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How the First Presidency met their wives

First Presidency.jpeg
From left to right: President Dallin H. Oaks, President Russell M. Nelson, and President Henry B. Eyring
Scott G Winterton

Many of us know the First Presidency best by their messages and the service that they give. But what do we know of their life history and the women who have been by their sides? We thought we’d share these delightful stories of when President Russell M. Nelson, President Dallin H. Oaks, and President Henry B. Eyring first met their wives to give you some insights into these Church leaders and their loved ones, as well as to inspire you in your own relationships.

President Nelson and Sister Dantzel White

Note: The following is excerpted from Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson about when President Nelson met his wife Dantzel White, who passed away due to a heart attack in 2005.

Russell Nelson’s interests were multifaceted, and his heavy load at the university didn’t keep him from exploring extracurricular activities. Among other things, he was talented musically. Though he learned to read music, he had perfect pitch and an almost uncanny ability to play the piano (and later the organ) by ear—and could do so as well as he could with music in front of him. Plus, he had a beautiful baritone voice. In fact, had it not been for his singing voice, he might never have met Dantzel White.

One day in 1942, Gail Plummer recruited Russell to accept a role in the play Hayfoot, Strawfoot he was directing at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus. Russell at first declined. His premed course work was all-consuming. But Plummer persisted, and finally Russell relented. When he walked into the theater for the first rehearsal on April 16, 1942, Russell was instantly fixated on a beautiful brunette onstage who had the most hypnotic soprano voice he’d ever heard. She caught his eye and his ear.

“Who is that beautiful girl singing up there?” he asked Plummer. Her name was Dantzel White, and Russell could not believe his good fortune when he learned that the role he had agreed to play was opposite her. As he left this first meeting, he had a vivid, and perhaps hopeful, feeling come over him: “She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” he said, and he sensed and hoped that she was the girl he would marry. For him, it was love at first sight.

Russell M. Nelson and Dantzel.
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The young premed student began to date the darling girl studying elementary education, and, fortunately, Dantzel felt the same attraction to him. In fact, shortly after their first meeting, she made a trip home to Perry, Utah, to visit her parents, Maude Clark White and LeRoy Davis White. Though she’d known Russell for just a short time, she told them that she had met the man she wanted to marry.

“I fell madly in love with Dantzel,” Russell said, “and she made it clear that nobody was going to marry her unless they could do so in the temple. That was a given for her.”

For a young man whose gospel education thus far in life had been modest, though increasing in his later teenage years, marrying Dantzel in the temple became great motivation for Russell to learn more about the gospel and to prepare to go to the temple.

Three years after their first meeting—on August 31, 1945—they were married in the Salt Lake Temple. In doing so, Dantzel, whose gorgeous operatic soprano voice had won her a full scholarship to the famed Juilliard School in New York City, put her own career aside to marry the love of her life.

Dantzel and Russell in 1945.
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

They were young—Dantzel was 19 and Russell just 20, though he was already a sophomore in medical school. Russell’s parents and siblings could not attend the sealing in the temple, and “they were not cheerful about that,” he admitted. “But they loved Dantzel and were in favor of our marrying, so that helped them deal with the fact that their inactivity in the Church prevented their presence in the temple.”

Dantzel and Russell had dated as World War II raged, with all the uncertainty and unique challenges that era posed. And now that they were married, she supported him, financially and otherwise, as he completed medical school in 1947. Then off they went to Minnesota for what would be the beginning of a long road of graduate school and advanced medical training.

They were young and naive about what lay ahead of them. And they were young in the gospel as well. While Dantzel came from a devout Latter-day Saint home, Russell did not, and their combined understanding of the gospel was modest. “When we married in the temple, we didn’t know many scriptures,” Russell would later explain. “But we did know Matthew 6:33: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ … That became the lodestar for every decision we made together” (Nelson, “Faith and Families”).

President Nelson and Sister Wendy Watson

Note: The following is excerpted from Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson.

President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Nelson.
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In the spring of 2005, Wendy Watson made a trip to southern Alberta to speak at a stake Relief Society conference in her hometown of Raymond, Alberta, Canada. One of her sisters, Kathy Card, from Edmonton, joined her. Following a session in the Cardston Alberta Temple, Wendy told her sister that she could feel a big change coming in her life but had no idea what it was. Maybe it was time to quit teaching at BYU. Maybe she should move. She just wasn’t sure. But as they talked, she found herself saying something she’d never said to anyone before in her life: “Kathy, you can write it in your journal. There is a big change coming in my life.”

The next morning, Wendy mentioned that she had awakened with a hymn in her mind and she didn’t know what it was. When she hummed it for Kathy, her sister said, “Oh, don’t you know, that’s the hymn that Elder Nelson wrote new words to and that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang to accompany his general conference talk.” Wendy responded, “Well, I don’t know anything about that, but there’s a big change coming in my life.”

A few weeks later, in May 2005, Wendy and her friend Sheri Dew left for Europe on a trip that was part business and part vacation. Their first stop was Germany, where, among other things, they attended an endowment session at the Frankfurt Temple with Sisters Barbara Perry and Marie Hafen, whose husbands, Elders L. Tom Perry and Bruce C. Hafen, were serving in the Europe Area Presidency at the time. On the drive back from the temple, Wendy and Sister Perry sat in the backseat and chatted at length as Sister Perry shared some of her experiences as Elder Perry’s second wife. Wendy enjoyed Sister Perry’s stories but didn’t have even a fleeting thought about becoming the second wife of one of the Brethren.

From Germany, Wendy and Sheri went to Rome and met up with friends Sharon and Ralph Larsen, with whom they enjoyed the grandeur and majesty of the Eternal City. The crowds at the Vatican and Coliseum, the mob around Trevi Fountain (where Wendy and Sheri made sure they threw in the obligatory three coins for every woman interested in marriage), the lines for gelato—it was both education and sheer fun with good friends.

When the four arrived in Florence, they bumped into friends who happened to mention that the first stake in Rome was being created that very weekend by Elder Russell M. Nelson. They debated briefly about whether they should attempt to attend such an amazing historical event—the first stake in the shadow of the Vatican—but decided that a change in their itinerary at that point would cause a domino effect too major to overcome. So they soaked in the ambience of Florence. The iconic Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi gallery, and of course Michelangelo’s masterpiece—the David: it was all as eye-opening and enlightening as everyone said it would be. Surprisingly, however, both Wendy and Sheri became restless and decided to leave Florence earlier than they had expected to.

The foursome was scheduled to separate then anyway, so as Wendy and Sheri considered options, they decided to see if they could get last-minute tickets on a train from Florence over the Italian Alps to Zurich. Surprisingly, tickets were available, so they hurriedly packed, caught a cab to the train station, bought their tickets, and walked to the large yard filled with trains.

As they perused a large marquee identifying which trains were going to which cities—all in Italian—they heard someone from behind them say, “Sister Dew, may I help you?” When they turned around, they saw an adorable young woman, a returned missionary who had returned to Florence, where she had served much of her mission. She helped them identify the train headed to Zurich and casually mentioned that she was off to Rome to attend the creation of the first stake there. Wendy then left to check out platform number 8, which was where their train to Zurich would be.

Suddenly Sheri had an idea. She was almost certain that Elder Harold G. Hillam, then the Area President, and his wife, Carol, would be accompanying Elder Nelson to Rome. She had worked closely with Elder Hillam during her service in the Relief Society General Presidency, and she asked the young woman if she would be willing to walk up to the stand and hand a note to Elder Hillam. Sheri adored the Hillams and loved the idea of sending them a note. The returned sister missionary was game, so Sheri quickly jotted a note and handed it to her.

As they prepared to part, it occurred to Sheri that it would only be polite to send a note to Elder Nelson as well, though she did not know him as well as she did Elder Hillam. As she began to write a second note, Wendy suddenly reappeared from checking out the various train platforms. Sheri explained the note she had written to the Hillams and said that she was just finishing a second note, this one for Elder Nelson. “Sign my name to it too,” Wendy said. Sheri signed both her and Wendy’s names, the young woman took the notes and departed, and Sheri and Wendy boarded the train for Zurich. They wondered out loud if the young woman would actually deliver the notes, but assumed they would never know.

However … they did find out that the young returned sister missionary did indeed deliver the notes to Elders Nelson and Hillam. And they found out in a most unexpected way.

Elder Nelson’s wife, Dantzel, had passed away several months earlier. Knowing that he would be traveling alone to and from Europe, he asked his secretary to go to Deseret Book and get him a couple of books to read on the trip. On the flight over, he read one of those books: Rock Solid Relationships, by Wendy L. Watson.

When he read the note while sitting on the stand in Rome prior to the beginning of the stake conference and saw Wendy’s name, it leaped off the page as all the other words faded away. He couldn’t see anything except the name Wendy Watson. At the same time, Elder Nelson had a strong, immediate, and clear spiritual impression about her. Once home from Europe, he took the note with him to the Salt Lake Temple to seek confirmation about that impression. What he learned was that when it was time for him to consider remarriage, he needed to meet this woman.

It was a curious sequence of events. Wendy and Sheri weren’t even supposed to be at the train station in Florence. And what are the odds that during the few seconds they were trying to identify the right train to board, a young Latter-day Saint woman would recognize Sheri and offer to help—and that she would just happen to be going to the location where Elder Russell M. Nelson was scheduled to preside at the creation of a stake? And that the thought would occur to Sheri to send a note. And that Wendy would ask for her name to be added to the note. And that she would then never remember saying that.

It was a stunning display of timing—the Lord’s timing. And the rest, as they say, is history. The day came when Elder Nelson felt prompted to reach out to Wendy. As they became acquainted, it was clear that heaven was orchestrating their union. The Lord was their matchmaker, as Wendy would say ever after.

When Elder Nelson proposed, there was a lot they had yet to learn about each other. But as he said to Wendy, “There are plenty of things I do not know about you, but I do know revelation.” As did she. Wendy had experienced three broken engagements in earlier years, and she wasn’t interested in repeating the experience with an Apostle. Suffice it to say that both had sought clear direction on whether or not to even go on a first date—a date prompted by a note at a train station in Florence. That note, framed by Elder Nelson, sits prominently in his home office.

President Oaks and Sister June Dixon

Note: Sister Oaks passed away in July 1998 after more than a year-long battle with cancer.

In the biography In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks, the Apostle said one of the major turning points in his life was his “first date with June.”

President Oaks met June during his freshman year of college at BYU. According to Church News, he “occasionally served as a radio announcer at high school basketball games. It was at one of those games he met June Dixon, a senior at a local high school. A year and a half after they met, the couple married in the Salt Lake Temple.”

Dallin H. Oaks and June Dixon were married on June 24, 1952.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The couple married young. June was only 19 years and 3 months and President oaks was 19 years and 10 months. His mother even had to sign written consent so he could obtain the marriage license.

“We were both mature for our ages, but we both had some growing up to do,” he saw in retrospect. “It is well that we married young and grew up together, since both of us had dominant personalities. Both of us needed the malleability of our youth to accommodate to another who was equally strong. It is also well that our children came when we were young. Early family responsibilities drew us together in common efforts that unified us and shaped our marriage into a cooperative model.”

President Oaks and Sister Kristen McCain

Note: At age 52, Kristen McCain felt that most of her energy was going into her employment. After receiving a blessing from her bishop, she decided to find employment at home and resign from her job with a large publisher, which had her traveling all around the world. The following is excerpted from In the Hands of the Lord.

When her elderly aunts learned she was soon to be unemployed, they arranged an appointment for her to see their nephew Elder M. Russell Ballard because he had connections with Deseret Book and other publishing interests. They thought he might be able to help their niece find employment closer to home in Utah.

For Kristen, meeting with a General Authority about her personal needs seemed rather awkward. “My exposure to General Authorities had been minimal,” she wrote, “and I liked it that way. I had the utmost respect for them. I revered them, but I also understood the line of priesthood jurisdiction and felt confident that my home teachers and my bishop were sufficient to bless my life.” Yet she went forward in meeting Elder Ballard anyway. That was just before Elder Oaks called his fellow Apostle to seek guidance in finding a new wife.

Elder Ballard “arranged for me to meet her on her walk Friday in Liberty Park,” Elder Oaks noted. He wanted to be properly dressed for the July 7 occasion, and his daughter Sharmon, who happened to be in town, and her husband, Jack, “immediately took me shopping for clothes,” he wrote in his journal.

Elder Oaks also followed up Elder Ballard’s arrangement with his own personal phone call to Kristen, a call that left her facing “a few daunting circumstances,” she later said. “He wanted to bring … Sharmon to meet me before she left town the next day. I did not tell him I had just had a permanent and needed to cover my head. We decided on a walk in Liberty Park,” a popular walking location in southeast Salt Lake. “When I met my future husband and his daughter, I was wearing Levi’s and a baseball cap (to hide my curls) for our walk”—not exactly what she would have chosen for a first meeting with a member of the Twelve. When Kristen saw Elder Oaks with Sharmon, her first words to him were, “Do you always double-date like this?”

“Looking back,” Kristen reminisced, “I would never have planned to meet an Apostle of the Lord and his daughter dressed so casually. But that baseball cap allowed me to just be myself.” Feeling surprisingly relaxed, she was able to enjoy their time together. “Our initial meeting and the conversation that ensued,” she wrote of her visit with them, “seemed like that of three longtime friends. Elder Oaks told me that he had often taken walks with his wife, June, who had died two years earlier. I asked him to tell me about her. From the beginning we felt calm and relaxed with each other. Sharmon shared much about their family and her mother. We laughed and talked, and our courtship began.”

President Dallin H. Oaks and Sister Kristen Oaks.
Jason Swensen, Church News

Elder Oaks recorded in his journal the positive reaction to her he felt on this first meeting. “Sharmon and I met and walked with Kristen McMain, who proved to be attractive, intelligent, faithful, and fun,” he wrote. “I was intrigued, and Sharmon was impressed.” The next day, Elder Oaks spent four hours hiking and having a “deep visit with Kristen M. on the foothills above This Is the Place Park,” he recorded in his journal. “I asked her many penetrating questions, and from her answers and questions to me, I continue intrigued.”

President Henry B. Eyring and Sister Kathleen Johnson

Note: The following excerpt is from I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring.

The realization of Hal’s lifelong dream of a family of his own finally began on an early summer morning in Rindge, New Hampshire, a two-hour drive to the west and north from Boston. Hal was assigned by President Cox to represent the district presidency at a single-adult “morningside” held at the Cathedral of the Pines, a natural amphitheater atop a wooded hill near Mount Monadnock. After the event Hal walked through the trees surrounding the amphitheater toward the parking lot where he had left his red Volkswagen Beetle, an MBA graduation gift from his father.

Entering the lot, Hal sighted an auburn-haired young woman in a red and white seersucker dress. He had never seen her before and knew nothing about her. But he was immediately impressed by the goodness she radiated. The thought came, “That’s the best person I’ve ever seen. If I could be with her, I could be every good thing I ever wanted to be.”3

The next day the Boston District presidency attended sacrament meeting at the Church’s historic Longfellow Park chapel in Cambridge, near Harvard Yard. Seated on the stand next to President Cox, Hal saw the young woman again, sitting with a friend in the congregation. He leaned over to President Cox and said, “That’s the girl I would give anything to marry.”

Kathleen 2.jpg
Henry B. Eyring and Kathleen Johnson.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The girl, Kathleen Johnson, was from Palo Alto, California, as far from Boston as one can get in the continental United States. She was a twenty-year-old student from the University of California at Berkeley who hadn’t intended to be in Massachusetts that summer. Early in the spring, one of her sorority sisters had described a plan to attend summer school at Harvard. “That sounds like fun,” Kathy replied good-naturedly. Several weeks later this friend reported that she had enrolled and bought her plane ticket. “Won’t we have fun?” she asked. Caught off guard, Kathy casually replied that she’d never had any intention of going. Her friend was equally surprised and vehement in her response: “I’m counting on you to be my roommate. You have to go!”

Whatever valid excuses Kathy could have made, lack of financial means wasn’t one of them. The year before, her parents had paid for a semester of French language study at the Sorbonne, home to the University of Paris; the year before that she had studied at the University of Vienna. Though Kathy wasn’t eager to go to Boston, she didn’t have uneasy feelings about it. In the spirit of friendship, and with her parents’ blessing, she went along. A good student at Cal, she faced no difficulty in getting into the Harvard summer program, which was run precisely for well-to-do students such as Kathy from other schools.

Pulling rank with the ward clerk after seeing her in sacrament meeting, Hal got Kathy’s phone number. He called for a first date several days later. Knowing neither his name nor his face, she nonchalantly hedged: “If you’re in church on Sunday, we’ll talk then.” Hal made sure that he was there, asking President Cox to excuse him from the usual visit to a distant branch for the sake of this greater personal cause.

The next Sunday at Longfellow Park, Hal was thrilled by Kathy’s reply to his question about her interests: “I like to play tennis,” she said. The words were music to Hal’s ears. With his doctoral qualifying examination behind him and the business school all but deserted for the summer, he had more time on his hands than he had enjoyed for years. He’d been playing tennis several times a week with a former collegiate tennis player; his game was at an all-time high. It would be the perfect first date.

The initial set of tennis, played several days later on Harvard’s clay courts, went just as Hal had planned: he won six games to three. As they switched sides for the next set, he airily complimented Kathy’s play, in a manner intended to be charming. She stared straight ahead and said nothing. While he prepared to serve from his baseline, she crouched low behind hers, gently but firmly hitting the clay court with her wooden racquet.

Hal wouldn’t recall the final score of that second set, but in later years he freely admitted, “She cleaned me out.” In the discussion of their first date, Kathy hadn’t mentioned that she had captained the tennis team at her private girls’ high school. As they took the court, she may have underrated her balding, bespectacled date from Utah. In any case, one set was all Prince Charming would win from this stoic, determined young woman. …

… Throughout that idyllic summer, they saw one another regularly, playing tennis and taking a sailing trip with friends to Cape Cod. They even visited Hal’s boyhood home, Princeton. But the summer ended too soon, leaving the couple to correspond by letter and telephone when Kathy returned to California. She could afford to fly back to Boston for several visits, the first made with a college friend as chaperone. Hal reciprocated once, meeting Kathy’s family on a trip to interview for a faculty position at Stanford; he stayed at the home of his MBA roommate George Montgomery, who lived in nearby Hillsborough. The Stanford interview produced a job offer, in addition to offers already received from Harvard and UCLA.

In early 1961, eight months after their first meeting, Kathy made a final visit to see Hal in Boston. By this time they were deeply in love. But Kathy agreed with her father, who knew from personal experience the feeling of “cold feet,” that unchaperoned cross-country dating was inappropriate. On the final evening of this late-winter trip, Kathy told Hal that she would not be returning to see him again.

Hal shared Kathy’s feeling that their dating relationship could not continue as it had been. For months he had been seeking heaven’s blessing to marry Kathy, but no clear confirmation had come. The thought of losing her and the family they might have together—“the Redheads”—made his heart ache. But he was determined to receive divine confirmation. That night he prayed with greater fervency than ever, telling his Heavenly Father that he would not proceed without approval. Initially, his only answer was an enigmatic impression: “If you never saw her again, you’d have known more of love than most people do in a lifetime.”

Hal continued to pray through the night. Finally the hoped-for confirmation came, in the form of a voice heard in his mind: “Go!” The next morning, before dawn, he prayed again to be sure that he had heard correctly. A feeling of reconfirmation enveloped him, triggering tears of joy.

Leaving the Sopers’ place in his Volkswagen, Hal drove quickly to the well-known Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, where Kathy was staying. Her bags were packed for the flight home. On the drive to the airport, still in the countryside, Hal stopped the car on a deserted road next to a stone wall. Turning to Kathy, he said, “I’ve been told to ask you to marry me.” Kathy replied only with tears. Though in later years Hal would sometimes joke about never getting a verbal confirmation, he knew that her answer was as sure as heaven’s.

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