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Publisher: A gentleman of the press

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When Wm. James Mortimer was appointed publisher of the Deseret News 15 years ago, staffers soon learned they could expect to be serenaded by him on their birthdays. On a first-name basis with every employee, he would sing the "Happy Birthday" song as he personally delivered a greeting card to the honoree.

It was a quintessential Mortimerism, part of the endearing mix of characteristics that have made him a one-of-a-kind manager. That, and the fact that he occasionally might drop in on any of the newspaper departments to share a joke picked up at the latest Chamber of Commerce luncheon or some other setting, followed by a hearty laugh.

More significantly, the Mortimer management style has included a knack for applying in a secular setting — and perhaps not altogether consciously — the principles of leadership in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42, which include persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness and timely reproof when required. That stems, perhaps, from long experience as a bishop, stake president, regional representative, and 25 years as a patriarch in his own Salt Lake Butler and Wasatch stakes and the three married-student stakes at the University of Utah.

And it is probably a main reason why Jim, as he is known to subordinates and other acquaintances, will be missed when he retires at the end of July as publisher of the 150-year-old newspaper that is the parent publication of the Church News.

His appointment as publisher in 1985 actually continued an off-and-on career with the newspaper that began in his boyhood as a carrier in Logan, Utah, with time off to get a graduate degree from the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism in New York, later to take the helm of Deseret Book and, subsequently, the Printing Services Division of the Church, and to help shepherd the publication of the current editions of the scriptures.

Answering the phones for reporters at the Deseret News Logan Bureau gave teen-age Jim Mortimer a taste for journalism. He studied the subject at Utah State University while working for the newspaper as a bureau reporter and summer intern. After a stint as a U.S. Army second lieutenant following ROTC training at Utah State, he was accepted at a number of journalism graduate schools and chose Columbia.

There, he distinguished himself enough that Newsweek magazine offered him a job. But he and his wife, Paula, decided the environment back home was best for rearing their family. (They have seven children and 16 grandchildren.) He contacted the Deseret News and was hired as a full-time reporter in 1957. Salt Lake became his home.

Two years later, in 1959, he was surprised when the company's general manager, O. Preston Robinson, called him in. The sales manager at the company's commercial printing division, Deseret News Press, had been called as mission president in Canada, a young man by the name of Thomas S. Monson. Would he, Jim Mortimer, like to fill in for three years until President Monson returned from his mission?

He readily accepted the opportunity. When President Monson returned from his mission, he became general manager of the division, and Brother Mortimer stayed on as sales manager. Their association would continue and be ever more momentous through the remainder of his career, as Thomas S. Monson became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and is now first counselor in the First Presidency.

Meanwhile, Brother Mortimer was lured away by Wheelright Lithographing Co. in Salt Lake City to be its sales manager. That led to yet another opportunity in 1966 to join the staff of Deseret Book, the Church-owned commercial publishing company, where he was general manager from 1969-79. It was during this period that he made one of his most significant contributions to the work of the Church.

"In 1973," he said, "the Brethren decided it was time for the Church to have an edition of the Bible that was more useful to members of the Church. This came at the time when the curriculum of the Church for adults was being correlated to center on the Standard Works of the Church, first on an eight-year and later on a four-year cycle.

"The [old] missionary Bible of the Church was done by Cambridge University Press in England. It had aids and helps and cross references, and they were wonderful — for the Church of England! The Bible that was being used in LDS seminary classes was done by William Collins and Sons out of Glasgow, Scotland. That also had aids and references that were very helpful — for the Church of England according to the Scots!"

What was later called the Scriptures Publication Committee was appointed by the First Presidency with Elder Thomas S. Monson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, as chairman. Brother Mortimer was asked to serve as secretary.

It was a labor of love, albeit an intense and revolutionary one, involving a number of General Authorities, Church scholars and others. Its product, familiar today to most active English-speaking members of the Church, is regarded as historic: a truly LDS edition of the King James Bible with chapter headings and cross references coordinated with all four standard works, a Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary more comprehensive in their scope than ever before in history, and excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible contained in footnotes and an appendix.

Brother Mortimer's role was to oversee the production and printing of the new edition, once the Church leaders and scholars had finished their work.

The publication of the Bible was followed by the introduction of a new edition of the Triple Combination containing the other three standard works of the Church: the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.

"I think enough time has elapsed that the impact of these new scripture editions has been felt," he said, adding that they provided a foundation for availability of the scriptures in computerized format and on the Internet. "I know this project has had a profound impact on the Church, and I will cherish forever the involvement I had in getting those books out."

In 1979, Brother Mortimer was invited by then-Elder Monson to return to Deseret News Press to supervise its transition from a commercial printing facility into the Printing Services Division of the Church. Up to then, the Church had contracted with bidding firms to do its printing, an arrangement that was less than satisfactory. Today, that division produces virtually all of the Church's curriculum materials.

In 1985, he was called into the office of Elder Monson, not an unusual occurrence given their frequent association. But this time, Elder James E. Faust, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, was present. The two were chairman and vice chairman of the Deseret News Board. Publisher Wendell J. Ashton was being called as a mission president in England, and Brother Mortimer was asked to succeed him.

Flabbergasted (he had left the newspaper 26 years earlier and had not expected to return) he asked how long he had to think about the prospect. "About 30 seconds," came the answer.

"So that was 15 years ago," he said. "I think we've come a long way. We moved into electronic pagination; we built a new building [a nine-story mid-rise on the footprint of the old facility, dedicated in 1997]; we've maintained our circulation; the company has been solid financially; we were able to pay for the new building in cash; we've had a very professional staff and put out a very good newspaper."

Brother Mortimer, 68, has no immediate plans for retirement, other than a determination not "to wither on the vine."

E-mail: rscott@desnews.com