It is late June 2015. My husband and I are visiting Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s his first time there. We’re surrounded by pretty flowers, curious visitors, the indescribably beautiful temple and other impressive buildings.
As we face the street, we see a lean, spry, older man hop the curb and sprint right by us. It was Dallin H. Oaks. “It’s Elder Oaks!” I exclaimed. Of course, he was long gone by then.
Rewind to August 12, 1932 when Dallin H. Oaks was born. His mother, Stella, named him Dallin in honor of the sculptor, Cyrus Dallin, for whom she was the artist’s model for the statue, The Pioneer Mother. The “H” stands for Harris, the last name of his 2nd great-grandfather Emer Harris, brother to Martin Harris. Martin was one of the Three Witnesses of The Book of Mormon, but even better known for losing the 116 page manuscript when the Prophet Joseph Smith was beginning his translation of the plates that became that book. Dallin H. Oaks gave a wonderful talk in 1999 (I highly recommend it, click the link) called The Witness: Martin Harris, in which he focuses on the sacrifices Harris made during the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A great reminder that a moment of weakness should not define us.
After a harrowing birth that made his physician father, Lloyd Oaks, and others present wonder if he would even survive, Dallin entered a remarkable life of hard work, service, and accomplishments. Widowed in 1939 when Lloyd died of tuberculosis, Stella Oaks was left to raise her children alone. She overcame much, but eventually finished her schooling and became involved in local education and civic leadership. She was a terrific example of resiliency and service. Being raised by a single mother gave Dallin a great respect for women and he has constantly worked for fairness and recognition of women’s achievements throughout his life.
Author Richard Turley, former Assistant Church Historian and long-time friend of President Oaks, does a marvelous job outlining the life of this amazing man. We learn about his early family life while advancing his admirable legal career. I was delighted to learn about his years as president of my alma mater, Brigham Young University–about a decade before I attended–and the effects of his tenure there, making much-needed changes that are still in place today.
Of course, Latter-day Saints know Dallin H. Oaks (now “President Oaks”) best as the Senior Apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve and next in line to be President of the Church. We see him speak twice a year (either in person or televised) at General Conference. For most of us, seeing him only in that setting has created an image of his overall personality in our minds. We hear his booming voice and think of adjectives like stern, instructive, even a bit intimidating. The best part of this biography was learning about the man behind the scenes. His family adores him and say he’s actually a pretty funny man. I loved reading about his first few years as an Apostle. His mentors, not surprisingly, were Neal A. Maxwell (a personal favorite) and Bruce R. McConkie. It is a life-long calling he had to grow into and takes very seriously. There were bumps along the way, but he works very hard, always reminding himself that, ultimately, he answers to the highest authority.
Towards the end of the book, aside from reading about his second marriage in 2000 to Kristen McMain Oaks after the death of beloved wife June in 1998, I loved reading responses to letters from church members. Like everything else he does, President Oaks answers with love, no matter the subject.
President Oaks is truly someone who leads by example. I am inspired by his work ethic, wisdom, devotion to family, and constant striving for personal improvement. He is a humble man who loves the Lord. I feel honored that this book gave me the opportunity to know him better.