Lew and His Brethren


Lew Olsen. His warm smiles came as swiftly as the warm memories come now. He stood as tall and straight as a fir tree and yet was as gentle as the warm north wind of an Oregon summer. Lew was my teachers quorum advisor, and, for a while, my priests quorum advisor.

Just after most of us boys turned sixteen, our first priests quorum advisor moved. It was then that Lew told us he’d asked the bishop if he also could “graduate” into our quorum since we’d be needing a new advisor.

He mentioned that to us his first Sunday in the priests class. Lew liked us. He really liked us. In our own eyes we didn’t consider ourselves to be up to much—half a dozen Aaronic Priesthood holders, with a wide range of personalities, most of us struggling to find ourselves, and, along the way, to find a testimony. Lew helped us to find both. It began with a word back in teachers quorum.

“Brethren” is what he called us, a simple term, maybe a little overworked at times. At first we were a little uncomfortable at being called that so much, but not for long—because Lew showed us in so many ways that we were indeed his brethren.

Fifteen years ago, Lew sat with us in the back of a chartered bus as we and other youths from our stake made our way home along a dark, winding road after watching a basketball game between BYU and Oregon State. Lew entertained us all the way there and all the way back. Stories from the mission field, stories from the athletic field, wisecracks and wisdom—these he parceled out in equal doses as the light of the bus blazed away at every turn of the road. To this day I don’t remember who won the game. But I remember that night with Lew. That is the only thing that really mattered.

Lew never was much of a golfer, but it didn’t keep him from trying. He loved to stop by the homes of a couple of us on his day off and haul us to the nearest course for nine holes.

On the basketball court with his “brethren” Lew played what he called “stationary forward,” meaning that he stood under one basket the whole time. No need to break a sweat by running up and down the court, he explained. A heart only has so many beats.

But it wasn’t just games with Lew that made him so memorable. My definition of the oath and covenant of the priesthood is almost word for word what Lew taught us one morning in teachers quorum. His other lessons took hold too—especially lessons about ourselves. Confidence was hard to come by back then, and Lew knew it. So he told us how he met his wife.

“I saw her walking into a fireside arm-in-arm with a friend. And brethren,” Lew announced, “I said to myself, ‘That’s the girl for me.’ And I made her my girl.”

Boasting? Not at all. Lew was only telling us a little something about confidence, something for us to remember. And it stuck.

Lew played the piano, although playing isn’t really an adequate description. He was more than a pianist, he was an excellent one. At a sacrament meeting one sultry summer day, the bishop announced that Lew Olsen would play a piano solo. Lew calmly walked up to the piano and played a stunning rendition of “O How Lovely Was the Morning” that touched us all. A member of the stake presidency who spoke next commented that with all the classical pieces Lew could have played, he instead chose a beautiful Mormon hymn.

Afterward, when we mentioned something about his solo and the speaker’s comment, Lew laughingly confessed, “I appreciated the compliment, but the truth of the matter is that I’d forgotten I was supposed to play. That was the first song I looked at when I opened the hymn book.”

Lew’s honesty with himself made it easier for us to be honest with ourselves and others.

Time sooner or later separates us all here on the earth—families, the best of friends. And, yes, even Lew and his brethren. He moved from the ward, and we grew up.

Some of us went on to college and missions; all of us got married. Ten years passed.

In 1979 while attending a regional dance festival, in Portland, Oregon, I noticed that the program listed Lew Olsen as the music conductor. Immediately I made a hurried and jumbled explanation to my wife, jumped from my chair, and almost ran to the area where the choir was seated, my eyes fixed on a familiar figure, his back turned. Just before he started conducting the choir in the opening number, I tapped him on the arm. He turned, and a smile from ear to ear broke across his face. He shook my hand and put his other arm around my shoulder, just as he did when I was fourteen years old. While ten thousand people waited for the opening song, Lew took time to say hello to a longtime friend. For a moment, I was an Aaronic priesthood bearer again, talking to my quorum advisor.

Lew really liked us.

A short time later someone called to tell me that Lew was seriously ill—things didn’t look too hopeful. I was asked to fast for him. I wish I could have done more.

How can it be, I thought: he’s not even forty years old. He has a wife and five children—and so much talent. Why? Why?

Four weeks later, Lew was gone. The night I heard the news I lay sleepless, thoughts running through my head in a long cluttered stream. Attempts at answers ended in a mere stutter, continually failing as the steely gray clouds to the east began to show the first signs of dawn. Lew not only really liked us—he really loved us was the thought I held onto.

Then, finally, another thought came to me; and as it came the intense, cutting emotions drained away and I fell into a peaceful sleep. Others also loved Lew. And they were warmly welcoming him home again.

[illustration] Illustrated by Barbara Bailey

Donald S. Smurthwaite, an employee of the United States Bureau of Land Management, has recently moved from Portland to Eugene, Oregon.