovery for many individuals is tied very closely to adversity. I guess many of us are never brought to the point where we say, ‘I’ve got to find something to save my soul, to save my life’—never to the depths of introspection where we have to look inside and realize that the power is within.”

Carol’s voice grows quieter, but more intense. “I really feel that the worst thing that can happen to us is to have great problems in life, great calamities—and then have someone come along and help us out of them too soon. We need to struggle first; then we’ll find the strength to stand.”

Carol’s developing business acumen eventually led her to real estate—an area which, like insurance, provided her with the flexibility needed to care for her family. She offers some valuable insights for the Latter-day Saint woman who finds herself in similar circumstances:

“I think that she should look for opportunities that combine being financially successful with rearing a family. Usually, the first thing a woman does is go out and look for a nine-to-five job—and that’s very confining, because you have to be there, you’re committed to it, and if there’s a problem at home and the children need you, you’ve got to choose between your job and your family. There are many opportunities today for women who must work that allow them the flexibility and the freedom to be a good mother and a good wife. In many instances it’s possible to be your own boss, set your own time schedule, name your own hours when you’ll be in and out of the home. It can be a tremendous opportunity.”

Through all the struggles, Carol has stayed close to the Church. “One thing that really stands out about my mother,” says daughter Kathy, “is her love of the Church. She has done what she felt was right and tried to be the best person she could; and no matter what happened in her life, she stayed close to the Church. Adds Kristine, “We were always active in the Church; she has encouraged and influenced us along those lines.”

Carol has filled various Church callings, particularly enjoying Relief Society assignments as counselor in a presidency and as Social Relations and Cultural Refinement instructor. “Currently, I’m working as the compassionate service leader and a visiting teaching supervisor—and that has been a rewarding experience, because it’s made me aware of how important it is that every sister be visited, that every sister have a friend. I think that’s the heart of the gospel—that no one goes unnoticed, no one’s needs go unmet when they can be met through fellowshipping and friendshipping.”

Added to Church involvement has been a spirit of generosity. “She has continually taken people into our home,” recalls Kristine, “unwed mothers, foreign students, and even people she didn’t know too well. She just knew that somebody needed a place to stay or a little help. We’ve learned to get along with all different kinds of people.”

The differences seem to make life more worthwhile for Carol. She describes one of the things she would like to accomplish more than anything else as helping individuals to discover their own potential. “We have had several unwed mothers living in our home,” she reflects, “and it is a joy to be able to share with them concepts that they can take hold of, and help them see that this isn’t the end for them—it can be a beginning. I love to use the experience that I’ve gained to help other—to help young girls and married women who find themselves alone or in unhappy situations to realize how much they can do to make for themselves a good life.”

Carol participates frequently in Relief Society conferences, and her counsel is invariably two-pronged: stay close to Heavenly Father, and understand and realize your great potential. “We keep hearing all our lives,” she says, “to stay close to the gospel. But it’s true. When we are trying to survive emotionally and financially, if we leave out the spiritual side of life, we lose the Spirit. And when we lose that companionship, we really have a void in our lives. We have to let our Heavenly Father guide us, look for his inspiration—and then be willing to accept it when it comes. It’s something you work at. I had to pay the price—and the price is that you put your life in order. The wonderful thing about the gospel is that it’s never too late.”

Five years ago Carol married Gene Walker, a chemical analyst who speaks of his wife with quiet pride and obvious admiration. “She is very astute as to what is going on and how people feel inside, and she puts forth extra effort to try to make people happy.”

For Carol, life with Gene “just gets better every year.” They are the parents of a three-year-old daughter and have recently adopted two boys, ages six and four.

The despair of former difficult times and the sweetness of victory over adversity have deepened her faith. “I know,” she affirms with quiet intensity, “that there isn’t anything in my life now that I couldn’t overcome. That’s a comforting feeling. I have never been happier in my life than I am now; I have a good husband, a good family, and I don’t have to worry about material things.

“I’ve occasionally thought, ‘What if it were all gone?’ And then I know that if it were all gone, I could still make it. Sure, I would go through pain; but it would never again level me to the emotional degree I experienced earlier in my life, because no matter what happens, there are two things I know. The first is that I could start over. If I lost everything—my husband, my children, my business, my home, all my possessions—I could start over. And second, I know that material things really aren’t of much value, anyway.

“It isn’t so much what we acquire and what we do as it is that we grow. The important things are gospel-centered—the realization that we have a divine inheritance, that we can become like God and can continue to grow. We have been taught, and I believe it is true, that what we have here is nothing compared to what we can have in eternity if we live worthily.”

Carol’s challenges have shifted now from business involvements to a lively band of youngsters. “I’ve got a whole new family to rear, to start all over again.

“And,” she smiles, “there’s the challenge of doing that in our later years; after all, Gene and I are going to be in our mid-sixties when those children are teenagers. What an adventure we have ahead of us!”

Carol’s optimism is contagious. “One of the things I admire most about my mother,” says daughter Karen, “is that she doesn’t think anything is impossible. She believes in herself; she believes in others; she believes that everyone has the capacity to find a joyful, productive life.”

“To me,” says Carol Walker, “life is never without some mountain to climb. Real happiness comes when we see the horizons in front of us, and reach for them.”

[photo] Photography by Jon T. Lockwood

[photo] In this recent photograph, Sister Walker helps her young children with music practice.