Lessons Learned from My Father


F. Burton Howard

Lessons Learned from My Father

When I was a young teenager, our family lived in the mission field. My father was branch president in our little town in Wyoming. It was a typical small branch. There were few families and fewer young people. I was one of two Aaronic Priesthood bearers. In addition to preparing and passing the sacrament, one of our assignments was to sweep the cigarettes and empty beer cans out of the rented upstairs room we met in. My father always saw to it that I arrived early in order to have plenty of time to clean the hall before the people came.

It was a friendly little group. Everyone called each other by their first names, as I recall. Reverence and respect were not the chief characteristics of our congregation. But we did things together and loved the Church in our own way.

Father had a great problem. He wanted his children to love the Lord as he did. He wanted to give them a vision of the Church as it could be and indeed as it was in more highly developed parts of Zion. He was concerned about enlarging our perspective. He wanted to insure our understanding of what it meant to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He knew, consciously or otherwise, that it wouldn’t do much good for him just to talk to us about it. He knew that we, as most children, were more impressed by what we did and what we saw.

Shortly after we moved to Wyoming, the Church announced plans to observe the centennial of the pioneers crossing the plains. In the summer of 1947 it was decided that a group of Church dignitaries would retrace the route of the original pioneers, stopping at many of the principal landmarks along the way. Accordingly, a caravan of automobiles and interested persons started in Nauvoo and returned across the original pioneer trail, commemorating various historic encampments. The group was accompanied by Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Council of the Twelve.

At a family meeting one Sunday afternoon after sacrament meeting, my father announced that we were going to go join that caravan. He had plotted the trajectory of the group and determined that the closest point to our home would be at Independence Rock, a landmark on the Mormon trail in central Wyoming. I had mixed feelings at the time about making the trip. I couldn’t see too many reasons for leaving home and traveling several hundred miles in the heat of the Wyoming summer. However, as we discussed it in family council, father’s enthusiasm affected us all. My younger brother and sister became enthused about the project, and I was outvoted. That sometimes happens in family councils. We began to make plans to intercept the caravan. Rather, father made the plans, and we accepted them.

He had known President Kimball years before in Arizona. He told us that it would be a fine thing to join the caravan and see Brother Kimball again. Even I began to get excited. He told us as children that this would be a marvelous experience. We were promised an opportunity to meet one of the apostles of the Lord.

In those days this didn’t happen very often. The chances of a General Authority of the Church wandering into our part of Wyoming in 1947 were almost nonexistent. Our family had had little contact with the Brethren as we moved from place to place. This became something to look forward to.

One bright summer day we left home. We packed a lunch and the family into an old 1939 Studebaker automobile and journeyed to Independence Rock. It was a long, hot trip. When we arrived some hours later, we parked our car. Looking around we could see in the distance a group of men surrounding a large, rocky mound that could be seen for miles in all directions. My brother and I accompanied our father. I remember walking through the sagebrush and grass toward the group of people by the rock. I remember distinctly approaching the man who is now the President of the Church. I remember the recognition accorded to my father, and I remember the words that were spoken.

My father said, “Elder Kimball, do you remember me?”

That was the first time in my life I could remember anyone being called “elder” anything. That was the heritage of our friendly, little branch, I suppose. My father’s words seemed very strange to me.

Elder Kimball turned to my father and said, “Brother Howard, how good to see you again.” Then he asked, “Are these your boys?” Father said, “Yes.” Elder Kimball said, “It is so kind of you to come.”

I stood there waiting for something momentous to happen. Something like “Dr. Livingston, I presume.” But that was all. That was all. I don’t remember anything else being said. I remember that Elder Kimball was busy. Others were making demands upon his time, and there were ceremonial functions to be performed. There may have been other things said to my father, but I don’t remember them. I was disappointed that we had come so far and looked forward with so much anticipation to a conversation that was three sentences long.

We participated in the festivities of the occasion. Afterwards we ate our lunch on the plains, climbed the rock, and noted the inscriptions that had been made by pioneers. It turned out to be not such a bad day after all. Late that evening we returned home. We resumed our routine lives. I remember thinking then that it might have been easier to watch the event on television. I felt let down at the time.

And I don’t believe it made a bit of difference to the Church or to Elder Kimball that we made that trip. But it made a difference to my father. The reward of renewing that association was important enough to him to cause him to make the journey. He let us know that we had been a part of a great event and that we had been privileged to have a glimpse of a great heritage.

I have thought about that excursion many times since. I have come to realize that it was my father’s love for the Lord and the Church and the Lord’s servants that caused him to want to make the trip. I realize that he loved the General Authorities and sustained them. This awareness, which grew in me over the years, meant much more to me than all the telling he could have ever done.

The fact that he would involve us and the fact that by his example he taught us what he thought about the gospel of Jesus Christ have since that time become great lessons for me. He taught me, and I have learned, that you cannot be a passive member of the Church. I learned that association and fellowship with great men are worth whatever price you have to pay to attain them. They are worth enduring heat; they are worth a long trip; they are worth temporary inconvenience. They are the lasting things of life.

[photo] Photo by Eldon Linschoten

[illustrations] Illustrated by Michael Rogan