Latter-day Saint Life

‘Know ye not?’ A tribute to Kate Holbrook

Kate Holbrook, Jenny Reeder, and Morgan Pearson smile for a photo at the Church History Library in 2017.
Courtesy of Morgan Pearson.

Years ago, at my great-grandfather’s funeral, the speaker referenced a scripture found in 2 Samuel 3 where David mourns the death of Abner and says to his servants, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?” That is how I have felt since I heard the news that Kate Holbrook’s passed away on Saturday.

I first came in contact with Kate Holbrook’s work when I read At The Pulpit. I felt so grateful for her work on that project and was so excited when, shortly thereafter, I had the chance to interview her for a piece about general conference. I rarely fangirl in interviews, but I was definitely starstruck as I spoke with Kate and her fellow Church historian, Jenny Reeder. They were so bright, so articulate, and yet, so humble and unassuming.

Since then, I have occasionally crossed paths with Kate. We essentially lived in the same neighborhood for years and worked in the same area downtown, so I occasionally saw her out and about. I always noted how graceful she was, making her way through the world just like me but doing it much more elegantly. I won’t pretend that we were close friends, but when I last saw her at the grocery store six months ago, she stopped me to say she’d heard I was getting married and was so happy for me. Just two weeks ago, we exchanged emails about a work project, and at the end of her email she asked how married life was treating me. Even as she approached the end of her life, she was endlessly kind and thoughtful.

One memorable afternoon last summer, I had the chance to sit down with Kate and her husband, Sam Brown, in their home in Salt Lake City to do an interview for All In. There are several things I will always remember about our interview. First, I will never forget Kate making me feel so good about my work, something I didn’t even really know she was aware of but as she gave me very specific compliments, I realized she really meant what she said. Last week, as I exchanged texts with my friend Karlie Guymon, host of the Latter-day Saint Women podcast, she said, “Kate has always made me feel like I am so capable and needed, and she always goes out of her way to be kind and complimentary. Beyond her brilliance, she’s just so Christlike.” I realized then that I wasn’t alone—Kate made a lot of women in the Church, both those here on earth and many who have passed on, feel needed and valued.

Second, I will never forget Kate’s and Sam’s transparency as we talked about marriage. Their genuine answers and refreshing approach are the reason their episode is now in our top eight most-downloaded episodes ever. It is the reason I received a message yesterday from a friend who said, “My heart is so heavy hearing about Kate Holbrook’s death. Your interview with her and Sam Brown was actually the first All In podcast I ever heard. My best friend had sent it to me when I was struggling in my marriage, and it gave me so much hope to know that other competent couples were facing similar things and that we would be OK if we just hung on and stayed close to the Lord. … I know she was looked up to by so many, and I don’t even know a ton about her, so why is her death weighing so heavy on me? [My husband] is confused by my emotional engagement with it so I just kind of had to put it out into the universe to someone who might get it.”

The reality is I do get it. There are a lot of people who get exactly what that friend was feeling—those of us who, for the most part, admired Kate from afar. Kate was a private person, never seeking the spotlight, but that made you long to know even more about her. The food blog she created with her family, The Away Café, gave us a taste of Kate’s interests beyond Church history, and a 2019 piece she wrote for Design Mom gave us a glimpse into Kate’s home. In that article, there are even a few pictures of Kate and Sam’s basement where we did our interview for All In.

I’ll never forget that day. It was late afternoon and as the interview went on, it became progressively darker and darker in the basement. By the end of the interview, I could hardly see Sam’s and Kate’s faces. I inwardly and ignorantly laughed to myself at the growing dimness we found ourselves in; it wasn’t until just recently that I learned that the reason we did the interview in the basement was because she was undergoing treatments for the rare form of eye cancer that took her life, and her eyes were sensitive to light. She never said a thing about her condition that night— continuing to live life as normally as possible was her priority.

Kate Holbrook understood the assignment of mortality. She got “it” where so many of us miss the point. As she put it in her 2020 women’s conference address, “We did not come to earth for easy. Being embodied is not easy, but these are two of the major reasons we are here, to have the experience of inhabiting a mortal body and to work with and serve other people.”

That is what Kate did. She dedicated her life to her home—to her three daughters and to Sam, to serving and loving others, and to building up the Kingdom of God through her work as a Church historian.

It would be difficult to explain Kate’s contribution to our Church’s history and the way she, along with others like Jenny Reeder and Janiece Johnson, have made a place for the women who were there in the story all along. Women who, much like Kate, never sought attention but played a massive role in the ongoing restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On Saturday night, I received a text from Ruth Todd, who worked for Church Public Affairs as a spokesperson after many years as a television news anchor in Salt Lake City. She called Kate one of her favorite humans and spoke of Kate’s intellect and guilelessness. And then she said something I have been thinking about ever since: “In my sadness today, I have allowed my mind to wander to the other side of the veil and just try and imagine what some of those reunions must be like for Kate Holbrook. Can you imagine her meeting or re-meeting women who were introduced to us and the Church for the first time because of her amazing research and Church history work?”

Kate explained her passion for her vocation this way, “I find Church history inspiring because I see the love of God in it—over and over—and I also see people who have the love of God in them and people who are resourceful. Church history puts real stories in my heart.”

Because of Kate, we know so much more about these real stories. Still, ironically, despite seeking to elevate the voices of women in Church history, Kate liked to fly under the radar.

I’m sorry, Kate, but today I can’t stand for that. Like David in the Old Testament, I want to say to the rest of the world as it moves on with its new work week as if all is well, “Know ye not that there is a prince[ss] and a great [wo]man fallen this day in Israel?”

Like she did for so many before her, it’s now up to us to tell and retell the real story of Kate Holbrook, a story that deserves a prominent place in the Church history of our day.

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