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New biography of President Dallin H. Oaks uses his journals, letters to show man behind the talks

A new biography of President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hits bookshelves this week.
Deseret Book

The author of a new biography about President Dallin H. Oaks is on a mission to set the record straight about the stern public image of the first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City.

“Like the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Oaks has a naturally cheery temperament,” Richard E. Turley Jr. wrote for “In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks.”

Some church members, and even his own family members, don’t always see that in his face when President Oaks, who is 88, delivers serious, doctrinal talks during the faith’s semiannual general conferences. One of his daughters once told President Oaks that he sometimes looks mad when he speaks.

Turley provided explanations for that seriousness by sharing insights gleaned from President Oaks’ personal journals, private autobiography, interviews with church leaders and friends and valuable excerpts from his thousands of letters.

The book describes his hardscrabble childhood and prodigious work ethic and details a legal career that brought him close to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and continues to influence American jurisprudence. It also shares some of the the inner workings of his family life and the church’s leading bodies.

Turley was in a position to draw on his own experience. He has worked closely with President Oaks for more than 30 years, including their joint efforts overseeing parts of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. In fact, President Oaks himself asked Turley four years ago to write his biography. Published by Deseret Book, “The Life of Dallin H. Oaks” hit shelves this week and is a bestseller on DeseretBook.com.

Turley shows how President Oaks set a course for himself to focus his church talks on doctrine before he was called out of the upper echelons of the legal profession to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 1984. That focus was cemented by his relationship with and the death of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, another apostle known for his focus on church doctrine, serious mien at the pulpit and happy demeanor away from it.

President Oaks was asked to fill those shoes by a senior apostle. His legal background also contributed to his efforts to write clear, deep, concise talks on a single doctrinal subject at a time. Turley explained more in a question-and-answer interview published below.

In the interview, Turley describes the genesis of and reason for the biography, how it reflects the subject’s voice and how he obtained a reams of unpublished material about President Oaks that resulted in a book full of previously untold insights and stories.

Throughout the book, Turley shows and provides space for others to describe President Oaks not only as determined and fearless but humorous, happy, open-minded and soft-hearted. He also is seen as meek, a great listener and transparent.

In an excerpt from one letter shared in the book, President Oaks responded to someone who did not appreciate one of his talks, which regularly go through 10 to 15 drafts.

“For that talk I felt a strong impression as to the subject and content,” President Oaks wrote. “I can only follow that impression and hope that my remarks will be heard or read with the same kind of prayerful consideration with which they were prepared.”

Deseret Book

Turley is himself a prodigious author and a former Assistant Church Historian and Recorder who recently retired as managing director of the Church Communications Department. Here is our interview with him, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What is the origin story of this book?

Rick Turley: President Oaks called me into his office a little over four years ago, and he told me that he wanted to have a biography and wanted to know if I would be willing to write it. He did not put pressure on me. He said he didn’t want me to answer right there on the spot, that I should go think about it and then respond to him. I was excited to do it. I’ve known him for 3½ decades, and so it was a very interesting project for me.

Deseret News: Why do the biography now?

Turley: There are biographies of the senior leaders of the church. Typically as our members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve grow older, biographies are written about them, and he had of course reached an age in his mid-80s, where it certainly seemed like it was time.

He’s lived an extraordinarily interesting life. He has spoken before on the topic of planning your life. Essentially he said that it’s difficult to plan your life. You have to live righteously and then await opportunities and the guidance of the Lord to help you know what direction you’re going to take. But I’ve often thought to myself, if he had sat down with a guidance counselor at BYU when he was an undergraduate, and explained to his guidance counselor that he wanted to do all the things he’s ended up doing in life, it would have seemed a bit unbelievable to want to do that. And yet, he’s lived that kind of remarkable life.

Deseret News: Why should people read this biography?

Turley: I think if they really want to understand President Oaks in full and not just one dimensionally as a speaker, they should read the book. They’ll find a man who had a difficult childhood, went through challenges that would have leveled many people, developed the work ethic that allowed him to plow through those problems and then lived that remarkable life.

Deseret News: You clearly illustrate what a prodigious worker he is throughout the book. You also show that across the legal, academic, public service and ministerial eras of his life, he has been known for his ability to distill complex topics to their essence. The biography itself is similar. How much of that is your writing style or something that you sought to do for this book?

Turley: I decided very early on that I wanted the biography to reflect his voice, and I also wanted the biography to be accessible to the general public. In my life, I’ve written to a wide range of audiences, from children’s books to very high-level academic treatments. I’ve learned over time to write to various audiences, and this one I deliberately wanted to be accessible to the general public. I think that in reading the book, most people will also hear his voice, which I wanted them to hear. I did not want to be between him and the public in understanding him. Sometimes I think biographers and historians can be like commentators standing on the stage during the watching of a movie, and their voice gets in the way of the narrative itself. I wanted to step away and let the story tell itself.

Deseret News: He clearly gave you immense access to his letters and journals. Did you interview him as well? How much input did he have?

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, and historian Rick Turley hold the historic Utah spike during the 150th anniversary celebration of the transcontinental railroad at the Golden Spike National Historical Park in Promontory Summit, Utah, on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Turley: Initially I created an outline with his input. He’s a very easy person to work with as a biographer because first of all, from the very beginning, he allowed me very free access to his sources, and then, from the very beginning, kept saying, “This is your book, and therefore, you choose to do what you want to do. I may offer suggestions from time to time, but the final decision is up to you.” That’s something that I learned in my years of working with him. He might provide guidance and direction, but he was never, in my association with him, ever heavy-handed. And the same was true with this biography. We worked together on it, but ultimately, he said, “This is your book. You put in it what you would like to put in it.”

Deseret News: This feels like a gold mine of new information. How much of this book will be new to readers?

Turley: I think much will be new information. Most people who are members of the church know him primarily from the general conference and other talks that he gives. When he speaks in a setting like that, he of course takes very seriously his calling, spends a lot of time preparing the talks, and therefore gives talks that are very serious in nature. Having worked with him for 3½ decades, I have seen that side of him, and many other dimensions. I saw him has a jovial person, a remarkable storyteller, a person who could relate limericks and entertaining stories about a host of topics, someone who I knew personally and found to be warm and engaging, kind and caring. Most members of the church have never been in a setting where they had an opportunity to observe him in that way. The book is as much a product of my observations over the 3½ decades I’ve known him as they are a product of my research.

Deseret News: One of the themes of the book is the choices President Oaks has made in his talks at the church’s semiannual general conferences. You describe why he rarely uses personal stories, why his talks focus on doctrine, how he structures them and how those talks create certain perceptions about him. How did his style develop?

Turley: Early on in his period as a general authority, he associated with Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve, someone he had admired for a very long time. Because of the roles that he had — serving in a stake presidency in Chicago, being president of BYU — he had interacted with Elder McConkie previously and respected him, I think in part because both were lawyers, both were serious about doctrine, both had a strong sense of humor, though it rarely showed from the pulpit. And I think that, Elder McConkie, being afflicted with cancer at the time that Elder Oaks became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, became someone he looked to, and when he passed away, someone whose position he was encouraged to fill by Elder (Boyd K.) Packer, because Elder McConkie was seen as a doctrinal expert and when he passed away, there was a big hole in the forest canopy, if you will. Elder Oaks as a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve was tasked with filling that hole in the canopy along with other members of the Twelve at the time.

Deseret News: The structure of the book is interesting, too. After exploring his life’s history, the final few chapters each describe a topic about which he has spoken frequently, some of them about issues that have made national or international news.

Turley: Early on in my life as a writer, as a historian and through my travels around the world, I came to recognize that nearly all societies communicate their most important ideas through stories. That’s why, when I helped to create the “Saints” project, I wanted it to be a narrative history, and not an academic history that would be just simply expository in nature. When it came time to write Presidential Oaks’ biography, I wanted it to be a narrative biography as much as possible, and the source material made that possible and easy, in the period of his life, up to the time he became a general authority. After that, it was a lot more difficult to maintain the narrative, because he was doing very much the same kinds of things over and over again — traveling to various parts of the world, giving talks, serving on committees and so forth. And that kind of daily routine doesn’t lend itself as well to narrative. So, that’s when I decided to shift to a more topical approach for his General Authority years.

Deseret News: The book describes how President Oaks was instrumental in hiring you to direct the Church History Department at age 29. What has your relationship with him taught you about him?

Turley: When I was a teenager, he became a role model for me. Then as I became a student at BYU, he was the leader of the university and therefore someone that I looked up to and admired. I never really expected to meet him under any conditions in which I’d be working with him. I accepted that responsibility (with the Church History Department) and Elder Oaks was one of two Quorum of the Twelve advisers to the department at that time, which meant that immediately, I began working with him, and I found him to be a very remarkable person, as a church leader and as an administrator. He’s a person who had a great deal of administrative experience having been at the University of Chicago and BYU, and so he was a very easy person to work with. He knew how to lead. He knew how to create vision, give direction without micromanaging, and he was just extraordinarily personable. It’s rare to be in a meeting with him in which he doesn’t tell an entertaining story that illustrates a point, or do something else that just makes you smile and laugh. So we hit it off very well from the beginning, and I’ve been fortunate to work with him in one capacity or another over the years and have really grown to love him.

Deseret News: You describe how as an administrator at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, he was spit upon, he had to escape a building with others and run from a mob to protect records and also was held up at gunpoint.

Turley: What it helps you to realize is what a patient individual he is. He developed a reputation over time at the University of Chicago and as a board member and chair of the PBS for being a remarkably patient and kind man who could be given complex problems and would patiently work through solutions to those problems. That still characterizes him today, but it’s a side of him that many people don’t know.

Deseret News: You describe the whirlwind of changes he made at BYU in his first year as president in 1971, and you describe his energy and vitality. Both felt like echoes to the leadership of President Russell M. Nelson. The balance of the book frequently illustrates their similarities and friendship as apostles. What kind of friends and colleagues are they?

Turley: They have been friends of course for many years. Elder Oaks was tasked to help recruit Elder Nelson, then Dr. Nelson, to the University of Chicago (in the 1960s), though he remained in Utah. Their lives in many ways were parallel, President Nelson’s in the medical profession and President Oaks’ in the legal profession. They knew each other and associated with each other for years, were friends for years, and as President Eyring told me in an interview, they’re in many ways like twins.

Deseret News: President Oaks went from a seat on the Utah Supreme Court into the apostleship. He frequently was mentioned as candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court. How did he become so highly esteemed?

Turley: He had a legal career that was what most lawyers would want. He was the editor-in-chief of a top law review. He became a law clerk in the U.S. Supreme Court. He became a lawyer with one of the big Chicago law firms, the biggest one at the time. He became a University of Chicago law professor, a professor at one of the top universities. He had administrative experience there. He became the director of the American Bar Association’s research arm. He became a university president. He became a state supreme court justice and was repeatedly named as a potential candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court. One of his associates called him one day, asked if he was going to take a job that was going to be offered to become a member of an appellate court, and Elder Oaks at the time said, “No, I don’t plan to. I’m happy to encourage you to do it.” And that man (Justice Antonin Scalia) went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. So, certainly, it’s conceivable that Elder Oaks could have become one. So he led the kind of life as a lawyer that most lawyers could only dream of.