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Passing on the legacy in Reno

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RENO, Nev. — In 1935, a flatbed Ford truck rolled into town here at about 2 a.m. It was a warm spring night. The truck's owner, who had been sleeping while his passenger drove, was going on to Sacramento, Calif., but the other man, a tall 23-year-old, was staying. Reno was his new home. Waving goodbye to the man who had given him a ride across Nevada, he walked up the street, knocked on the door of a hotel and rented a room for 75 cents a night. He opened a window and went to bed, exhausted.

This was the middle of the Great Depression, and E. Vaughn Abbott had heard of possible job opportunities in this growing community just across the border from California. His young wife was staying behind with her mother in Bunkerville, Nev., until he found work. He was also a Melchizedek Priesthood holder, rare in the fledgling Reno Branch of the then-California Mission. Before the newcomer even found a job, he was called as branch president.

That was 65 years ago. Today, there are two stakes in Reno and a new temple, dedicated April 23 of this year. And just about every member of the Church here knows Vaughn and Wanda Abbott. In fact, many local leaders here trace their testimonies to their youth when Brother Abbott was either their bishop, stake president or Explorer adviser.

Brother Abbott left a legacy among the youth of his time. They are now the leaders and are striving to pass that legacy on to the Reno youth of today.

"When Dad became the Explorer adviser, he had only three boys, so he went out and got more boys and built the post," recalled son Wayne Abbott, 55, who is public affairs director for the adjacent Sparks Nevada Stake. He sat with his parents, who live now in his home, during a Church News interview. The elder Brother and Sister Abbott are now 88 and 89, respectively. He uses a walker and she, due to multiple illnesses, relies on a wheelchair; their minds and memories are sharp and clear.

And they still hold hands.

Reminiscing about working with the youth in those earlier years is emotional for father and son, as the younger Brother Abbott, one of three children, was one of his father's Explorer Scouts. He watched as his father searched out and personally invited boys, less-active and non-LDS, to Scouting. The Explorer Post of three soon grew to an average of 17.

"He spoke at probably over two-thirds of those boys' mission farewells," Wayne Abbott related, his voice cracking with emotion. "Those boys all knew Dad loved them. The non-LDS kids knew Dad loved them. He watched after them. I remember being in a Church basketball game and Dad was coaching the team. We had a young man who was kind of a hot head. He got really angry during a game one time, and his father was yelling and screaming at him. Dad pulled him out and talked to him for just a minute. In probably less than two, three minutes, the boy was back on the court just totally calm.

"On the way home, after we had dropped off the other young men, I asked Dad what he said to this young man. He said he called him by name and said, 'Do you know I love you?' The boy said, 'Yes, Brother Abbott, I do know you love me.' Dad said, 'Do you know that I would never ask you to do anything that would not be in your best interest?' He said, yes. Dad said, 'Well, I'm going to ask you to sit down and calm down because I want to put you right back in the game.' "

The younger Brother Abbott added: "I can think of very few [of those young men] who haven't at some time counseled with Dad, who have come to him when they've had problems or difficulties. Mostly, we just had a lot of good experiences. We had dinner dances and got taught how to behave like young men and ask girls out. We bought an old '36 pickup and painted it green and fixed it up and drove around the hills, and we went camping."

One of those young Explorers was Reno Nevada North Stake President Robert A. Trimble. "I always felt I had a friend in both Brother and Sister Abbott," he recalled. "I remember the feeling we had in that Explorer group that if I made a mistake I would still be acceptable to him. He was a kind and gentle person. He made me feel like an equal."

It is a memory of Sister Abbott that President Trimble relates in particular. He had just been called to a bishopric. "Sister Abbott came up to me and said, 'Brother Trimble.' I said, 'What is this Brother Trimble.' I had always been Bob. She said, 'No, you're in the bishopric now. You're Brother Trimble.' She was teaching me a principle I have never forgotten. She told me that offices of the priesthood demand respect. Not because of the person, but because of the office of the priesthood."

Another local leader extolling the virtues of a good youth leader is Bishop Ken Lightfoot of the Sparks 4th Ward, Sparks Nevada Stake. A police officer, he knows the dangers youth face today. "Those youth who have made the commitment to uphold the standards have a real strong core," he explained. Speaking of the local high school, he added, "Almost without exception the leaders within the school are LDS, and when they are not, they run in the crowd of LDS kids."

Bishop Lightfoot credits not only good parenting, but also leaders such as Young Women president Becky Ballingham and Young Men president Tom O'Mealy. "They are always there for these young people to turn to. They are supportive. A lot of youth come from families that are dysfunctional. Both of these leaders are never critical. Sister Ballingham has a tendency to stop by their homes if somebody isn't at Church, if they seem to be struggling. She always makes them feel welcome."

As to Brother O'Mealy, who is also a youth Sunday School teacher, Bishop Lightfoot said when he called him as Young Men president, many youth expressed a desire that he continue teaching Sunday School as well. In addition, the bishop said that participating in the priesthood quorums has helped many young men in his ward avoid gang activity.

Eighteen-year-old DeLana Earl of the Mt. Rose 2nd Ward, Reno Nevada Stake, also speaks of the influence of a youth teacher. A recent graduate of Reno High School, she explained that Church activity negates the temptation of alcohol and gambling problems. "Our leaders are wonderful. They do so much for us. They come from diverse backgrounds but we know they love us. We feel respected and loved," she said.

DeLana recalled a lesson her Laurel adviser, Leslie Hutchens, taught recently on "I Am a Child of God." "The lesson was something we've always heard, but just the way she presented it, I felt how she loved us. I thought, 'This is something to remember.' "

Having "something to remember" is not unique in Reno. Brother and Sister Abbott remember holding Church services in a little theater in town. They remember when their branch became a ward and then part of a stake. Today, sitting on their son's patio in Sparks, they look back on more than six decades of Church service.

And they still hold hands.