Photo by Busath Photography. Used by permission.
If there had been a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court prior to April 1984, Justice Dallin Harris Oaks of the Utah Supreme Court might have been a candidate to fill it. After all, he had been considered for such a position before. So when the Washington Post’s Supreme Court reporter learned of Elder Oaks’ new call as a member of the Church’s Council of the Twelve, he dutifully telephoned to ask whether this meant that Dallin Oaks could no longer be eligible for a position on the highest court in the land.
Yes, Elder Oaks explained patiently, it certainly meant that.
But the court position is also a lifetime calling. Is it not also a very important way to serve?
Indeed it is, Elder Oaks affirmed, but it does not take precedence over the service it would now be his opportunity to give.
To those who may understand the impact of his calling as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, he adds, “I welcome it. I’m thrilled with the call, and eager to serve.”
Many who understood the significance of the calling were also quick to telephone, expressing their love. Several of the Brethren called to welcome him to the quorum.
It is one measure of the man, perhaps, that he reacted with the same gracious attitude toward all callers, whether another member of the Twelve or the aged best friend of his mother.
But then, “he is always gracious to everybody, no matter who they are,” says Janet Calder, who was his secretary while he was president of Brigham Young University from 1971 to 1980.
Gracious, yet candid. Not extroverted, but definitely enthusiastic. Once, she recalls, he had been hosting a group of visitors when, during a lull, the conversation turned to other kinds of educational experiences. In response to a comment, the university president remarked that he had never received any training in developing a positive mental attitude. “For Heaven’s sake, don’t!” one of the visitors commented. “If you had any more positive mental attitude, you’d be unbearable.”
“He’s very organized. He loves to work,” Sister Calder continues. There’s no denying it. Elder Oaks has often quoted his motto, “Work first, play later.” His family jokes that it is really “Work first, play never.”
“I don’t do anything for fun. I just have fun at what I do,” he explains.
“Time is a stewardship, and my goal is simply not to waste any,” he told an interviewer in 1981.
Elder Oaks was born in Provo, Utah, 12 August 1932, and grew up a worker. He began working for pay only three or four years after his father died, to help his widowed mother. Dr. Lloyd Oaks’ death (of tuberculosis) left his young widow Stella with three children: Dallin, eight at the time, and the oldest; Merrill, now a Provo, Utah, ophthalmologist; and Evelyn, now Mrs. H. Ross Hammond, of Salt Lake City.
“I was blessed with an extraordinary mother,” Elder Oaks recalls. “She surely was one of the many noble women who have lived in the latter days.” He lauds her as a woman of “great faith,” a “very skilled parent,” and a woman possessed of great natural executive ability. Many outside the family would agree. Before her death in 1980, Stella Oaks was known as a force for good in Provo, in both Church and civic service.
“She gave me a great deal of responsibility and freedom. She encouraged me to have a job,” Elder Oaks explains. From the time he first worked for pay, “at eleven or twelve,” he has been continuously employed.
That first job was sweeping out a radio repair shop. He had to learn to test the radio tubes he found on the floor, to find out which were good, and that led to an interest in radio. He threw himself into study with characteristic intensity. Before he was sixteen, he had obtained a first-class radiotelephone license, which allowed him to operate a commercial radio station’s transmitter, and found a job in radio. Station managers liked to hire a “combination man”—an engineer who could double as an announcer—“but my voice hadn’t changed,” he recalls, laughing. Before long, however, that change took care of itself, and he was working regularly as an announcer.
It was while he was announcing high school basketball games as a college freshman that his wife first met him. June Dixon was still attending high school in nearby Spanish Fork when someone introduced her to him at a game.
They were married on 24 June 1952, while both were attending BYU. It was the height of the Korean War, and he was in the Utah National Guard, expecting his unit to be called to active duty at any time. But while other, closely related units went, his was never activated. At that time, a limited number of young men were being called on missions because of the war, and Dallin was not among them; the quota in his ward was filled.
“I think he’s always wished that he had enjoyed that opportunity. But later he was stake mission president in Chicago. And he was a good one,” his wife comments.
She learned early to recognize his capacity for work. Throughout his undergraduate career at BYU, he worked thirty hours a week at the radio station. Toward the end of his time there, he also held a second job, as office manager for a furniture moving company.
After he received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, he went to the University of Chicago Law School. (By now the Oaks family included daughters Sharmon and Cheri.) He borrowed money for school, and threw his energy into studying. He graduated with honors and edited the school’s prestigious law review in his final year.
“When Dallin was in law school, he would be gone every day from seven in the morning till eleven at night,” except Sunday, June Oaks says. She recalls hearing him say: “There are a lot of guys over there at the law school who are smarter than I, but none works any harder.”
“Those were hard times,” she reflects. And yet she managed to avoid the mistake of many other student wives who made their husbands miserable because they were unhappy. She accepted the necessity of being self-sufficient and developing her own interests.
Dallin Oaks’ industry and scholarship won him the opportunity to serve as law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court after graduation. A year later, when he completed the clerkship, he returned to Chicago to enter private practice.
Their son Lloyd had been born during Dallin’s last year of law school. Another son, Dallin, and next-to-last daughter, TruAnn, were also born during the family’s years in Chicago.
Those years brought Dallin opportunities for great growth in Church service. He was called to be stake mission president for the Chicago Stake in 1961. His law practice had him working nights, and he wondered how he would be able to fulfill the responsibilities of the new calling as well, Sister Oaks recalls, but he took it on faith. As he committed himself to the calling, the way was opened many times for him to finish his legal work early, or to achieve more than he thought was possible in the time allotted.
In 1961, the opportunity came to join the University of Chicago law faculty. He accepted the position, for the reward and challenge it offered.
In 1963, he was called as second counselor in the presidency of the Chicago South Stake. He served with President Lysle R. Cahoon and John Sonnenberg, first counselor. All three went on to serve as Regional Representatives of the Twelve. (Brother Sonnenburg was called to the First Council of the Seventy, October 1984.)
Dallin Oaks approached his Church assignment with the usual vigor. Elder Sonnenberg reflects that his companion in the stake presidency reserved Sundays for the Lord, but not in some “academic sense”; it was obvious that his service and his study of the scriptures were part of a genuine effort to learn of God.
Those were times when President Oaks had to juggle many assignments. One of them was as chairman of the University of Chicago Disciplinary Committee, which resolved charges against students involved in a seventeen-day sit-in at the school’s administration building during February of 1969. His fairness and diplomacy in handling the disciplinary action won admiration from students, faculty members, and the community.
By 1970, he had become well known in his profession, having served as assistant state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois, during the summer of 1964; as associate dean and acting dean of the law school; and as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School during the summer of 1968. He won praise for service as the legal counsel to the Bill of Rights Committee for the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970. During a period in 1970 and 1971, he served as executive director of the American Bar Foundation.
When Brother Sonnenberg was called as president of the Chicago South Stake in 1970, he chose Dallin Oaks as his first counselor. But it was not to be a long association. With the spiritual insight that stake presidents often have, he recalls, “When Ernest Wilkinson retired (as president of BYU), I knew instantly that Dallin Oaks would be called.”
President Oaks was recognized for many things while serving at BYU, but his particular emphasis was on academic excellence. He also became nationally prominent for his opposition to federal government intrusion in private education. He was seen as a spokesman for private colleges and universities. For three years he was president of the American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Jeffrey R. Holland, now president of BYU, characterizes his predecessor as a man with “a remarkable blend of qualities and strengths,” a man whose “superb analytical judgment is enhanced not only by legal training, but, more important, by unerring instinct.”
After Dallin Oaks left the BYU president’s office, even after he was sworn into the Utah Supreme Court on 1 January 1981, there were opportunities to run for high office and offers of important federal jobs. He elected to pass them by because, “I can’t think of anything in public life I’d rather do than be a judge.”
But some types of service have a higher priority. In 1971, a telephone call from President Harold B. Lee, then First Counselor in the First Presidency, had taken him to BYU, changing the course of his life. On the evening of April 6, 1984, there was another telephone call, from President Gordon B. Hinckley, Second Counselor in the First Presidency. Dallin Oaks willingly took yet another new direction in his life. “Just as service in the Church is not sought, it is not turned down,” he says.
While president of BYU, his role as chief administrator for a major university may have momentarily overshadowed the spiritual nature of the man. But those who were close to him could see it. “Dallin is just simply one who walks constantly depending on the Spirit of the Lord,” comments Rex Lee, solicitor general of the United States and former dean of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. President Oaks, he notes, was never too concerned about the “trappings of status,” nor one to flaunt his formidable abilities. “He is the classic example of humility. He is genuinely not taken with himself.”
For those who heard him speak at BYU, there was ample evidence of Dallin Oaks’ personal focus on gospel principles. He emphasized the close connection between spirituality and learning, with spirituality necessarily predominant. He spoke often of morality, and of repentance, and revelation. Honesty and integrity, in all phases of life, were major themes.
“If I think of one word that epitomizes my father, I think of integrity. I’ve always known he would never do anything that wasn’t above reproach,” his daughter Sharmon (now Mrs. Jack Ward) says. She remembers that he once chided her for trying to remove an uncanceled stamp from an envelope which came in the mail, so the stamp could be used again.
Sharmon entered college as a freshman the year her father became president of BYU. Frequently, teachers would come to her name on the roll, then ask, “Are you related to … um. …” No one ever finished that sentence, she recalls, laughing.
The BYU years were less busy than Chicago had been, Lloyd recalls. His father was home much more. “Just about every Saturday we’d get some worms and go and fish in the Spanish Fork River.” After a while, Lloyd (who later graduated from BYU with a degree in geology) would tire of fishing and collect or throw rocks, but his father would keep at it. That, says June Oaks, is typical. “If he fishes, he fishes with the same intensity that’s there when he goes after his casebooks.”
Lloyd, who is now studying law at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, was not surprised by his father’s call as a General Authority. “All through his life he’s been very close to the Spirit.” One night Lloyd had asked to use the car to go to a party. He was getting ready to back out of the driveway when his father came out and asked him not to go, explaining that he felt impressed that it would not be wise. They learned later that another car had rolled off the road Lloyd would have taken, and felt the impression must have been a warning.
Sharmon also speaks of her father’s closeness to the Spirit. She recalls coming in late during high school years, going to her parents’ bedroom to say goodnight, and finding her father on his knees in prayer.
Both of her parents were examples in many ways, she says. “One thing we appreciated was that our father and mother loved each other.”
Children and friends say it is impossible to explain Dallin Oaks’ success in life without talking about June Oaks. Her husband agrees. “She just brought out the best in me. I think I could never have gotten anywhere without her,” he says. “June has kept me from getting pompous and self-important.”
She is well liked by those she meets, he adds, and completely unaffected. While he was president of BYU, she entertained the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, the chief justice and other officials of the Soviet Supreme Court, former United States President Gerald R. Ford, three Presidents of the Church, and a variety of other General Authorities. She was “very much at ease with all of them, and just as much at ease with the workers who came in to work on the home.”
He notes with admiration that she is the kind of mother who took up the guitar so she could accompany eight-year-old daughter Jenny on the violin. Jenny is assigned classical music for her lessons, but sometimes she plays country music for fun.
“She’s a best friend to her daughters—not just a mother, but a best friend,” Elder Oaks says of his wife.
June notes that he has always wholeheartedly supported her in her activities—from schooling to Church callings. He encouraged her to finish her own bachelor’s degree, in sociology, though it meant she had to take their little children and attend school in Provo during parts of several summers, leaving him in Chicago.
“He’s very much the educator and teacher,” she comments, explaining that he often passes on to her articles he thinks she should read or would enjoy.
He is always reading. “He reads three or four newspapers a day”—from Washington, Salt Lake City, and Provo, regularly—along with Church magazines, an assortment of legal journals, and a wide variety of other books or periodicals. There is a pattern in the reading. He tackles technical things in the morning, when he is fresher, and saves lighter things for later. But reading matter is always close at hand. “If he thinks he’s going to be waiting at a stoplight, he will often pick up something to read,” she says.
Probably the character of his reading matter will change a bit with his new calling. Undoubtedly his goals will change. Despite years of administrative experience and public service, at this point, he says, “It seems to me that my weaknesses are a lot more significant than my strengths.”
Though he has been a Regional Representative for six and one-half years, and in a stake presidency for nine, he points out that he has not been a bishop, a mission president, or a temple president, like other General Authorities. Nor has he had their experience at teaching from the scriptures in the Church Educational System. “There are so many things in the ecclesiastical and spiritual phases of the kingdom I have not done that I feel very inadequate in that area.”
Where does the work in his new calling begin?
“I think it begins by following in the footsteps of the other Apostles, doing the things that they have done,” he reflects. “I am at their disposal.”
His friend Elder Sonnenberg says Elder Oaks will be equal to the calling because he has always “loved and served the Lord and his family, first and foremost.”
“It appeared to me long ago that he was chosen for a great responsibility in the kingdom.”