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Laid to rest: Apostle eulogized as a humble servant

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Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin was eulogized Friday as a humble servant of God who never sought acclaim or position but only to serve and love his fellow men.

At age 91, he had been the oldest living apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he died unexpectedly late Monday. Church President Thomas S. Monson conducted the midday funeral service in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, lauding not only Elder Wirthlin's service, humility and dedication to God, but the football legacy he created at the University of Utah.

He recalled Elder Wirthlin's days as a running back. "When he played, he was known as 'Speedy Wirthlin.' I like that." Upon his graduation from the U., Elder Wirthlin's jersey No. 4 was retired. It was later framed and, for a time, hung in his office at the Church Administration Building, he said.

"In recent years, he was something of a self-appointed chaplain to the U. team and traveled with them to many games. He was respected by coaches, players and fans alike."

President Monson was emotional when recalling a conversation earlier this week with U. football coach Kyle Whittingham, who told him that "out of love and respect, his initials — JBW — are now printed on the back of each teammate's helmet."

In addition to his dedication to the U., President Monson said Elder Wirthlin exemplified that same fervor in his drive to fulfill every assignment with exactness and honor. "Is his work now really done? Is rest what he sought? His work will never end."

Recounting the words on one cemetery headstone, he said to those who will miss Elder Wirthlin, "A light of our household is gone. A voice we loved is stilled. A place is vacant in our hearts that never can be filled."

He admonished Elder Wirthlin's children to think of him, especially at Christmas. "Think of Elisa (his wife). They did not want to be separated at Christmastime. They are together. You remember that if you forget everything else. Live so that you can be with them eternally.

"Goodbye, Joseph. Goodbye, Jose, until we meet tomorrow. Until then, wherever I go in this beautiful world, a big part of Joseph B. Wirthlin goes with me," President Monson said. "He was a man for all seasons, a teacher of truth, a true and faithful friend. I shall miss him. I shall miss him."

Elder Wirthlin's only son, Joseph B. Wirthlin Jr., praised his father as a man who "just never saw himself as anyone special." When he was ordained an apostle, he was told, "'Your humility will endear you to the people,' and so it has. He thought so little of himself because he thought so much of others and their needs."

Though Elder Wirthlin's father was a presiding bishop of the LDS Church, he said that never made him feel his was above anyone else, nor should his descendants feel that way, he said.

Quoting former church leader J. Reuben Clark, he said, "There is no aristocracy of birth in this church." His father "realized he couldn't rely on the accomplishments of his parents but must work hard and stand on his own feet. One thing Dad earned and possessed was his special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ."

His father "never spoke lightly of spiritual experiences, and I never had to ask him if he had that special witness because I saw it," in the way he built people up with kindness "the way Jesus did."

He thanked the general authorities for their love and friendship, and said he is confident that his father, "like his ancient namesake, Joseph of Egypt, did 'go down to my grave with joy.'"

Elder Russell M. Nelson thanked the Wirthlin children for their attention to their father since Sister Elisa Wirthlin died in 2006. Their service "not only helped him but served as an example of love in action," he said.

When Elder Wirthlin was a football hero at the U., "I idolized him," Elder Nelson said, noting he was later able to select him as a counselor in their stake presidency and in the general Sunday School presidency.

As they were serving together, "Little did we know then we would sit together in the Quorum of the Twelve," which they did for 22 years. "He never sought the limelight, but 'he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.' Now he will experience another promise of the Lord: 'He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.' Joseph and Elisa shall be exalted together," he said.

President Boyd K. Packer recounted Elder Wirthlin's own words of testimony about an experience he had as a missionary during Christmas of 1937, when he and his companion found themselves in the tiny Bavarian church where the carol, "Silent Night, Holy Night," had been written.

He spoke of his deep love for Jesus Christ and his determination to rededicate himself and his life to the service of God.

President Packer suggested to Elder Wirthlin's son "that you make this testimony part of your Christmas tradition. Have it printed in such a way that members of the Wirthlin family yet unborn will come to know him."

President Monson said the family and the church are grateful for the many condolences from members of the church worldwide.

Security was tight on Temple Square as the crowd began to gather, as church volunteers manned metal detectors at the gates, which were locked during the funeral service. A police escort led a cortege of vehicles west on South Temple behind the hearse and onto the square, where family members exited their vehicles.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir provided music for the service, conducted by Mack Wilberg. David B. Wirthlin offered the family prayer before the family entered the Tabernacle, and Joseph B. Wirthlin Jr. dedicated the grave after a brief, private service at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com