In Memory: Elder Richard L. Evans, Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ


Early Monday morning, November 1, at 12:10 A.M., the world-famous voice of “The Spoken Word” was stilled. Death was due to “viral infection of the central nervous system.” He was sixty-five.
These are the terse facts. But behind them stands a legend of staggering accomplishment against amazing odds.

I still vividly remember my first meeting five years ago with Elder Richard L. Evans. I had called his office concerning a matter on which the Improvement Era staff had raised several serious questions. Our managing editor, Doyle L. Green, was in Europe on a major Era assignment; and I, a new staff member of only six months, had been left with instructions to see Elder Evans in case of an urgent problem.

Elder Richard L. Evans

On reaching his office, and after a minute’s wait, I was ushered in by a secretary. My first glimpse remains unforgettable. On his desk were three or four nearly foot-high piles of files and folders. Galley proofs for several Church manuals were spread out across the center of his desk. Behind it, left leg tucked under him (apparently one of his special ways of resting leg muscles during long ten-to-twelve-hour days at his office), in a chair swiveled to one side sat Elder Evans. With his lap piled full of correspondence, he was softly and deliberately voicing replies into a dictaphone. Another table with books and folders neatly lumped on its surface stood behind him. A very large dictionary, with protruding pencil underneath several overturned pages, lay open on its stand to his side. The complete left wall of his office seemed lined with books.

Before me sat a handsomely graying sixty-year-old man of slight yet dignified physique who had been making important editorial decisions for nearly forty years. Surely I was in the right place for an answer. As a twenty-one-year-old missionary, he had been associate editor of Great Britain’s respected mission publication, the Millennial Star. While walking down a Salt Lake City street after returning home, he decided on the moment to seek employment at KSL radio station. They hired him, and four years later he was named one of America’s best radio announcers.

At twenty-four years of age he began his great career as Tabernacle Choir commentator and author of his own “Spoken Word.” Six years later, the call came to be managing editor of the Improvement Era. Since that time he continued to grow in editorial stature. He authored numerous books, became a world-famous personality, was called at age thirty-two to the First Council of the Seventy and then at age forty-seven to the Council of the Twelve (in both quorums he was their youngest member when appointed). Wherever he went and whatever he did, his name only continued to rise higher and higher. Certainly this man could solve our little problem.

After he finished the letter he was dictating, he turned and said, “Please sit down and tell me what’s come up.” I did, and then as he leaned back in his chair he concurred about the seriousness of the problem. After talking about it for a few minutes, he came around from behind his desk, sat down beside me, and started to ask questions: “What do you think would happen if we did such-and-such?” I would respond, and then he’d ask, “What do you think if we did something else?” And so it went, until half a dozen possible courses were discussed.

Then he stood up and said, “I’m glad you came over because, no fooling, this is a serious matter, and it has some delicate overtones. The Lord bless you in your decision.”

Stunned by his decision to not make a decision, or was it confidence in a new staff member’s ability to handle the matter, I walked in silence to the door, his arm on my shoulder. He opened the door and took my hand to say good-bye and slowly said, “This is a very delicate and serious matter. You’ll make a good decision.”

As I left, thinking about what to do, I couldn’t help but recall the Prophet Joseph Smith’s great statement that he taught correct principles and then left the Saints to govern themselves.

It was so also with Elder Richard L. Evans. For forty-one years he taught the world correct principles through his beloved and widely quoted “Spoken Word.” Many great broadcasting executives and evangelical leaders of several nations have said that Elder Evans addressed the largest pulpit in the world. In fact, a statement issued by the Council of the Twelve at Elder Evans’ death said: “Numerous people, the world over, have happily boasted that ‘Richard Evans is my Church.’”

What kept listeners returning to hear his “message of depth and faith and freshness and inspiration” week after week? It was the correct principles that he so well articulated. He effused his great messages with hope—and confidence, as I discovered. Clothing the principles he discussed was his unmistakable spirit of optimism and conviction that mankind—every one of us—can really make the right decisions if we think seriously enough about what matters most in life. Then, like the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Evans left his listeners to govern themselves, to seek out alone the good in life and in religion.

No one need take space to say all the things that Elder Evans stood for—it would probably be an impossible task. Every listener and reader of the “Spoken Word” knows for himself the great themes of Richard L. Evans. Each of us has felt his own spirit move and revel in agreement as he read or heard the beautifully and succinctly phrased sentences. Each of us has sensed the remarkable breadth of this man’s outlook, his depth of understanding, his tolerance of others and their ways of life, his urbanity and cosmopolitanism (a term appropriately chosen by the First Presidency in a statement they issued about Elder Evans), his endless store of common-sense wisdom, and his probing perceptiveness.

But unknown to New Era readers is the great founding role that Elder Evans played in seeing that these same qualities were part of the New Era. About a year and a half ago when the First Presidency decided that there would be three new magazines, Elder Evans chairmaned the youth correlation committee, as one of his many assignments as a member of the Council of the Twelve. So, under the direction of the First Presidency, he was in charge of the new youth magazine.

His immediate concern was for a name. He asked for suggestions, wrote friends for lists of suggested titles, and composed a list himself. But that was not good enough: “The thing we must remember is that if this magazine is for youth then it must carry a name that they will respond to,” he said.

He whittled all proposed names down to about twenty-five and asked that a survey be taken at several large youth conferences. Their selection pleased him greatly—the New Era—because coincidentally, the First Presidency had also voiced their preference—the New Era.

After the name came the content. He called groups together in his search for ideas. The roster of those attending read like a Who’s Who in Church stature and contribution. He wrote letters far and wide asking for opinions, and he talked personally with many young people. It was so typical of him: calling in the experts, seeking the best wisdom available, not wanting to overlook any potential good idea from any source. When he was ready, he gave his counsel: “We must face up to the issues in the minds of our students. We must grapple with the anxious concerns of youth.” He personally directed the present “Q&A” format. “Take up the many interests and chief needs of youth—from dating to careers, and don’t neglect the arts.”

His counsel was far-ranging and varied. If you’re one of the many who have come to love the New Era, you should know that much of the basic direction was motivated by Elder Evans. He really did understand youth.

But more than understanding people, this greatly gifted man understood life, all facets of it. As a result, his sparkling intellect and endless interests carried him successfully into many fields. Can you imagine a man already enormously busy with heavy General Authority assignments and weekly conference trips, plus his weekly pressure for more than forty years to create a new and moving “Spoken Word,” also taking time to become so deeply involved in civic, educational, service, business, and other activities that he would achieve the following: (1) 1966–67 president of Rotary International (during that year he traveled worldwide speaking to service clubs); (2) president, University of Utah alumni, and three-term member of the University’s Board of Regents; (3) a member of the Utah State Board of Higher Education; (4) recipient at thirty-three of a Distinguished Service Award from the Salt Lake City Junior Chamber of Commerce, in 1961 of the George Washington Medal of the Freedom Foundation, and—in between and after—of literally dozens of honorary degrees and special honors; (5) two-term member of the Committee on Medicine and Religion for the American Medical Association; (6) member of the advisory council of the Civil War Centennial Commission; (7) weekly columnist for a New York newspaper syndicate, King Features; (8) at his death a director in about a dozen businesses, banks, and financial enterprises; and (9) of course, much more than space permits mentioning. His active and successful involvement in so many facets of life is staggering.

Elder Evans was not one to sit on the side and let life go by. In a day when people are being called to show their religious convictions by their actions, Elder Evans is a monument, an enduring example for all of us.

But now some remarkable facts. His father was killed in an accident when young Richard was only ten weeks old (he was born March 23, 1906 in Salt Lake City, the last of nine children). All his early life he missed a father’s counsel and arm. Then, even though he won scholastic, debating, and his high school’s distinguished service awards, and had been editor of the school paper, he put himself through college by “working all the time” in every job imaginable: raising and selling flowers, selling magazines and newspapers, having a paper route, dispensing sodas, driving trucks, surveying for the railroad, making syrup, collecting bad debts, selling woolens, working in printing shops, advertising, and writing! After his mission he received his degree in English, and a year later a masters degree in economics. At twenty-seven, after having established his course in life, he married Alice Thornley, and together they raised their four sons, whom he called “the joys of my life.”

But can you imagine a man so widely involved, so deeply committed—a writer, an editor, an announcer, a reader of countless thousands of pages of reports, compendiums, and books—denied the use of an eye? It was a handicap that he shouldered throughout his career. Few of us will know his extra difficulties in reading, in studying, in meeting all his deadlines—all the pressures were there! And still he accomplished, still he worked relentlessly onward, with knowledge that all of us have handicaps of one sort or another, all of us have difficulties. But it is not the excuses we give that count, but what we do that counts.

Long live the memory of Elder Richard L. Evans. May readers seek elsewhere the full and beautiful story of his life. But most of all, may we follow those same correct principles he lived and taught as a special witness and apostolic ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ.

And then, “May peace be with you, this day and always.”