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Twila Van Leer: Preserve those special family stories, such as this life-saving experience that came full circle

I first met Julia "Judy" Wright years ago when she was one of those angels on Earth who was filling an assignment in the South Davis Special Needs Mutual youth group, which provided priceless experiences for my mentally disabled daughter, Darlene.

Recently, our acquaintance was renewed when Judy contacted me to share a very special family story. With her permission, I pass it along to you.

In the summer of 1974, Judy and her husband, Ralph, gathered up their five children, packed up the Winnebago, hooked up the family boat and headed for Lake Powell, one of their favorite family vacation spots.

Soon after their arrival, their teenage sons put the boat in the water and were off for an afternoon of water skiing. For Ralph, it was time for a well-deserved nap.

"I gathered some toys with which the children could build castles in the sand, found my book to read and off we three went to celebrate the gorgeous blue-green lake, the enormous clear blue sky overhead and the warm sand," Judy said.

"The children (Julie Ann, 5, and James, 3) quickly kicked off their shoes and began digging in the sand. I found a comfortable place on a large rock and watched them build their sand structures. I cautioned them about going too close to the water. Everything was so quiet and serene — no boats or water skiers in sight. I did notice one person across the lagoon on a distant beach, a young man who appeared to be using a bow and arrows to hit an unseen target. He seemed to be the only other human around."

Judy had settled down to read her book when Julie Ann anxiously informed her, "Mommy, James is in the water."

"I jumped up, kicking off my shoes and ran toward the water, calling James to return to shore," Judy said. "As I entered the water, he plunged down into the water, having fallen off an unseen rock shelf. I jumped off it to grab him and keep his head above the water. I pulled him to my chest and he put his little arms around my neck, but I broke his grip and turned him around. I told him I was going to push him to shore and he could then climb out of the water."

But James was terrified and turned back, grabbing Judy around the neck in a viselike grip.

"I couldn't swim because we were chest-to-chest and his legs were around my waist. We both went under the water, once, twice, three times. I knew we were drowning. I could think of only one thing: My darling little girl was watching her mother and brother drown and it would haunt her for the rest of her life.

"We went down the fourth time and I cried for help. Then there was a fifth time. When we came up, there, right beside us, was the young man from across the lagoon. He took James' arms, breaking his grip on me, and held him above the water with one hand. He swam to the shelf and pushed my little boy to safety."

Without the strangling grip of her child, Judy was able to swim to shore. "It was the last bit of energy I had. I lay halfway in the water and half on the sand, recovering."

She saw their rescuer swim away, heading for the other side of the lagoon and was not even sure she had thanked him for the gift of their lives. Many prayers, however, thanked Heavenly Father over and over again.

Judy calls this the first of her miracles. Sometimes she wondered who was the benevolent young man who averted drowning for her and her son.

During the recent Sept. 4 fast and testimony meeting in her Bountiful ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she bore her testimony, recounting the story and expressing gratitude for the blessing of having lived to rear all her children. James, whose life might have ended on that Lake Powell outing, is married and the father of four children, she said.

In the audience at the meeting was Darol Wagstaff, the stake high council representative to the Wrights' ward. The story rang familiar to him and he excitedly told the Wrights that he felt sure he was acquainted with the man who had been the hero in the near-fatal event. He made a phone call that verified that Joseph "Joey" Covey Richards was, in fact, that man.

A joyous meeting of the Wright family, Richards and the Wagstaffs brought the incident full circle — Judy's second miracle. Richards recounted his involvement in the story. He had had a frightening water experience of his own the previous day, he said, so had not joined his friends in their activities. That found him free and in the place he needed to be to give the Wrights the help they needed.

The beauty of Judy's story is that it is written. Generations of the family will have the benefit of this testimony-building true tale. Perhaps your story is not as dramatic, not a life-or-death recounting, but it is important. Follow Judy's example and write it down. Then preserve and share it.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.