Elder Boyd K. Packer: Disciple of the Master Teacher


Elder Boyd K. Packer

Elder Packer has been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since 1970. (Photo courtesy of Busath Photography.)

The brass knocker on the door is in the form of a yoked ox. Visitors who lift the bow of the yoke to tap on the door may notice two sets of initials underneath, one on each side of the bow—“I.W.P.” and “E.J.P.”—for Ira Wight Packer and Emma Jensen Packer.

You can find an identical brass knocker on the front door of each of the children of Ira and Emma Packer, and on the doors of many of their grandchildren. This one happens to be on the home of Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve, who carved the wooden original from which the brass ornaments were patterned.

It is important to understand this family emblem in order to understand some of the influences that have shaped the man who carved it. Sister Donna Packer can provide the guest with a parchment sheet bearing a picture of the emblem and an explanation of its origin and symbolic meaning.

In 1947, to mark the centennial of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, a “wagon train” of cars reenacted the trek. The travelers met in Nauvoo, Illinois, and then followed the pioneer route to Salt Lake City. Like other drivers in the caravan, Ira Packer had rigged a cloth wagon top over the roof of his car and attached a plywood ox on each front fender. With his children gathered to see their father and mother off on the trip, Ira took a paint brush and “branded” the two oxen, painting “I.W.P.” on one and “E.J.P” on the other. They represented, he said, “the best team that ever pulled together in this life.”

There is more to the story of the brass door ornament, however, than the bond that existed between Ira and Emma Packer. The yoked ox, the parchment sheet explains, symbolizes the faith and dedication that is the strength of the Packers and their ancestors, and the team of oxen represents the pulling together of the family. The symbol also represents a reminder that children be taught, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (See Matt. 11:29–30.)

Elder Packer’s ancestors (like those of his wife) were pioneer Latter-day Saints. But the timing of his ancestors’ arrival in Utah is not so important as the values they taught their descendants. The qualities of character symbolized in that yoked ox emblem suggest much about Boyd Kenneth Packer.

He was born 10 September 1924 in Brigham City, Utah, the fifth son and tenth child in the family. His early years were spent in a two-story home on South Main Street, but when he was twelve his family moved into an apartment in the Packer Motor Company building. His father, a skilled, industrious mechanic, struggled for many years building the business of his garage, and later the motor company.

“Sometimes in my growing years I thought we were poor,” Elder Packer would write later in a short life history. “I later learned that that was not true. We just didn’t have any money. We were always rich in the things most significant in our lives.”

From his early years, he showed a love of the out-of-doors, and of nature. Usually there was some kind of pet around while he was growing up. He had a particular fondness for birds. Mounted in his book of remembrance is a drawing of a bird that won a prize at the Utah State Fair when he was a boy.

That fondness for birds has persisted. Across the driveway from the Packers’ front door is an enclosure containing live birds ranging from peacocks to golden pheasants to pigeons. Inside the house, his carefully detailed carvings of birds, painted in natural colors, catch the visitor’s eye. The carvings display not only a sensitivity to the creatures, but a reverence for the artistry of the Creator.

Elder Boyd K. Packer

With what little spare time he has, Elder Packer may take up to a year to produce one of his delicate bird carvings. (Photography by Michael M. McConkie and Jed A. Clark.)

Each of the carvings takes about a year for Elder Packer to produce, using what little spare time he may have. Elder Packer also enjoys painting and sculpture. But there was little time for these activities until recent years, for being a father always came first. From his youth, it seems, he has kept eternal goals in view.

Young manhood came to Boyd Packer about the time World War II began. After graduation from high school, he worked for a time on construction of an army hospital in his hometown. Like many young LDS men of his generation, he was unable to serve a proselyting mission because of the war. In the spring of 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Force, graduating as a pilot the following year, a few days before his twentieth birthday. He was then trained to fly bombers and ordered to the Pacific Theater. He was stationed in Japan for nearly a year after the end of the war.

From the experiences of war and its aftermath, he drew lessons of peace which have on occasion been recalled as he has taught the Saints. Once, in a general conference talk, he reflected on being guided as a pilot by the signal from a radio beacon. Sometimes amid storms pilots had to listen very closely to hear the signal. “There is a spiritual beam, with a constant signal,” he counseled. “If you know how to pray and how to listen, spiritually listen, you may move through life, through clear weather, through storms, through wars, through peace, and be all right.” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 21.)

While in the military, he found ample opportunity to study the scriptures. He read the Book of Mormon several times; today he refers to the book as “the single most powerful influence in my life.” In the spirit of the book, he also found time to engage, along with other LDS servicemen, in preaching the gospel of peace to the Japanese. Among those who learned of the gospel from servicemen were Tatsui Sato and his wife Chio. When the time came for their baptism, it was Boyd Packer’s privilege to perform the ordinance for Sister Sato. C. Elliot Richards, now a physician in Salt Lake City baptized Brother Sato. Later, Brother Sato’s translation work would make it possible for many Japanese to enjoy the scriptures and the temple ceremonies in their own language.

Boyd Packer returned home in 1946 and enrolled at Weber (now Weber State) College, in nearby Ogden. It was there he met Donna Edith Smith, also from Brigham City. They were married 27 July 1947 in the Logan Temple.

They would become the parents of ten children: Allan, Kenneth, David, Laurel, Russell, Spencer, Gayle, Kathleen, Lawrence, and Eldon.

It was Brother Packer’s goal to be a teacher, and he pursued that dream. He received an associate degree from Weber in 1948 and a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University in Logan in 1949. He would later receive a master’s degree from Utah State, in 1953, and a doctor of education degree from Brigham Young University, in 1962.

Those were busy years. In addition to functioning in local church callings—teacher, assistant stake clerk, high councilor—he began teaching seminary in 1949. The old army hospital in Brigham City which he had helped build was turned into a federally run school for Indian students, and from 1949 until mid-1955 the young seminary teacher served as Coordinator of Indian Affairs in connection with the school for the Church Educational System. In that role, it was his opportunity to work frequently with Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve.

During this same period, he served a four-year term as a city councilman in Brigham City. In this, too, there were lessons to be drawn from life. Experiences in local government taught him (and the impressions would be confirmed in later Church service) that many people are willing to pass judgment on the actions of those leading an organization without access to the knowledge (or spiritual influence) that shaped their decisions. In a 1979 conference talk, he cautioned against that error, and affirmed:

“Stand steady. Keep your faith. I bear witness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. God lives and directs this work. The Church is on the right course. It is on schedule. And I bear witness that it is righteously led by a prophet of God.” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 81.)

In 1955, Boyd Packer was appointed an assistant administrator of seminaries and institutes in the Church Educational System, and the position made it necessary to move his family south the following year, to Lindon, a small community near Brigham Young University. He served in that administrative position until October 1961, when he was called as an Assistant to the Twelve. He was sustained to the Council of the Twelve in April of 1970.

With a growing family, growing responsibilities, and continuing education, those early years of marriage were very full. How was he able to do so much?

Elder Packer and his wife, Donna

Elder Packer credits his wife, Donna, with much of his success because of her strengths as a companion. (Photography by Michael M. McConkie and Jed A. Clark.)

“All of that can be explained in two words: my wife,” Elder Packer says. “She’s perfect. And,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m on Church property when I say that, so I have to tell the truth.” The word “perfect” is mentioned frequently when he talks about his wife.

She smiles at the description. “He says that so I’ll try to improve myself,” she explains.

It becomes quickly obvious, however, that Donna Packer is a very accomplished woman—skilled homemaker, talented church worker, genealogical researcher. She is currently writing a book on the Packer genealogy, and her corner of the family room is filled with file cabinets and shelves where her materials are stored. These are the accumulation of years, built slowly at first while her children were small, but growing more rapidly as she is able to devote more time to the project.

When he was starting out as a seminary teacher, Brother Packer made the acquaintance of a young ex-Marine who was also teaching in the seminary—A. Theodore Tuttle, now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. It has been an enduring friendship. In a foreword to Elder Packer’s book Teach Ye Diligently (illustrated, incidentally, by the author; the cover includes a painting of some of the Packer children), Elder Tuttle wrote: “There is one source of inspiration available to Elder Packer that is not available to anyone else. That is Donna. … She is the one who has borne their ten children—and borne much of the responsibility of rearing them, due to his call as ‘special witness.’ She it is who is his friend, his sweetheart, his quiet support.” (In Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975, pp. viii–ix.)

In Donna Packer’s case, “quiet support” does not mean passivity. She is a dynamic woman. “She’s a great and powerful motivating influence,” Elder Packer comments.

Sister Packer recalls a story her husband has used in teaching. It was an experience they had when they attended a fair in New England while he was serving as mission president there several years ago. They watched as a smaller pair of oxen, complementing each other and working perfectly in tandem, bested much larger, less well-matched teams in a pulling competition.

Theirs is that kind of relationship. On family matters, they seem almost to speak as one mind. Elder Packer says this facility has developed as they have grown together through their marriage. His wife notes also that they agree because they have taken pains to plan unitedly, far in advance, to meet their children’s needs and help each one of them develop his or her talents with educational opportunities suited to the individual.

Their home, for example, sits on a large wooded lot where they could have farm animals and pets and the children could have chores to do. Each of the children was given the opportunity to develop musical abilities, as well as other special interests—electronics, sewing, drawing, mechanics—as these became apparent. The home is a showcase of items made by family members. To one side of the house is a workshop where parents or children could spread out projects and take the time needed to finish them. Currently it houses the 1940 tractor Eldon, a junior in high school, bought from a neighbor and restored to good running order.

All but two of the Packers’ married children—and thirty of their thirty-seven grandchildren—live within an hour’s drive. The children visit their parents frequently. (At Elder and Sister Packer’s urging, their married children also try to participate often in activities with their spouses’ families.) Sister Packer takes the lead in planning an annual summer reunion for their family; she gives it a theme dealing with one or another of the Packer ancestors and that person’s occupation or activities.

While the children were growing up, their home life revolved in many ways around their mother. She had to help motivate them and had to speak for the parental team when her husband was away in connection with Church service. But always the children have known that his support was with her and with them.

“I have tried I have earnestly tried when I have been home with the children to be with the children,” Elder Packer says. That meant spending a little time with each one each day, where possible.

Allan Packer says his father deliberately made himself available in the home to take advantage of every opportunity to teach. Elder Packer’s children still turn to him for counsel.

“He is our patriarch,” Allan comments. “He’s still a father, and that’s his number one priority.”

Laurel Packer Dillman says her father has always seemed very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. When she was a student at BYU, “I remember that he would always call me on the days when I was having the roughest times.” A word of counsel or encouragement would help her through it.

She remembers particularly the fun of working together as a family. Helping each other has become a Boyd Packer family tradition, whether it has meant pitching in to help a teen-aged Laurel make party favors for a Church activity or gathering at one of the children’s home to help add a room. Elder Packer’s enjoyment of work seems to be augmented by sharing it with one or more of his children or, frequently now, his grandchildren.

“Most of the serious talks that we have had have been when we were working,” Kenneth Packer says, recalling his father’s counsel.

“I really believe that a lot of Dad’s success comes from the love of a woman that supports and sustains him, and frees him to fulfill his ecclesiastical duties,” Kenneth reflects. He adds that he and his brothers and sisters are also able to offer support to their father’s ministry. “I try to live my life, and direct my family’s life, and raise my children so that Dad doesn’t have to worry about whether I’m living the gospel.”

A few years ago, Elder Packer spoke publicly in general conference to his children and grandchildren about the legacy he would like to leave them, expressing the hope that his talk “may help someone else” as well. He took pains to point out that though their lineage runs “to the stately manor houses of England,” it also “runs to the poorhouse in Pullham, Norfolk”—and that neither of those origins is a determinant of success or happiness in life.

“We want our children and their children to know that the choice in life is not between fame and obscurity, nor is the choice between wealth and poverty. The choice is between good and evil. …

“When we finally understand this lesson, thereafter our happiness will not be determined by material things. We may be happy without them or successful in spite of them. …

“I may see you go the full distance of mortality without becoming either well-known or wealthy. I can see myself falling to my knees to thank a generous God that my prayers have been answered, that you have succeeded, that you are truly happy.

“We now move into an uncertain future. But we are not uncertain. Children, bear testimony, build Zion. Then you will find true success, complete happiness.” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, pp. 21–22.)

Elder Tuttle commented that his friend Boyd Packer “understands the principles of teaching and their practical application as the Savior taught.” (Teach Ye Diligently, p. ix.) But the great, simple sermons Elder Packer delivers in conference do not necessarily come easily. On one side of the Packer family room—the side that faces his son Allan’s home, across a small creek—is a computer where Elder Packer frequently writes. “Very seldom do I wake up that I don’t look over and see their lights on,” Allan says. His father has “learned to take advantage of the early morning hours, when the mind is clear.”

Elder Packer’s addresses cover a broad range of subjects. Allan comments that his father does his “homework” well, consulting with experts and blending his spiritual insights with the knowledge gained. “He’ll spend tens, dozens, of hours on his talks.”

But there are contributions Church members in general never see.

“Elder Packer is very much a teacher,” says Elder James E. Faust of the Council of the Twelve. “While all of the Twelve are teachers, he’s a teacher in the Twelve.” As a senior member of the Quorum, he offers instruction and approaches decisions with deep insight into their possible effects on the Church and its people, Elder Faust explains.

He adds that Elder Packer’s love of and use of the scriptures in his leadership role has influenced the direction of the entire Church.

Often, says Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve, when the Quorum is weighing a problem, Elder Packer will search his mind for relevant teachings from the Book of Mormon and apply them to the discussion.

The Book of Mormon has had a profound effect on Boyd Packer’s life. “Without the Book of Mormon, Elder Packer couldn’t be the prophet he is,” Elder Nelson comments. “He is a gifted seer.”

His teaching from the scriptures is characterized by “deep comprehension,” Elder Nelson adds. “No one has plumbed the depths of this man.”

As a group, members of the Twelve are capable of bringing great individual strengths and abilities to bear on their collective responsibilities—and then bending their wills to divine direction, in unanimity. It is a unique experience, Elder Packer says.

“We share something that no other men on earth share. We’re all individual, and we’re all resolute, but we’re all one.”

Nevertheless, as individuals, each puts into the Master’s service the sum of what life and the Spirit have taught. Through the years, Elder Packer has drawn on his own experiences again and again, turning them into parables and memorable teaching moments.

The Book of Mormon and Elder Packer

The Book of Mormon has had a profound effect on Elder Packer’s life.

Some themes seem to be heard frequently in his teaching—the importance of listening to the voice of the Spirit, the plan of life and salvation, missionary work, supporting the Lord’s chosen leaders, obedience as the key to happiness. But there is one theme that is constant: the sure witness it is his calling, his privilege to give.

In a 1977 general conference talk titled “The Mediator” (Ensign, May 1977, p. 56), he reviewed the pivotal role of Christ in the redemption of mankind, then added:

“I have carried with me a great desire to bear testimony of the Lord, Jesus Christ. I have yearned to tell you, in as simple terms as I can, what He did, and who He is.

“Although I know how poor mere words can be, I also know that such feelings are often carried by the Spirit, even without words.

“At times I struggle under the burden of imperfections. Nevertheless, because I know that He lives, there is a supreme recurring happiness and joy.”

And after his talk to young people about being guided as a pilot by that radio beam, he added: “You can come to know, as many of us come to know, and as I bear witness, that the Lord lives. I know His voice when He speaks.”

[photos] Sixteen-year-old Boyd K. Packer (left) grew up in Brigham City, Utah. Like many other young men of his generation, he later served in the military during World War II. He was trained as a pilot (above) and flew a bomber (right) in the Pacific Theater. He spent nearly a year in Japan after the war.

[photo] Boyd and Donna Packer pose for a family portrait in the early 1950s with the first three of their ten children: Kenneth, left; Allan, the eldest; and David.

[photo] Well-known as an educator, Elder Packer has spoken many times at commencements and other academic functions. Here he speaks at Utah State University in 1973.

[photo] After the Teton Dam in Idaho broke in 1976, Elder Packer visited the devastated area with President Spencer W. Kimball.

[photo] Elder Packer on the day he was sustained to the Council of the Twelve.