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What I Learned After Being Called as a Primary President at Age 78

All my life I have been taught to accept Church callings, knowing that despite my inadequacies, with the Lord’s help I could do my best. However, in September 2009, the bishop of our ward came over to our home for what my husband and I assumed was a friendly, get-to-know-you-better kind of visit. We were both completely stunned when he asked me, at age seventy-eight, to be the Primary president in the Bloomington Seventh Ward. My first response was, “Bishop, what are you thinking?” Why the surprise? My age aside, I informed him that I don’t see very well, I don’t hear very well, and I certainly don’t breathe as well as I did when I was younger. The bishop explained to me that as he reflected upon a new Primary president, my name kept coming to his mind. Although he tried to dismiss the feeling, after praying about the matter, he still felt impressed to call me. He even went to the temple to pray about who should be Primary president, and the impression continued that I should be called to this position. And so when he came to my home and offered his explanation as to why I was being called, I knew I could not say no. Could you say no, with such an explanation? Of course, when I told my daughter about the conversation, she said, “But did you tell him that you can’t sing?”

I am not certain what inspired him to ask me to be Primary president, but I do know that I have been blessed to have the opportunity to serve in this capacity. It did not take long for me to realize that this calling is a greater blessing to me than it is to the Primary children. I was also blessed by being inspired to call capable and outstanding women to be counselors, secretary, teachers, and music leaders. In fact, our pianist is undoubtedly the most active nonmember in the whole Church.

Perhaps the greatest blessing has been the knowledge that our Heavenly Father loves these little children and wants them to be successful and happy as they grow in their testimonies of the gospel and their knowledge of the Savior. I have come to realize that we as leaders have the important responsibility of helping them build a strong foundation so that they will be able to endure the challenges that will come their way. We also have an important obligation to support parents and families as they strive to live the gospel on a daily basis and nurture the testimonies of their young children. At this young age their testimonies are simple; they have the understanding that they love God and want to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. We have the wonderful opportunity to help them understand that God knows who they are and loves each and every one of them.

As Primary leaders, we hope that each child learns to pray and to read the scriptures daily, and learns to recognize the promptings of the Holy Ghost. We encourage them to learn the thirteen Articles of Faith, and to know the stories of the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and the Doctrine and Covenants. In Primary it is important that the children begin to gain a testimony of Joseph Smith and the restoration of the Church. Of equal importance is that they know that there is a living prophet of God on the earth today, President Thomas S. Monson, who leads and guides our church.

These sweet Primary children are also learning right from wrong. They are learning at a very young age that the choices they make have consequences. They need to make correct choices in order to find happiness in this life and return to live with our Heavenly Father. It is important that they not only read and hear about gospel principles, but that they actually apply them in their lives.

I look forward each week to greeting the Primary children. I want them to know how much I love them. As Primary leaders we must be aware that each child needs to feel that they are wanted and accepted, and that they have a place in Primary. I want the Primary children to leave each week knowing not only that they are loved by their Heavenly Father, but that their leaders and teachers love them and want the best for them, to have a positive feeling as they come each Sunday that will sustain them as their testimonies grow and are challenged.

Christ taught us that to enter the kingdom of God one has to become as a little child. In Matthew 18:1, the disciples ask Christ, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Christ holds a little child on His knee and says, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4).

Are we not all little children in the eyes of our Savior as we strive to learn and grow in the gospel? Christ is telling us that we must be humble, teachable, and have that same purity of spirit that little children have. In other words, the scriptures tell us we must become as Primary children—having faith in God and a willingness to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Just as Primary children have faith in God, we too must analyze our lives to assure that we are following the principles of the gospel and developing a strong testimony of our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.

The Lord has sent these precious spirits here on earth to be taught the gospel so they can return to the Savior’s presence having been proven worthy. Throughout the Church, Primary teachers and presidencies are there to help parents and family in this critical assignment of teaching the children. It is the most important assignment both parents and Primary workers can have in the Church.

It is my firm conviction that a child comes with a testimony of Christ, for they have just left His presence. They have His light in their eyes. What is that light? President James E. Faust described it best when he told of the negotiations with leaders in Israel when an agreement was being reached to build the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center. After the Church had agreed not to proselyte from the Center, someone asked, “But what are you going to do about the light that is in their eyes?”1 He was speaking of the college students who had the light of Christ in their eyes. The sweet Primary children have that light and it is my hope and prayer that the light and knowledge of Jesus Christ will never disappear from their eyes.

Jean Stevens, first counselor in the Primary general presidency, talked about this light when she said, “These precious children of God come to us with believing hearts. They are full of faith and receptive to feelings of the Spirit. They exemplify humility, obedience, and love. They are often the first to love and the first to forgive.”2

In Matthew 19:13–15, Jesus demonstrated the importance of loving and teaching the children. When the people brought their little children to Christ, “the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed hence.”

As Primary workers, we have the wonderful opportunity to love, nurture, and teach these children. In Mosiah 4:15, King Benjamin states: “Ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.”

We also have the responsibility of teaching these principles by example. Children are very honest—for example, I recently gave what I thought was an excellent analogy of how we should take time to pray, ponder, and live the gospel. Sister Anderson, the second counselor in our ward Primary, had just won a club golf championship. I explained to the children that in her youth, Sister Anderson had spent many hours practicing so she could become a better golfer. I assured them that they too would become stronger in the gospel if they spent time studying the scriptures, praying, and being kind to others. To further illustrate my point, I explained that I rarely practiced golf and, as a result, I have never won a tournament. I then asked, “What is the difference between Sister Anderson and me?” I expected a brilliant answer of practice, study, and diligence. A seven-year-old was the first to raise his hand, and his answer was simply, “Age.” Of course, we all laughed, for children often offer many moments of truth.

Another time, in an older class with five boys and one girl, it often became a tussle over who got the chair on the aisle. After the second occurrence, I asked this class to stay after Primary for a minute or two. I explained to them that they had a problem and if they didn’t solve it, it would become my problem—and I didn’t want it. The next Sunday, they came in very orderly and took their seats, but every ten minutes they rotated who sat on the aisle, which disturbed sharing time. I quickly said, “Please stay after a few minutes; I want to talk to you.”

I explained that their plan of rotating seats so they all had a turn on the aisle was a great idea, but the execution needed improving. I suggested that we could keep their rotation plan, but we would try rotating on a weekly basis instead of every ten minutes. I had them draw numbers to determine the seat that they would sit in. As they came in, each sat in his or her assigned seat. This routine seemed to work. A few months later I was out of town and a counselor asked if she should provide numbers for the children to draw for their seat. I said that I thought the class had developed a pattern. However, I was told that a class member had made the numbers on her own. They drew out numbers and sat accordingly. The rotation schedule is still working to this day. This example illustrates that children have the ability to solve their problems. However, a little guidance and direction are needed.

Primary children learn from us and we learn from them. It is a great responsibility, but there are many moments of joy. I have never received so many hugs, or little waves, as the children walk down the aisle, or even knocks on my door at home from children wanting to say hello. (I really think they want a cookie.)

As a Primary president you are always concerned with the spiritual growth of the children, but the realities of life become all too apparent in both their faces and their behavior. You understand the pain of a child whose parents are going through a divorce. You understand the frustration of a fourth grader who still cannot read. You have empathy for the great-grandparents who are raising a boy that they adopted because the mother is still on drugs. And you know the hurt of a young girl with tears in her eyes because her mother is in the Utah National Guard and is leaving for Afghanistan. You have so many moments of sweet joy, but also feel the pangs of sorrow for troubles and problems that life can bring to these young children. Being involved in Primary gives you the opportunity to extend an additional amount of love and understanding for those who have special needs and are suffering because of the actions of others. You cannot always change their circumstances, but you can reach out to those who need a little extra help and understanding. It may just be in the form of a smile, an offer of help, or an extra hug. Primary workers know the importance of reaching out to every child with love and understanding.

I want you to know that even though I was surprised to be called as Primary president, I feel that this calling has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. I have often said there is a time and season for everything in life and this is true of service. You are never too old or too young to serve. When you put your faith and trust in the Lord, He will give you the strength and ability necessary to carry out your calling. In any position where we are called to serve, we can magnify that calling and grow individually in the gospel when we rely on our Savior. I love working in Primary. I am so grateful for the opportunity of working with some of God’s choicest spirits. I pray that each of us may recognize the responsibility we have to love and teach the children.

Olene S. Walker was born in Ogden, Utah, and obtained her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from Brigham Young University, Stanford University, and the University of Utah, respectively. She served as the vice president of Country Crisp Foods, a family company, from 1969 to 1992. She served for eight years in the Utah state legislature, including a term as majority whip. In 1992, she was elected as the first female lieutenant governor of the state of Utah, and was sworn in as the first female governor of Utah in 2003. She and her husband, Myron Walker, are the parents of seven children.

Lead image from Getty Images

1. In James E. Faust, “The Light in Their Eyes,” Ensign, November 2005, 20.

2. Jean A. Stevens, “Become as a Little Child,” Ensign, May 2011, 10.


Get more inspiring insights in By Small and Simple Things: Talks from the 2011 BYU Women's Conference.

The talks contained in this treasury show the benefit of taking Alma's advice and focusing on the "small and simple things" of the gospel; steady, daily progress through small and simple acts of faith that garner great rewards in our Father's kingdom.

Vital spiritual patterns are evident in the life of the Savior, in the scriptures, and in the teachings of living prophets and apostles. These spiritual patterns are now and always have been important aids to discernment and sources of direction and protection for faithful Latter-day Saints."—Elder David A. Bednar

"The first great decision made on earth was Adam's decision to leave the Garden of Eden. In doing so he essentially left his Father to cleave to his wife. Given the choice of Eden or Eve, the paradise or the person, he chose Eve. He chose the person."—S. Michael Wilcox

"The purposes of Relief Society, as determined by the Lord, are to help us increase faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and seek out and help those who are in need. That's why Relief Society exists. The outcome is that we will improve women individually and as a whole and thus prepare for eternal life."—Julie B. Beck

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