I have to feel sorry for any young Latter-day Saint who doesn’t have a Winnie Gunderson in his life.
How fortunate I was to have been among that select group—a few hundred of us raised in Taylorsville, Utah, sometime in the last thirty years—who walked to Primary each week to assemble beneath the tattered manual, the stern eye, and the huge heart of Winnie.
She loved children, especially boys. And we all knew it. Sometimes, I fear, in our mischievous way we took advantage of that love and put more activity into her class than was called for in the lesson plan.
Not that her lessons were ever dull. Winnie’s lessons were anything but dull. No one else I have ever met could hold two dozen eleven-year-olds so spellbound year after year the way she did with her mostly true stories of pioneers on the wild frontier.
Church history was surely her favorite subject, and no other teacher in my experience has been able to convey the early spirit of the Latter-day kingdom so vividly and so well. So closely did we associate the teacher with her teachings that it was difficult for our young minds to know where history ended and where Winnie began.
For example, I could never envision Winter Quarters without imagining Winnie there. And I never saw Winnie without catching a glimpse of the strength one must have had to survive a winter in that pioneer community.
I always pictured Winnie personally beating those ravenous crickets on the Salt Lake Valley, or whipping the oxen across the plains, or grinding up her best china to use in the Kirtland Temple mortar. She was my image of the pioneer.
And she tried to make pioneers out of us, too. The highlight of our class was the midsummer trek across the old gravel pit. We pulled covered red wagons, the girls wore long dresses and bonnets, and often there would be a borrowed Shetland pony or two. At the end of the trail, our own “this-is-the-place” came at sundown in Winnie’s back yard, where we ate salted pork and sourdough biscuits, and sang pioneer songs.
Many trails led to Winnie’s home, for quick visits, pranks, or class committee meetings. For her, teaching was more than a weekly class.
Her interest in us never weakened through the years. Many a young man has specifically thanked her in his missionary farewell talk. And she would continue to show her interest by sending encouraging letters from home.
It was a great honor at fourteen to be invited back to Winnie’s young class to show her next “generation” just how old a boy the Prophet Joseph was when he knelt in the Sacred Grove. As she proceeded to paint the scene in our minds, it was almost as if that same divine light descended upon us in the classroom. And in a sense, it did.
Winnie’s shining light kindled scores of simple but lasting testimonies. I wish that every teacher could realize what impact he could have on the lives of young students. Winnie did!