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Elder Neal A. Maxwell dies at 78

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Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Courtesy LDS Church

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died at 11:45 p.m. Wednesday at his home, surrounded by his family, after a long battle with leukemia. It was the 23rd anniversary of his call to be an LDS apostle. He was 78.

A general authority of the church since 1974, Elder Maxwell was ordained as an apostle on July 23, 1981. Regarded by many LDS Church members as the faith's ultimate wordsmith, Elder Maxwell's public addresses—particularly those during the faith's semi-annual general conferences—included intricately crafted similes, metaphors and alliteration that cut to the core of the faith's most basic doctrines.

He was a prolific author, having written 30 books on religious topics, the most recent of which received a literary prize for LDS literature. His writings also included many articles on politics and government.

In recent years, church members became aware of his struggle with cancer, and he provided inspiration for many facing similar trials. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996. Though he preferred to focus on the message of his faith rather than his own illness, he told one group of cancer survivors that a "blessing" associated with his disease was the opportunity to order what is truly most important in life.

"We have a different perspective, a sharper focus," he said about cancer patients in 1999. "I've been given by the Lord a delay en route."

Many Latter-day Saints remember his appearance during the church's April 1997 General Conference, during his ongoing treatment for leukemia and were surprised to see him at the pulpit of the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Extensive chemotherapy treatments had left him bald, and he joked about bringing "some different 'illumination' to the pulpit."

No stranger to deep challenges, Elder Maxwell's 2002 biography chronicles several disappointments during his early years as a shy and retiring young boy. His failure to make the Granite High School basketball team, a bad case of acne, criticism of his writing ability and the fact that he raised pigs as a 4-H project made his early years a humbling time, though he would later express gratitude for the lessons he learned as a result.

"It may be that seeing some of these things and feeling them personally has given me an extra bit of compassion."

Although he felt ostracized during those years, he used the experiences as a springboard of caring, looking to see that others would feel valued and included. Those close to him observed his ability to pinpoint the shy person who hung back, unsure of how to become part of a group. If he saw someone leaving a chapel alone, he pursued them down the hallway.

"I don't want them to go away without shaking hands," he said. "I know what it's like to stand outside the circle."

That perspective came through in his numerous sermons and writings, born of deeply personal experience. "If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do," he said. "Sometimes the best people have the worst experiences, because they are the most ready to learn."

Elder Maxwell served as a member of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy from 1976 to 1981, and as an Assistant to the Twelve from 1974 to 1976 before being called as an apostle. A lifelong educator, Elder Maxwell was executive vice president at the University of Utah at the time of his appointment as the Commissioner of Education for the Church Educational System, where he served from 1970 to 1976.

Prior to his Church callings, Elder Maxwell held a variety of administrative and teaching positions with the University of Utah and had earlier served as a legislative assistant to Sen. Wallace F. Bennett.

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from U. in addition to other honorary degrees from Westminster College, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Ricks College and Salt Lake Community College.

In 1998, the U. established the Neal A. Maxwell Presidential Endowed Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service.

Prior to his call to direct the Church's worldwide education system, he had served the Church in a variety of positions, including bishop of Salt Lake City's University Sixth Ward; a member of the General Board of the Y.M.M.I.A., the Church's youth organization; a member of the Adult Correlation Committee; and as one of the first regional representatives of the Twelve. As a young man, he served two years as a missionary in eastern Canada.

He was born July 6, 1926, in Salt Lake City to Clarence H. and Emma Ash Maxwell. Elder Maxwell is survived by his wife, Colleen Hinckley Maxwell, as well as four children and 24 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com