John’s shoes needed repairing. He had worn them out running up and down on Steensbakken (Steens Hill), where he lived with his mother, Anna Widtsoe, and his two-year-old brother, Osborne. After the death of their father when Osborne was only two months old, the family had moved from Froya, the outermost island off the coast of Norway, to the mainland. They lived in a small apartment in Trondheim, the town known as the Cathedral City. The two little boys and their mother often looked out over the beautiful old capital city to the harbor and the fjord that zigzagged out toward the ocean.
When John showed Mother how his shoes had worn, she asked a neighbor to recommend someone who could repair them. He knew just the right person, he said, and soon a boy came to their door. He was a shoemaker’s son who picked up and delivered shoes for his father. A few days later the boy brought back John’s shoes neatly mended. A strange little pamphlet was tucked into the toe of each shoe.
John’s father had been a schoolmaster. Before he died he had taught his young son to read, but there were so many unfamiliar words in the pamphlet that the boy could not understand what was written.
The next day his mother wrapped another pair of shoes that needed repairing into a parcel, tucked them under her arm, and set out on the half-hour walk to the shoemaker’s shop. She seemed more quiet than usual when she returned, and during the next few days she was thoughtful and restless.
When the shoemaker’s son delivered the second pair of shoes, new pamphlets were tucked into the toe of each one. John knew that his mother spent many hours carefully studying them. The next Sunday she arranged for someone to be with the boys while she went to a meeting at the shoemaker’s sturdy log house.
It was not until some years later that she told John what the shoemaker had said when she went to his shop that first time to ask him why he had put a pamphlet into each of John’s shoes.
“You may be surprised,” he had answered, “to hear me say that I can give you something of far more value than soles for your child’s shoes.”
The pamphlets were Mormon missionary tracts. Because of them John, his mother, and his brother became members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. None of their relatives or friends approved; all became unfriendly toward Anna and the boys.
Two years later the Widtsoe family left Oslo, Norway, with twenty other Norwegian Saints to begin the long journey to America. Eleven-year-old John kept a diary of their trip over the North Sea, their smoky journey across the midlands of England, their three days of sight-seeing in Liverpool, their voyage over the Atlantic Ocean, and the long railroad ride from New York to Logan, Utah, where they settled. There John found many and varied jobs to help support the family. His mother did dressmaking and any other kind of work she could find to provide for current expenses and to save toward the education of her sons.
John was called to be an apostle in 1921, when he was forty-nine. At that time he was president of the University of Utah and had been president of Utah State University at Logan. He often said that from his earliest youth, education was his objective. John A. Widtsoe will always be remembered as one of the great men of the Church. In one of his books, In a Sunlit Land, he wrote:
“There was a real relish for learning in my soul. … The love of reading has been with me from my boyhood. To leave the routine of the day for a visit with great minds has ever been a delight. … I look with half envy upon the youth to whom the doors of new knowledge are being opened.”
The shoemaker in Trondheim, Norway, who repaired John’s shoes truly did give to John’s mother and her family something of far more value than soles for a worn pair of shoes. He was also instrumental in giving to the Church a great writer, educator, leader, and friend!