Naomi M. Shumway: Primary’s Gentle Lady


It was a hot summer day in early August 1963, but inside the Salt Lake Mountain View Ward Relief Society room where a group of excited girls waited with their mothers for the Lihoma Holiday to begin, it was pleasantly cool. After weeks of preparation, the day had finally arrived when some of them would be graduated from Primary, others would advance to higher classes, and new girls would be welcomed into the Lihoma program as Gaynotes.

The Lihoma Holiday was the highlight of the Primary year for nine, ten, and eleven-year-old girls, but this was an extra special day for these girls because their stake Primary president was to speak to them for the last time before moving to Bountiful, Utah.

Everyone in the flower-decorated room that day would have been even more excited if they could have known that just 11 years later their president, Naomi Maxfield Shumway, would be invited to the office of a prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball, to discuss Primary work, and would subsequently be called to serve as the sixth president of the Primary Association for the entire Church.

Meticulously groomed, as always, Sister Shumway entered the room in her quiet, unassuming way. As she spoke to the Lihoma girls and their mothers, her tall, almost regal, appearance and her gracious, warm dignity captured the attention of all who were there. One of them was her daughter, being graduated from Primary. The girls listened intently to her counsel, hoping they could grow to be just like her. Her simple and sincere testimony of the gospel and her deep love and concern for the girls touched their hearts.

Just a month later, Sister Shumway took those same choice qualities with her when she became a member of the Primary General Board. And these qualities will now be radiated throughout the Church as she answers her new and glorious calling to follow in the footsteps of the Master who said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14.)

A woman from a neighboring community in the same month of August, but 96 years earlier in 1878, was called as president of the first Primary of the Church. Her name was Aurelia Spencer Rogers. Despite the century between them, Aurelia Spencer Rogers and Naomi Maxfield Shumway are similar in ways other than in the proximity of their homes or the month of their callings. They share a complete dedication to help children walk uprightly before the Lord and a quiet and considerate way of working with others while serving him.

Sister Rogers wrote a book, Life Sketches (George Q. Cannon & Sons Company, 1898), and in her dedication appear these words familiar to Primary workers throughout the Church:

“Our children are our jewels; we have counted well the cost;
May their angels ever guard them, and not one child be lost.”

“One of the amazing things about Sister Shumway,” said one of her former counselors, “is that she was aware of every child in our stake. She knew by name each one who was not attending Primary as well as each one who was. They were not just statistics to her, but individual boys and girls—and she cared about every one.”

As Hillside Stake Primary president and now as the general president of the Primary Association, Sister Shumway acutely feels that not a single child of our Father in heaven can be forgotten, neglected, or “lost.” With all her heart she believes that Primary workers have been called to help children gain a knowledge that our Heavenly Father loves them and that, despite temptations and obstacles, they may live again with him.

She realizes that this goal can be accomplished only through a renewed dedication of Primary workers all over the Church who accept the challenge now given to them: “I will magnify my call.” And, as usual, she has led the way in commitment.

One of the Primary presidents who worked with her said, “Everyone knew what Sister Shumway expected—and that was nothing but the best. She was never satisfied with mediocrity. She demanded a high level of performance for herself and expected that same level in all of us. She made us want to do everything well because when children are involved, they must have nothing but the best.”

Another ward president who was unable to attend stake preparation meetings because of personal problems recounted how Sister Shumway came to her home and spent hours each month sharing materials and helping her understand the program so that every boy in that ward would benefit from both the priesthood and the Scouting lessons in Primary.

Another ward Primary president, who later became a stake Primary president, said the transition was easy because of the excellent training she received while working with Sister Shumway. “It was thorough,” she declared. “And after watching, listening, and observing, I knew what a good stake Primary president ought to be. I wanted to act with the same peace and calm efficiency that Sister Shumway always demonstrated. She helped us all realize it was our responsibility to teach every child the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet she was always concerned about us as well as the children. I never remember her embarrassing us in any way. She corrected us without making us feel resentful; rather, she just encouraged us to do and to become better.”

In Life Sketches, Aurelia Rogers tells of such a consuming desire to help children that “a fire seemed to burn within me.” Yet after she had been called to be the first president of the Primary, she felt “willing, but very incompetent.”

“I felt my unworthiness so keenly that I could scarcely attend to my duties; and went to my meetings weeping by the way, being humbled to the very earth. … I had been made to feel my entire dependence on God the Eternal Father.”

In her first address after being called to be general president of the Primary, Sister Shumway told a group at the Weber State College Institute:

“I was humbled beyond words. The time following my call was a period of fasting, study, and prayer—a time of purification for me.

“I know that God lives. I also know that Satan is real. I struggled with him. … I found myself on my knees more often than not. I pleaded with the Lord to let me know if I was worthy of this call.”

The Lord answered that prayer, and Sister Shumway was blessed and buoyed up as she went about the difficult task of recommending counselors and of planning with them how to carry on the work of the preceding Primary leaders. At the conclusion of the Weber State Institute address, Sister Shumway said:

“I bear testimony to you that the Lord heard and answered my prayers and helped me choose my counselors—women who love the Lord and live close to him [Sara Broadbent Paulsen and Colleen Bushman Lemmon]. Together we sought the Lord’s help in choosing women to serve on the board. We knelt and prayed more than once as we made decisions. Only with the Lord’s help were we able to suggest to the First Presidency the names of women to serve with us on the board.”

Her predecessor, Sister Rogers, had once asked, “Why should anything be allowed to come before the most sacred duty … that of looking after the spiritual welfare of the children?” The only exception she ever made to this was in “looking after” her home and family.

Sister Shumway, too, looks after her family. An example in “perfect organization,” she has planned her life so that her family has not suffered because of Primary responsibilities; neither has her Primary work ever suffered because of her family. She has had much practice in knowing just how to achieve this delicate balance. One of her daughters commented, “I don’t know how Mother managed it, but whenever any of us needed her, she was there, whether it was for something big or something that just seemed big to us at the time.”

Sometimes her “being there” involved careful planning, dedication, and sacrifice beyond that of the ordinary person. A former Primary General Board member recalls that Sister Shumway spent almost all night proofreading a Blazer book to meet a deadline, even though one of her daughters was being married the next day. No one at the wedding the following morning or at the beautiful reception that evening was aware of any unusual circumstances, nor was the daughter allowed to feel that she did not have her mother’s full love and attention on that important occasion. Every guest was greeted with the calm and warm hospitality so characteristic of this remarkably united family.

Sister Shumway was born October 3, 1922, in Provo, Utah, to Albert E. and Orilla May Brown Maxfield, who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Sister Shumway has three brothers and two sisters, and their families all still gather at their parents’ home for breakfast every Christmas morning.

Naomi and her husband, Roden Grant Shumway, were married March 8, 1945, in the Salt Lake Temple, and have always made their home the hub around which all other activities rotate, one where a stabilizing strength is extended to each family member. Brother Shumway, a supportive and loyal husband and a loving father, is truly the patriarch of their family. Their two daughters, Mrs. John W. (Sharene) Oman and Mrs. Mark A. (Jana Lee) Christensen, were both married in the temple, and their son, Roger Grant, is currently serving a mission in France.

Christmas is a special time in the Shumway home. The children delight in remembering traditional Christmas Eves spent in front of the fireplace on a big red blanket, cracking crabs and nuts and listening to their father read the Christmas story from the Bible and the Book of Mormon while their mother worked quietly on one of the many beautiful afghans she has made.

Sister Shumway is an excellent homemaker and cook. With her characteristic thoughtfulness and in her own quiet manner, she shares her food and love with neighbors and friends. The evening before she was sustained as general president of the Primary in general conference, Brother and Sister Shumway found their home and yard decorated with flowers grown in neighborhood gardens. Marigolds, petunias, chrysanthemums, and other colorful blossoms had been lovingly strung about their home. Even the basketball hoop in front of the house was aflame with color. This was a gesture of appreciation and support from neighbors constantly remembered and blessed by the thoughtfulness of the Shumway family.

Spiritual roots are deep in the Shumway home. Their son, Roger, experienced a miraculous healing a few years ago as a result of the faith and prayers of the family and friends, and through his father’s blessing. This missionary son, after learning of his mother’s calling, wrote, “The Lord will help you every inch of the way. Remember what you always tell me: ‘The Lord prepares whom He calls.’ I know He wants you where you are right now. Take time to prepare spiritually for the day, take time to listen, and then take time to work. The floodgates of blessings (as they say in France) will come as you can’t even imagine.”

The floodgates of blessings will also come to Primary children and workers throughout the Church as Sister Shumway, with her counselors and board, humbly senses her joint responsibility with parents and other Church leaders to lay a solid foundation upon which children can build a firm testimony.

Old friends and associates alike aver that regardless of the assignments, Sister Shumway has never recited her pressures, problems, or accomplishments. She meets every challenge serenely and carries out the suggestion she frequently makes to co-workers who are uncertain, discouraged, or frustrated: “Let’s get on with what must be done.”

A Primary board member recalls that when Sister Shumway was chairman of a committee to prepare a Primary inservice lesson book, she often drove from Bountiful to Salt Lake two or three times a day to check copy and make proof changes in spite of snow, fog, and severe storms. Another remembers Sister Shumway’s illness while attending a national Scout Jamboree at Farragut, Idaho. It wasn’t until she had uncomplainingly attended the meetings and fulfilled the purpose for which she had been sent that she revealed how ill she was. Doctors there sent her home for immediate surgery. Before the operation, Bishop Vaughn J. Featherstone promised her in a blessing, “The Lord has a work for you and will bless you with health and strength to accomplish it.”

Naomi Maxfield Shumway has filled many assignments in all the auxiliaries of the Church, and has been honored repeatedly, especially for her outstanding work with boys and their advancement in the Boy Scout program. Yet she has quietly and unassumingly moved about serving her Heavenly Father, loving those with whom she has associated—especially children—and not aspiring to any greater position.

But the Lord, knowing her worth and her heart, did indeed have “a work” for her. Through his prophet, he called her as general president of the Primary. She has accepted that call in humility, strong in her testimony of its importance and its sacred responsibilities. She has the spiritual courage necessary to make decisions, the creative insight to find effective ways of solving problems, and the quality of gladly, unstintingly giving of herself in a quiet and unspectacular way to help Primary workers magnify their call to “teach … children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.)

[photo] Sister Shumway meets with Primary children in the Church Primary headquarters. (Photography by Eldon Linschoten.)