My Dad, the Mission President

There was something strange about mom and dad both coming to my room to say good-night. It seemed like they had something on their minds. Mom said, “We received a great blessing in the mail today, Jan.” Then dad added, “I have been called to be a mission president. Here is a letter from President Kimball. You will want to read it.”

My heart dropped. Where? When? Do I have to go, too? My eyes began to sting. I didn’t even attempt to hold back the tears. I wanted mom and dad to know that what they were saying was destroying my world. It wasn’t fair. Imagine asking a young, involved, excited sophomore in high school to pack away all her dreams and go out into the mission field without her friends or her older brothers or sisters for three years!

“Sweetheart, this is such a special opportunity and calling,” mom said soothingly. Then dad said, “If you want me to say no, I will. We can’t accept this call without the support of all our family.”

“No way, daddy,” I said through my tears. “We will have to think of something else. Can I live with someone here and finish school? Maybe one of my brothers or sisters wouldn’t mind.” Then the thought struck me: How could I function without mom and dad there to help me along the way? How could I stand it? We had always been so close.

Mom was the Young Women president in the stake and dad the stake patriarch. No wonder the Lord called them to preside over a mission, but why couldn’t He have waited until I was finished with high school and out of the nest? Why was I the only one left to go with them? Why was I born five years after the rest?

Then I noticed the tears in dad’s eyes and saw mom’s face full of hurt. I realized then that leaving home for them would be anything but easy. They would have to leave children and grandchildren, their friends, and home. I knew they were willing, so I took a deep breath and decided I could give it my best shot, at least for the summer.

Where would we be? It could be any place in this wide world. We talked a lot about different places in the world where we would like to live. But somehow, home in Bountiful, Utah, still seemed the very best place for me. I started hoping we would be assigned to the Salt Lake City North Mission.

The assignment came on April 1, 1979. Only missionaries know the feeling of anticipation that letter can bring. As we opened the envelope, the first thing I saw were three familiar signatures at the bottom, and then slowly I raised my eyes to the body of the letter. There it was. We were called to the Mississippi Jackson Mission.

Mississippi … where was Mississippi? I had no idea which state it was except that it was down south. Dad got out the map and the World Book. Excitement began to grow, even in me. This could be kind of fun, seeing new country and meeting all those missionaries. I have to admit I had no intention of breaking school ties and staying down there beyond summer, to go to a school where I might be the only Mormon in my class.

To my utter amazement, my older brothers and sisters envied me. My oldest brother, Craig, really encouraged me. “Jan,” he said, “this is a chance of a lifetime.” I was glad they were excited for me, but still I figured those words were easy enough for them to say, easier than for me to do.

I guess I was feeling a little sorry for myself. My world was changing, and I didn’t want it to. As a teenager I was struggling to find security by developing my talents, getting involved in many things, and in making lots of friends. I belonged and felt comfortable. Drill team tryouts were just over, and I had made it. I was a Vykette!

How could I ever give up that dream? I had so many other dreams. The one I had yet to achieve, and the most important of all, was to be in the madrigals chorus. Being in that singing group would be the highlight of my senior year if I were lucky enough to make it. However, summer was still before me, and I decided to spend it down south regardless of all my school anticipations.

That first summer, dad and mom and I traveled a lot getting acquainted with the wards and branches. I found that I did have a family after all with about 80 big brothers.

Our big family decision that summer was still what to do with Jan. Building a foundation for a new mission meant dad had to travel much of the time and mom needed to be with him to get to know the missionaries, their needs, and the areas. We all prayed about it, and the decision was made. I could go back to Viewmont High School in Utah and live with my brother David, his wife Pamela, and Kimi.

My junior year at Viewmont was wonderful, packed with lots of drill team memories, book learning, work with the junior class committee, special dances, fun with family, and spiritual and fun times with my Laurel class. Only my journal and my Heavenly Father knew of all my lonely times without my parents. The phone bills also gave unmistakable evidence.

In the spring after an especially exciting day, I just had to call “home” to tell mom and dad the big news. The voice on the other end of the line said, “Honey, we’re glad you called. We were just going to call you. Dad and I have talked to the headmaster at Jackson Preparatory School, and they have room for you this next year. We know this is where you should be. We really want you to plan to come here for school next year.” Silence. I felt my world slipping again.

“But, mom, I just can’t. I tried out for madrigals just yesterday, and I feel so good about it. My big dream, remember?” I cried, and mom cried. How could I leave everything and everyone? All my dreams of being a senior at Viewmont—I had waited so long. But when parents like mine say they both have a strong feeling that I should do something, I know that I should. When I said, “Okay, mom and dad, I will come,” a sweet, peaceful feeling came over me, and I knew it would be all right.

The second summer was filled with zone conferences and youth conferences. It was great fun seeing the missionaries again. The number had grown from 80 to 160, so there were many new ones to get acquainted with.

I was enrolled in a college preparatory school, Jackson Prep, which seemed to be number one in everything—academics, sports, drama, music. I was scared to death to start there. Aside from a couple of girls in the neighborhood, I didn’t know a soul.

My classes were tough and were taught like college courses. Everyone bought their own books and we were to take notes on lectures every day. Exams were held often. To add to my potpourri of confusion, I was told that I was being watched because I was a Mormon—the only one in the entire school. I felt that I was stuck in a spot, although not necessarily a bad one. I could make it good or bad depending on one thing—my attitude.

I had all kinds of good advice from the missionaries and others on just what I should say and do, but when that first dreaded day of school arrived, I forgot it all and barely made it home and through the front door before I broke down and wailed as if my heart were broken. There sat mom hurting too, but at least she was there for me. We cried together as I explained, “Mom, the kids are so different. I can’t understand the teachers.” The teachers spoke with a strong southern accent, and I found myself writing notes from their lectures that weren’t anything near what they actually said. I hadn’t quite mastered the language yet.

“Oh,” I sobbed, “besides that, today I was one minute late for my English class. When I finally found the room, my teacher made me stand up in front of everyone and explain why I was late.” At first mom looked at me, attempting to give me some motherly consolation, but then we both started to laugh. Mom and usually dad were always there to listen as I unfolded the happenings of the day, and we found that laughing was a lot more fun than crying. Things did get better.

As I started the school year, I made some promises to my Heavenly Father. The memory of a special blessing given to us by President Ezra Taft Benson just before we came into the mission field helped me to set my goals. I knew if I did all I could to be a good example and symbol of the Church for Him that He would send special opportunities to me.

I found myself, miraculously, a member of a new madrigal singing group, a member of the chamber singers, and of the acappella choir at school. I also found great friends in my choir director and drama director. I gained many new friends as I participated in two dramatic productions that year. Getting into these activities wasn’t all my idea. I had a little mother behind me all the way, encouraging me to get involved.

Slowly but surely, I gained respect from my friends and teachers, and I almost welcomed all the teasing about being a Mormon. It wasn’t unusual at all to have someone come into my first period class waving an article they had found on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or on the Church’s stand on abortion.

Everyone seemed interested in the Mormons, and even though they would kid me a lot, I think they were impressed that a group of people could stick to their guns and pass up liquor and tea and coffee, not just once in a while, but all the time. Defending the Church wasn’t hard anymore. It was kind of fun. Who would be up to bat next, and whose hits could I catch?

The best opportunity I had defending the Church was when I became involved with the Junior Miss Pageant as a contestant for Capitol City’s Junior Miss. Many of the senior girls were trying out, and I decided to go for it, too.

Once I was picked as one of the 20 contestants, there were dances to learn, a short course on modeling, a talent number to prepare, and studying to do for a personal interview with the judges. It was great. Twenty girls from different schools learning together and having fun and not a Mormon except me in the bunch. Excitement began to mount as the pageant drew near. Our interviews were scheduled the afternoon of the pageant.

Finally, it was my turn, and I nervously walked up the long flight of stairs to the room where the five judges awaited. At first they just visited with me. Then an older, quiet man began asking questions about my religion—tough questions. It took me back for a moment. Then I got hold of myself and answered the best way I knew how. The words flowed freely, and I felt as if my eyes were relaying the message as well as my words. I knew I received lots of extra help from above that day. What I said must have satisfied the judges because that night number 10 was crowned Capitol City’s Junior Miss—I was number 10!

As friends and mom and dad crowded around and hugged me, my mind reflected back to the hateful feelings I had felt at first after reading “the call.” Now in my heart I thanked Heavenly Father for giving me the chance. I felt so happy—happy for wonderful friends who accepted me with all kinds of southern hospitality and for friends at home who kept reassuring and encouraging me with their love. I was happy for a wonderful family like my sisters who received calls from a bawling baby sister and always ended up making her laugh. Most of all I was happy for a dad and mom who stood by through it all and guided me with all their love.

What happened to that year I was so afraid of? I shudder to think of missing my year at Prep. There was, however, a constant concern in my heart. What more can I do to let everyone know that the Church is true? A Book of Mormon with my personal testimony written in the front to each of my teachers helped satisfy that unrest. Each one promised to read that precious book.

I am now so thankful that I listened to my wonderful family and accepted the challenge of the mission field. It means so much to me to have become a part of my dad’s special calling. I grew up a lot and learned many important lessons through my experiences in Mississippi. Things that make us grow never are easy, and now when I look back, I can’t really remember the rough times. I only remember the great ones.

All the friendships I made in Mississippi continue to grow sweeter as time passes, and maybe someday some of the seeds planted there will flourish. I guess most of all I learned how to totally rely on my Heavenly Father. This lesson will stay with me not only for today but forever.

[photos] Photos by Mike McConkie