Dwan J. Young: Primarily Devoted to Children


Large windows give an open, airy feeling to the spacious office. Flowers, both real and silk, and live plants provide colorful accents.

But the immediate center of attention is a three by five-foot portrait on the wall. It depicts ten colorfully dressed children of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds radiating an artless innocence and infectious joy.

“It reminds me of what my calling is all about—children,” Dwan Young explains simply.

Concern for the 800,000-plus children who make up the Primary’s membership seems to come easily to Sister Young, now in her sixth year as president of the world’s largest organization for children.

“The purpose of the Primary is to assist parents in teaching children the gospel of Jesus Christ and then helping them learn to live it. I have been able to visit in many countries and visit many Primaries. I heard ‘Dare to Do Right’ in Spanish when I attended a Los Angeles Children’s Sacrament Meeting Presentation, and the children sang with such gusto! I prayed that they understood what they were singing, and that they would have the courage to do right.”

Dwan Young seems diminutive, dainty, almost shy. But her demeanor changes when the topic is children. Her eyes sparkle, and a smile animates her face. She seems filled with a spontaneous excitement that plays across her features like light on water.

Recently she visited a class of ten- and eleven-year-olds in the Lima Third Ward Primary, Lima, Peru. “I was excited to see that each child had his scriptures there and was busily looking up and reading the references the teacher had written on the board,” she recalls.

“The new Primary curriculum is the best the Church has ever had. As a result, we are developing a stronger generation of children who are more confident in using the scriptures and more knowledgeable in the gospel.”

Sister Young’s feelings about children are mirrored in their reactions to her. “I’ve never seen a child who wasn’t immediately attracted to Dwan,” says her husband, Tom. “They sense her warmth and sincerity. There are no barriers between them.”

Once Tom took Dwan on a business trip through southern Mexico. In one village, their bus stopped at the only gas station for miles around. The twenty-five or so American tourists aboard climbed stiffly down, interested in finding cold sodas and shade.

A group of curious children collected, watching the visitors from a wary distance. Sister Young, soda forgotten, tried to communicate with the barefoot youngsters, and they soon clustered around her, talking excitedly. Although she speaks a little Spanish, the children spoke only Mayan. She finally found a boy about ten years old who could understand her. She had one request—Could he get the children to sing together?

Tom says that he will never forget the picture of his wife, sitting in the midday heat of that little Mexican village, surrounded by singing children.

Habits of commitment and service began molding Dwan Young’s life in her earliest years. She was born in Salt Lake City to A. Clifton and Vauna Jacobsen, “both extremely giving people, always thinking about others,” she remembers. “My father, a bishop for thirteen years, was a grocer by trade and was always doing good things for people. He died recently at age eighty-three, and the day before he died he was cutting the lawn of one neighbor and fixing the plumbing of another. All my life my parents have been examples of Christlike love.”

As soon as Dwan was old enough, she began helping her parents in the family grocery store. She was eventually promoted to stocking shelves, and finally to running the cash register.

Her musical talent became evident while she was still in junior high school. She played the piano for a dance teacher and soon began giving piano lessons as well, which allowed her to spend much time observing and working with children. She paid her way through the University of Utah working for the music department.

It was at a dance at the old Saltair resort on the shore of the Great Salt Lake that a trumpet player in the band inveigled an introduction to the pretty young music teacher. “I couldn’t get her out of my mind,” says Tom Young. The pair courted and then married after he served a mission.

Sister Young forsook the classroom to care for and teach her own children. Music had an important role in their lives; each child learned to play various musical instruments. Time was often spent around the piano or in the family room, where Tom and the little Youngs played trumpet quartets.

“My mother spent many hours teaching me to play the piano,” remembers son Michael. “Although I was not a very dutiful student, I developed a lifelong love for music because of her efforts.”

During the twenty years Sister Young devoted to raising her five children, she continued teaching piano lessons and was involved in community and Church work. She held a variety of short-term Church callings in organizations ranging from the Relief Society stake board to Cub Scouting, from Young Women to the Primary.

“I would only be in a position for about a year and a half to two years,” she remembers. “I would just start feeling that I knew what I was supposed to do, and then I would be called to something else. I kept saying to myself, ‘I’d like to stay somewhere long enough that I felt I could really make a difference.’ It was frustrating.”

Later, during her ten years of service on the Primary General Board, she realized that “there had been purpose in all my experiences in many different areas.”

Though she is busy as Primary president, her family is still her top priority. When her telephone rings in the middle of an important meeting, “that must be family,” she says, because she has let her staff know that she is always accessible to a family member.

Dwan Young was called to her present position on the same day her oldest daughter, Christine, gave birth to her first child. As Sister Young visited with her daughter in her hospital room, she gave no hint of the momentous interview with President Spencer W. Kimball only hours before; in fact, it was several weeks before she broke the news to Christine and her husband. “She didn’t want to overshadow the special event in our lives, the birth of our first child,” Christine explains.

Jeff, now on a mission in Osaka, Japan, remembers one day when she had “a big, regional meeting in Provo. It started at eight and she was gone by the time I got up. I made my way to the kitchen. The table was set. A cup of sliced fruit sat waiting for me, and warming in the oven was a sweet roll. I can count on one hand the times I was left to figure out a meal by myself.

“My mother is the most patient, thoughtful, submissive, charitable person I know. I see her on TV or in magazines, and she’s all they say she is. But she could never be anything better than just my ‘Mom.’”

The extended family, which now includes in-laws and grandchildren, meets together at Grandma Young’s each Sunday when she is in town. They also frequently enjoy such activities as snow skiing, tennis, hiking, and water-skiing on Bear Lake, which straddles the Utah-Idaho border.

“Even though Mom has been able to water ski on one ski for years, she is always nervous just before the boat pulls out for another ride,” says Jeff. “When she gets up on one ski, as she does every time, you should see her face and hear her gleeful screams from the end of the rope. We enjoy that.”

These days Sister Young doesn’t have as much time to spend with her grandchildren as she would like, and the piano in her living room stands silent most of the time. An accomplished pianist, she misses the time she used to spend with music before her call.

For now, the Primary, which demands center stage in her life, takes her to every corner of the world. In Bolivia or Japan, Brazil or Norway, Sister Young devotes long hours to local Primary leaders, leaving in her wake inspiration, increased understanding, and, always, love.

“Dwan doesn’t go into a situation with a lot of preconceived ideas and solutions,” remarks Virginia Cannon, Sister Young’s first counselor. “She first spends time listening and developing an understanding, not only of the problems, but of the people as well. Once, in meeting with some secular Boy Scout leaders in New Zealand, it was obvious they weren’t anxious to integrate our program into theirs. But Dwan’s cheerfulness and willingness to see the situation through their eyes turned the meeting around. Soon the group was searching for ways to make the programs work together.”

Although the opportunity to meet with leaders all over the world is one of Dwan’s greatest delights, the amount of travel necessary creates obstacles. Her husband is the president of an electric sign company and does business in several western states. When they had children at home, the Youngs tried to arrange their schedules so one parent would be there while the other was away. Now, with the children gone, the pressures at home are eased. As much as possible Tom and Dwan Young arrange for their travel to coincide, so they will be home together.

Often that travel has been by the company’s private plane, piloted by Tom. “I took a pinch-hitter course in flying, at Tom’s suggestion,” Sister Young says with a smile. “I have taken ground school and can do everything but a controlled crash landing. I can keep the plane in the air, but I’m not sure I could get it on the ground yet.”

Sister Young’s enthusiasm and capacity for hard work is near legendary in her family. “She tackles anything that confronts her,” states daughter Suzanne. “She’s so active she wears me out.” Paul, her second son, says she is “the hardest worker I know—in church work or anything else.” Her husband describes her as “more than conscientious.”

That doesn’t mean the family hasn’t had to make some adjustments. For one thing, Tom has taken over a larger share of the household duties. He has found that he enjoys being in the kitchen, although he explains that he has learned to cook everything in a wok so he only has one pan to wash. “You should see him cooking pancakes in the wok,” his wife says.

At the center of her life—whether at home or at the Church Office Building—is the Savior. It’s reflected in her love of children, her unpretentious concern for the welfare of others, her joy in putting the gospel to work at home.

Dwan J. Young

“I’ve never seen a child who wasn’t immediately attracted to Dwan,” says her husband, Tom. (Photography by John Snyder.)

“It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are,” she says. “You can have a gospel-centered home if you really want to.”

Encouraging the idea of gospel-centered homes is an important part of her work as Primary general president, she feels. “Primary is a wonderful resource, but the real key to gospel-centered children is gospel-centered homes. We hope parents use the Primary to that end.”

Sister Young says the responsibilities and demands of her calling can be almost overwhelming at times. But she has found sources of strength. “I have become more reliant upon the Lord than I have ever been in my life. I feel more of a responsibility to study the scriptures, to be in tune, and to put my life in order so that I will be worthy to receive the inspiration and guidance that I need.

“And as I have served the Lord, I have been thrilled to my inner being by the pure faith and love of little children. They have a spirit that can touch hearts in a unique way. I know, because time and time again their spirit has touched me.”

[photo] Photography by John Snyder

[photos] With granddaughter Laura (top); a young Dwan Jacobsen, about age 16 (bottom).

[photos] (Left) Sister Young enjoys being with her grandchildren as much as they like being with her; (center) Tom and Dwan Young on their wedding day, 22 June 1951; (right) with son Michael on his first Christmas.

Janet Peterson, a free-lance writer, serves as a Cub Scout leader in her Sandy, Utah, ward.