The Combustion Point

by Janet Thomas

Assistant Editor

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    Whether it was boiling water in a paper cup or becoming a best-selling author, Dian Thomas didn’t listen to those who said, “It can’t be done.”

    The limousine pulled to the curb in front of NBC in New York City, and a pretty brunette woman smiled at the driver and got out. It was 5:00 in the morning. It would be an hour yet before the sun finally edged around the skyscrapers to lighten the scene. But you have to be early if you’re starting a new job as a regular on the early-morning talk show, Today. And Dian Thomas was starting what she hoped would be a long stay on the show.

    Dian was left on the curb surrounded by suitcases and bags of props that she would need for her demonstration on backyard cooking. She had a new pitchfork for roasting hot dogs and a foil-covered shovel for cooking hamburgers. She had a child’s wagon that would be adapted as a barbecue. She had cans and food and fuel that she would use to simulate a backyard party in the studio.

    Dian’s claim to fame was authoring several best-selling books on outdoor cooking, but she hoped to expand her demonstrations to include interesting ideas for home entertaining and unusual foods. She presented a proposal for a series of segments to the producers of the NBC Today Show, and they wanted to see how she would do on the air before inviting her to join the show as a regular.

    It took several trips, but she struggled with her load to the main elevator. She finally managed to carry her props to the dressing room assigned to her. As she carried the last of her things in, a flustered man rushed up to her. “You’re not supposed to carry all those things in by yourself. There’s a prop man for that.” Later, the prop man put a star on her dressing room door and told her, “See that. You’re the star. You don’t have to carry your things up by yourself.”

    Dian arranged her first show, and it was time to tape her segment. She demonstrated to Tom Brokaw, the host of the show, how to fill the wagon with dirt and charcoal to serve as a barbecue. She showed him how to use an ironing board as an impromptu buffet table. She showed him how to keep drinks cold in a wheelbarrow filled with ice. As she finished, Tom asked her, “What if one of my guests stumbles and sits in the barbecue by mistake.” Thinking quickly, Dian quipped, “Then you would have rump roast!”

    The studio personnel burst into laughter at her answer. The host smiled at her quick response. “It was that show that gave me the courage to talk to the host and producer about doing a regular segment,” said Dian in retrospect. Since then Dian has been seen by millions of television viewers several times a month for more than three years. She also represents major companies in product promotion at conventions and in the media. She is a popular speaker and lecturer. She is articulate, witty, attractive, well liked, and successful.

    But growing up, Dian had a difficult time learning to read and spell. Now an author of four books that collectively have sold a million copies and a college graduate with a master’s degree, she was once advised that she might not make it through college.

    How did a young girl who was in the lowest reading group manage to overcome the stumbling block of thinking of herself as someone not up to par and go on to succeed in such a spectacular way? “I was determined,” said Dian, “and no test can measure determination. Some of that determination came from my family, but a lot of it came from the Church. My talent was figuring things out, and I figured out how to overcome my problem with reading.”

    Dian Thomas and her four brothers grew up learning to love the outdoors. Her father was a forest ranger, and the family lived at a ranger station outside of Monticello, Utah.

    For Dian it was a wonderful childhood. She and her brothers had a huge area for their projects. One of their favorites was an elaborate chipmunk trap. They learned about how the little creatures built their nests, how they hybernated in the winter, and how they raised their young. If Dian and her brothers wanted to learn about something, they examined the real thing. If they wanted to learn about beehives, there were beehives to observe. “I learned by doing,” said Dian.

    Dian’s mother encouraged their projects. “Once we told my mother we wanted a swimming pool. We got some old canvas, and it took Mom a week to sew those old tarps together. We melted wax and colored it blue and painted it on the canvas to make it waterproof. We put water in it, let the sun warm it, and we had our swimming pool. Our mother went along with us and sometimes beyond in helping us create our ideas.”

    In the warm weather, they would go with their father in the truck riding through the hills to count cattle and sheep on the ranges. “We would sit up in the back and drive all through the mountains. We would just sit back there and watch and see.”

    When school started, Dian did not care for learning to read as much as she enjoyed going with her father or working on her projects. Reading just wasn’t interesting for her. Reading was a burden all through grade school, and her opinion of herself began to suffer because of it.

    “Because I wasn’t good at reading, I let that affect my self-image,” said Dian. “I was probably more creative than most kids, mainly because I spent so much time figuring out how to make things work. I think the worst thing I did was consider myself inadequate in school because I couldn’t read or spell very well. I let that penetrate into my self-esteem. I let it affect other areas of my life which I shouldn’t have done.”

    When Dian reached seventh grade, her family moved to Salt Lake City. Having been raised in the country, Dian had to adjust to life in a city. She was still having problems in school, but she was determined to make friends and be successful in her new home.

    “I was put in a remedial reading group. I watched my friends and could see that they could read well. I just didn’t know why I couldn’t, but I didn’t give up. I just kept plodding. I figured out ways to get through my classes. I would study with friends, and I worked on ways to help myself. I found it really helped to write things on a blackboard and go over and over them. I did a lot of things other kids didn’t have to do. There were times I really got discouraged and wanted to quit, but I just didn’t.”

    When it came time to go to girls’ camp, Dian found an area in which she was skilled and had things to teach others. She taught fun ways to cook over a fire and efficient ways of setting up camp. Little did she know that doing this thing that she loved would become her profession.

    One event that sticks out in Dian’s mind took place in the tenth grade. Aptitude tests were given, and based on the results, counselors advised the students on the areas they should stress to prepare for college or a job. When Dian talked to the counselor, it was a disappointment. “They suggested that I would probably have trouble with college. I remember my scores. In reading skills, I was low. But in logic and reasoning, I was in the 98th percentile. In one area I felt like a failure, but in another I was so skilled. When he told me not to go to college, I didn’t even consider it. I said I am going to college. They can measure a skill at certain levels, but nobody can measure determination. I learned that everyone has an area in which he feels inadequate.”

    What made Dian so determined to do her best? She remembers specifically as a teenager hearing a radio talk given by President David O. McKay, who was president of the Church at that time. “I remember him saying that we only have one life to live, and we have to do the best we can with this life. I remember thinking, ‘If I only have one life to live, then I have to be the best I can be. It doesn’t matter what everyone else can do; I can’t give up.’”

    With a realistic grasp of her limitations, Dian entered college and signed up for remedial help in reading. “I was tested, and my reading speed was slow. The lady who tested me said I probably wouldn’t make it through college. I remember walking out of there feeling frustrated. I thought, ‘Nobody can tell other people what they can do and what they can’t.’”

    It was hard. It was discouraging. Dian charted a course of college study that took advantage of her creative skills and did not require an exorbitant amount of reading. She studied home economics hoping to become a teacher. She often had to work twice as hard as other students to complete papers and read assignments. Her parents helped in every way they could. Sometimes they would drive to Provo for the weekend and read Dian’s assignments with her. Yet Dian’s research and teaching projects showed her creativity and innovation. In moments of discouragement, this thought kept coming back to her, “You only have one life. You’ve got to be the best person you can be.”

    Dian loved doing things. “If I saw an idea I liked, I’d go home and do it. It became part of me. I slowly built up a repertoire of things I could do. A creative idea is often just putting two things together to make a new thing. It’s often just a twist on something else.” It is this ability to do things in a new way that is Dian’s real talent. And she loved sharing them with others. She is a natural teacher and has charm that reaches beyond the camera.

    For her master’s thesis, she organized and wrote a curriculum guide to teach outdoor skills. This became the basis for her national best-selling book, Roughing It Easy. But getting the book published was also an exercise in perseverance. She approached BYU Press to take on the job, but they turned it down. She kept working with an editor until the press reconsidered the project and agreed to publish the book. To promote the sale of her book, she started a series of lectures combined with local television, newspaper, and radio interviews. She prepared herself to go after opportunities. She made proposals to companies about how she could help them with product promotion. She became a favorite of the television talk show circuit not only because of what she talked about but by the force of her personality. Now she is a popular lecturer crisscrossing the nation regularly, talking to businessmen in Alaska one week and a group of teachers in Pennsylvania the next. She attributes her success to preparation. “I would watch for opportunities and be prepared. Sometimes I’ll think and work on a proposal for months before approaching a company.”

    Where does Dian get her ideas? Since reading is not the best way for her to do research, she learns by talking to people. Whenever she travels, she strikes up a conversation with the person in the seat next to her. Whenever she’s standing in line, she talks to those around her. If she’s working on new party ideas, she’ll let that guide her conversation with strangers. She’ll ask, “What was the best party you’ve ever been to?” That not only gets the conversation going, it helps Dian learn about new ideas from which she can develop her own unique variations. “I can’t tell you how rewarding just talking to people will be. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, and I am genuinely interested.”

    Even though Dian can tell you how to make an outdoor grill out of a tin can or how to take a shower under an umbrella, some of the ideas that still amaze her audiences are the ones she learned a long time ago. One of her favorites is boiling water in a paper cup. “I love to do things that stretch people’s imaginations,” says Dian. “At first they say you can’t boil water in a paper cup. But you can. When water in a paper cup is placed directly in a fire, the water keeps the paper below the combustion point.”

    Another favorite idea is starting a fire with double O steel wool and batteries. If two batteries are held end to end and steel wool is stretched to make the connection on both ends, it causes a spark capable of starting a fire in shaved kindling.

    Dian also likes to cook eggs and bacon in a paper sack. In fact, this skill was the one she demonstrated to Johnny Carson on his late night television talk show. Based on her appearance on that show, she received dozens of invitations to talk, essentially initiating her nationwide popularity.

    Growing up, Dian learned a lot about not letting other people’s opinions of her abilities influence what she did. Every time she met an obstacle to her learning or development, she put her talent of figuring things out to work. She would watch and listen until she found a way to succeed.

    “If only people would just prepare themselves to succeed,” Dian wishes. “It’s their lives, if they would just do something with them. They are the captains of their ships. Sometimes people don’t realize their own value. I think the Church teaches us so beautifully that each of us is someone special.”

    Discouraging times come to everyone, and Dian has had her share. She has learned of ways to deal with those “down” times. “When I was going to school, I didn’t bury myself. I had trouble in one area, but I was succeeding in another. To cheer myself up, I would get out of where I was and get with people. That is the biggest solution to life. When you are discouraged, get out of the environment you’re in and go help somebody. When you come back, you can face your problems a little better.”

    Now it seems ironic that a little girl who didn’t read very well is the author of nationally best-selling books. Dian Thomas worked on her enormous creative talents instead of being stymied by what she couldn’t do as well. “Instead of saying I can’t do it, I learned to say, how can I do it.” Succeeding as a writer and lecturer defied what some people believed about her. Her success is just like boiling water in the paper cup: people say it can’t be done, but it can. Dian discovered the combustion point of her talent.