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Power still resides in apostles from past

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FOR MORMONS OF a certain age, when Elder William R. Walker showed photos of general authorities from the 1950s at LDS conference, it "woke up the echoes" — as they say at Notre Dame. Names of other former apostles came floating back like the names of old schoolteachers — Henry D. Moyle, Alvin R. Dyer, Adam S. Bennion, LeGrand Richards. Today they exist in bits and pieces — in the anecdotes that people share. Past apostles never die, they live in the stories we tell each other.

But we forget sometimes they were more than kindly grandfathers. They were dynamic, formidable souls in their day — Mormons to be reckoned with.

I once had the chance to ask Elder Neal A. Maxwell to name some of the heroes he'd had as a young LDS leader. I expected him to mention a couple of names and move on. But he singled out one name — N. Eldon Tanner — and gave me a full accounting. He told me that President Tanner, a Canadian, had been asked to run a major Canadian project, but he told the authorities he didn't want to leave his beloved Canadian West. So they moved the headquarters for it all to Alberta, just to accommodate him.

Elder Maxwell told stories of the man's honesty, his humility and his uncanny abilities in business.

It was as if Elder Maxwell realized the apostles from the mid-20th century had an image as "caretakers" — as men who kept things stable in midstream. He wanted me to see more, to see them as forceful and strong, as spiritual pediatricians who delivered the church from its frontier roots into the global era of Presidents Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson.

Elder Maxwell didn't want President Tanner's stature to dim with the times.

In the LDS Church, change is a constant. I've heard publishers say that — except for church presidents — when a leader dies his books die with him. There are exceptions, but a trip through a used book store confirms the rule. (When was the last time people had a rousing discussion over Mark E. Petersen's "The Way of the Master" or Sterling W. Sill's "What Doth It Profit?")

But after seeing those old photographs in general conference — and remembering my question to Elder Maxwell — I've decided to dig out a few dusty volumes now and give them a fresh look. And I plan to start with a book I picked up from an old bookstore for a pittance: "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God." It's by — can you guess? — N. Eldon Tanner. When I thumbed the pages in the store this little nugget caught my eye:

"To be of true service to our fellowmen, which includes our children, we appraise that which has been passed on to us as our heritage ... and improve it. We must not take things for granted. The greatest achievement in life is not the acquisition of money, position or power. In my opinion, it is to come to the end of one's day having been true and loyal to ideals."

Sounds like the kind of man worth moving mountains to accommodate.

Jerry Johnston is a Deseret Morning News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com