Portraits

By Giles H. Florence, Jr.


Dian Thomas: Unusual—As Usual

For Dian Thomas, it’s family home morning rather than family home evening. And she holds hers—at least the activity portion, always with a treat—every week in front of more than three million people.

For the past three years, Dian has been a well-known member of U.S. television’s “Home Show” family. Before that, she appeared as a regular on the “Today Show” for a decade, as well as on virtually every major talk show on the U.S. networks and on hundreds of radio programs around the country.

Her claim to fame is her seemingly limitless reservoir of ideas. From frying an egg in a paper sack or broiling a steak on the manifold of a car to using a powder puff to dust baking pans evenly with flour or making dry-ice smoke rise from a child’s volcano birthday cake, Dian makes the commonplace uncommon. In a society sold on buying solutions, Dian prefers to create her own solutions. “Why not do something unusual with usual items?” she says with her characteristic broad smile.

What people seem to enjoy about Dian is her authentic, childlike delight as she creates new uses for simple things. That and her clear thinking and wit endear her to her audiences. One morning on the “Today Show,” Dian set up a mobile barbecue in a child’s red wagon lined with tinfoil using two stacks of bricks to hold up both sides of the grill. When Tom Brokaw asked Dian what would happen if a friend were to sit in the wagon, Dian responded spontaneously, “You’d have a rump roast.”

In addition to television and radio, Dian has enjoyed success as an author of four books, including the New York Times’s best-seller Roughing It Easy, articles in magazines and newspapers nationwide, and virtually thousands of lectures. Her innovative mind led her to serve as a consultant for a number of prominent food and household product manufacturers.

“I had several lucky breaks,” Dian is quick to explain. “Roughing It Easy came out at a time when people were having considerable interest in camping, hiking, being out in nature, caring for the environment, being resourceful. And that’s just what the book is about—simple and inexpensive methods for enjoying being in the outdoors.”

Though Dian is now comfortable in the company of such celebrities as Tom Brokaw, Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Bryant Gumble, Jane Pauley, and Willard Scott, classmates back in Monticello or Salt Lake would have been not a little surprised to be told she would become a national celebrity. In school, Dian did not have an easy time of it, so her success is only part of her triumph. Though she is not dyslexic, she sympathizes with those who are, because she does have a learning disability that continues to make reading an arduous task. Like many accomplished people, Dian’s is the story of over-compensation, of working hard to turn weaknesses into strengths.

Born to Julian and Norene Thomas, Dian’s world was the ranger station in Monticello, Utah, where her father was a forest ranger. As she grew up, the open range became her backyard. There, she and her four brothers, Neal, Jay, Jared, and Clyde, played and explored and wandered. Like a reservoir filling up with water, Dian’s mind slowly began to fill with ideas and experiences gleaned from the natural and mechanical world around her.

In the early years of life, that reservoir—as with the construction stages of most projects—seemed to Dian only a dark place of shadow and insecurity. Her interests seemed so different from other girls her age. As she began school, Dian found that the reading she was expected to do seemed dull and difficult. Math and art were not hard for her, but reading, writing, and spelling seemed artificial and remote from the earth, water, air, and animal life that filled her everyday world at home. By the second grade, it had been made transparently clear to Dian that girls don’t play marbles or other boys’ games and that reading, writing, and spelling were prized by her teachers beyond any value she could ascribe to them.

In spite of the frustration and confusion she felt, Dian’s education continued, in ways both formal and informal. Her father would often take the children with him into the forest or onto the range. Sometimes he would take them in the pickup truck. Other times, they went on horseback. With all the mixture of work that was fun—like pumping gas into the pickup or caring for the chickens—and fun that was work—like catching worms to sell to fishermen or building cages with bicycle-wheel treadmills for amusing chipmunks—Dian gained an early sense of mechanics. She learned to fix anything as well as her brothers did.

When she turned twelve, Dian moved with her family to Salt Lake City, where her father was transferred to the forest lands east of the city. Dian’s wonderful world of wilderness and freedom was suddenly fenced and paved and numbered and named. She found herself in a new suburban landscape that brought changes—and unexpected opportunities—into her young life.

A child who had spent countless confident hours in exploration, wonder, and discovery, now faced a world that might have been confining. But fortunately, she was spared the confinement. Through the loving care of a perceptive MIA leader, Dian discovered the MIA Home, a girls’ camp in Brighton at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Summers spent at the old MIA Home compensated for a school year spent coping with a school system that seemed to measure intelligence only in certain ways, that demanded only certain skills of her, and that ignored vibrant and important talents that continued to well up inside her almost unnoticed.

Dian spent her first two years at the MIA Home on the kitchen staff, where she learned quickly. She then became a counselor for two more years, and finally, during summers off from BYU, Dian directed the MIA Home program of one thousand girls for three more years.

“My parents were wonderful,” Dian says as she flashes her famous smile. “They were so supportive. Knowing my academic limitations, they helped me get through. Even in college, my mother would spend huge chunks of time helping me with my reading. She would read aloud to me from the textbooks. I worked both hard and strategically to understand what I needed to know; fortunately, my parents didn’t have unreal expectations for me.

“One thing I did in college was to always analyze a class before I signed up for it to determine the amount and kind of reading required, the kinds of tests given, the approach of the professor. My information came from course catalogs and conversations with the teachers, but, most important, from students who had taken the class.

“For particularly challenging classes, I’d try to take a class with a friend so I’d have someone to study with. It helped a lot. Plus, I would go to a classroom the night before a big test and fill the chalkboards with the theories, formulas, or main ideas, to give myself a visual image of how they all fit together. It worked.”

Another technique Dian used during her college years revealed yet another hint of her potential as the “First Lady of Creativity,” as some refer to her: she would study the way her teachers tested. Once she saw what teachers based their tests on—lecture notes, chapter review pages of the text, whatever—that is what she would focus on in her study.

Because of her experiences, Dian is a vigorous advocate for helping students with special needs. She has been named honorary chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs Learning Disability Program and serves in many other organizations.

Her struggle to come to terms with her unusual talents gradually brought her to the conscious realization that what she needed most was to develop a stronger faith in Heavenly Father, who knew her best, who loved her, and who himself must value the creative process highly. The reservoir of her mind began to clear.

“As I yearned to know that it was okay to be the way I was, I began to seek that assurance from Heavenly Father,” Dian says in her low alto resonance. “I needed to know that he valued me for who I am, that he approved of my using my creative faculties to help people be more inventive, more resourceful, and to take more joy in how they do things.”

It was that faith—first in Heavenly Father and, through his strength, in herself—which brought Dian such high visibility opportunities. As a result, Dian has frequent opportunities to represent the gospel and the way of life it espouses. True to her low-key nature, she prefers to let how she lives invite questions, rather than to take the offensive. “The Church comes up all the time, and people ask questions that I’m happy to answer,” she says. One of the most extensive of these exchanges actually became a whole segment of the “Home Show” when the discussion revolved around the Word of Wisdom as a health code. To assist her on the show, Dian invited three elderly Latter-day Saints who literally bore testimony to the vast television audience of the effects living the Word of Wisdom had had on their longevity and health. “Much of what I do on the ‘Home Show’ is just what women might do at a Relief Society homemaking meeting,” Dian adds. “I suppose you could say it’s a compliment to our audience that they like such stuff, actually.”

Dian’s clear, bright blue eyes may well reflect the clarity of her thought and the depth of her full reservoir, which now gives off its measured flow. She has come to feel confident in the role she lives rather than plays, both in front of TV cameras and in her private life. She is a positive force for making family and home life fun and appealing, and she is an example of what can come from pursuing one’s own special talents and interests.

[photo] Dian Thomas prepares food during one of her many appearances on the “Today Show.”

Victor Wilkins: A Shift of Focus

In the 1960s, Victor Wilkins produced some of London’s most respected and well-known black-and-white photography. But his conversion to the Church twenty-two years ago brought a new focus to the lens and the life of this former fashion and advertising photographer.

“As a child, I had a deep conviction that life held some great inheritance for me,” he remarks. “This faith in the future was imagined as a legacy from some remote and unknown relative.” This search for that “inheritance” took him through some quite varied experiences.

“Some of the lovely Muslim parables related by the Sufi philosophers made me think profoundly about my existence and the meaning behind it,” Victor explains. “I began falling in love with the majesty and beauty of nature, trying to capture its emotion and magnificence on film. The more I meditated, the more I wanted to know what was behind this beautiful world.” He turned to meditation, hoping for some kind of spiritual witness. “At one stage I even felt my new views on life might mean renouncing the fashion world and all it stood for, then journeying to India to join mystics and Tibetan Monks.

“I was gradually rebelling against the often unhealthy atmosphere surrounding my career—the drug scene and low moral standards—and at the same time I was drawing toward purer things in life.”

Then came a beautiful spiritual experience. On a warm June day in 1967, he walked across Hyde Park toward the Albert Memorial, gazing at the statues of great composers, poets, and philosophers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Shakespeare.

“I felt an impression that God is the source of all goodness and true greatness. A feeling of awe came over me,” Victor recalls, “and I knew I had to search until I found him, even if it meant traveling to the Himalayas.”

As Victor walked down the street, his whole being tingled, and he knew that something special was about to happen.

“As I approached a streetboard outside a very ordinary building,” explains Victor, “I felt I was stopped in my tracks.” On the board, in picture form, was the story of Christ coming to the ancient Americas in Book of Mormon times. “As I studied the story, something leapt inside me,” he says. “The thought came to me, ‘Look and concentrate as you’ve never concentrated before. You have a mission within this church.’”

Victor had stopped in front of the Hyde Park chapel. A sister missionary invited Victor inside for discussion, and he immediately felt at home—as if what he learned was something he had always known.

Victor recognized the need to be rid of his worldly self and take up a new life, and he requested immediate baptism. This took the missionaries by surprise, but they persuaded him to listen to the discussions. When they asked, “Do you understand that the Lord requires 10 percent of your income as a tithe?” He replied, “Is that all? You can have everything!” and immediately tried to give them one of his expensive cameras. Victor was baptized in Hyde Park Chapel in London, several weeks after his first meeting with the missionaries in the summer of 1967.

Shortly after his conversion, Victor was contacted by a photographic agent on behalf of Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Paul’s wife, Linda, to print pictures for a book Linda was writing. The McCartneys also wanted Victor to plan a darkroom for Linda. When these projects were completed, they asked Victor to stay and work permanently for them, but he chose instead to move to the country to pursue a more self-sufficient life-style.

Victor and his wife, Sally, whom he married in July 1971, now have seven children—Seth, Esther, Gideon, Matthew, Bethany, Martha, and Hannah—and live in Boncath, a remote hamlet in West Wales, where they have successfully set up a business in their home.

In late 1985, after serving as Lichfield stake mission president, Victor was called to be bishop of his ward. He is now a Melchizedek Priesthood leader in the Llandysul Branch, Merthyr Tydfil stake.

His testimony and his love of photography have combined to focus his talents and energies on visually illustrating parables, particularly that in Alma 32. Victor has a great love for the Book of Mormon. “Whenever I read the Book of Mormon, I feel as if I’m there, living with those people, experiencing their trials and joys,” he says.

Victor and Sally are constantly grateful for their Church membership. They realize how vital it is to receive weekly repetition and reinforcement of gospel principles at Church meetings. Victor comments, “We couldn’t manage to bring up seven children in this materialistic society without the constant backup provided by the Church.”

The Wilkinses continue to find many new friendships among the Welsh people. Victor feels strongly about missionary work and shares gospel truths among his many friends.

[photo] Photography by Seth Wilkins

Anne Bradshaw, a writer and homemaker, lives in the Sutton Coldfield Ward, Lichfield England Stake, where she is a counselor in the Relief Society presidency.