Alumni Share Stories of Bumping into and Meeting BYU Presidents
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First Person

Meeting the President

Readers recall campus encounters with BYU leaders.

Cartoon illustration of a bagpiper playing on the south end of campus. A man in a dark suit listens from a distance.
Illustration by Travis Foster

By Brian B. Eves (BA ’89), Logan, UT

While attending BYU I learned to play the bagpipes from two fellow students. This instrument is loud, so we practiced in a variety of places around campus.

One evening one of my teachers and I were playing on the southwest corner of campus beyond the Karl G. Maeser Building and the president’s house. I was off by myself practicing when a car pulled up and President Jeffrey R. Holland (BS ’65, MA ’66) stepped out. He didn’t approach me or ask questions; he just stood and listened. In the soft light of a fading summer day, I began to play “Amazing Grace” for my audience of one. I felt the privilege of a simple, brief connection, a joyful moment without questions or interruptions. President Holland listened until the song ended, got back in his car, and drove off. I ran and told my teacher, “I just played ‘Amazing Grace’ for President Holland!”

Uncle Ernie

By George L. Rosenberg (BS ’73), Natrona Heights, PA

As a freshman in 1967, I attended the BYU 6th Ward, where our priest quorum advisor was Ernest L. Wilkinson (BA ’21). One Sunday we were invited to the BYU president’s home for a fireside, and we could bring a date. As my date was not a ward member, she was unfamiliar with the identities of our leaders.

Campus firesides were then held in the Smith Fieldhouse, so we were walking in that direction when I said, “Let’s go say hi to Uncle Ernie”—our affectionate name for President Wilkinson. She thought I was kidding, but as I got closer to the president’s home, she started getting nervous, asking, “What are you doing?” I repeated that I was going to say hi to Uncle Ernie. She anxiously exclaimed, “You can’t actually do that!” As we started up the walkway, I think she was hyperventilating, but she calmed after Sister Alice Wilkinson graciously let us in and seated us in the living room. It was a wonderful fireside that my date and I would never forget.

Morning Anthem

By Jerri Barnett Sayer-Ream (BA ’75), Woodside, CA

In the 1970s the BYU president’s home was on the western side of campus near the stairs to the Richards Building. Each morning as I raced up the stairs heading to the Harris Fine Arts Center, I tried to hurry so as to be inside the building before 7:55 a.m. when “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over the loudspeakers. It wasn’t that I didn’t like standing for the anthem, it just meant I was probably going to be late for class.

One winter morning, I arrived at the president’s home just in time to see then BYU president Dallin H. Oaks (BS ’54) hurrying out of his home as he buttoned up his coat, his wife June close behind with his briefcase. Just then, the national anthem began to play and we all stopped where we were, President Oaks in his suit, me in my winter coat, and poor Sister Oaks in her quilted bathrobe. When the anthem ended, President and Sister Oaks had a quick goodbye kiss and he was off to the Smoot Building. And I raced to my first class of the day thinking, “Even the president of the university has to hurry to work sometimes.”

Caught on Tape

By Ryan G. Howell (BS ’16, MS ’20), Lake Placid, FL

Two students in hardhats and safety vests take turns tossing a roll of electrical tape down a hallway of the Marriott Center.
Illustration by Travis Foster

For several years I enjoyed working for OIT’s audio-visual department. In 2015 I helped with the renovation of the Marriott Center, from which we had to remove miles of cabling and other components for new updates.

Toward the end of the project, several of my coworkers and I were installing new TVs and speakers on the concourse level. After several hours we ran out of materials, so someone went to get more. The rest of us stayed behind to keep working. While we waited, we took a break and tried to see how far we could get a roll of electrical tape to travel down the walkway. It was all fun and games until we noticed a man in a suit coming up the stairs—President Kevin J Worthen (BS ’79, JD ’82). After hiding the tape and acting like we had been working, we had a nice conversation. He even took a picture with us for his Instagram—recognizing all student employees for their hard work to keep campus running. He never let on that he saw what we were doing, and the Instagram post was the talk of the office.

Sleepy Saturday

By Melynn Minson Sheet (BA ’97), Eagle Mountain, UT

My freshman year I managed to find a job that fit my crazy class schedule—working the circulation desk for the BYU Law Library. My hours included closing the library at 10:30 p.m. Friday nights and then opening it Saturday at 7:30 a.m. Since most patrons did not show up for a couple of hours after I opened, those early mornings were a royal challenge to stay awake.

One morning I decided to put the bell out, sit in my boss’s chair, and put my head down on the desk for a brief nap. I had been completely unconscious for only a few minutes before I was startled awake by the bell ringing sharply. I lifted my head, eyes squinting and drool dripping, to see President Rex E. Lee (BA ’60) standing at the counter. Thankfully, instead of firing me and expelling me on the spot, he chuckled and said we were the only two crazy people on campus that early on a Saturday. President Lee will forever be my favorite for his kindness and good humor toward a bedraggled freshman.

A year later, he spoke through his cancer (not long before passing away) about how important it is to do what is right, even when you don’t feel good. I had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Thanks to President Lee’s courage and advice, I graduated with full university honors despite not feeling good. And I never slept on the job again.

An Urgent Question

By Heather J. Johnson (BA ’16), Burley, ID

It had just been announced that Kevin J Worthen would succeed Cecil O. Samuelson as the new president of BYU. The next Tuesday, I decided to head to the Marriott Center early and study while I waited for the devotional. I had just passed the Smoot Building when I heard some swift footsteps behind me. Before I knew it, I was overtaken by President Samuelson. He greeted me and the couple just ahead of me, then continued his beeline for the Marriott Center. The couple ahead of me quickly called out a very important question: “What are we going to yell at the basketball games now? Can we still yell, ‘Whoosh Cecil!’?” President Samuelson turned around and with a big smile said, “You will have to figure that out yourselves!”

Call for Stories: Take a Hike

Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains, BYU is blessed with ready access to rugged trails that lead to alpine meadows and snow-sculpted peaks. Thus no one loves a hiking analogy from the pulpit more than BYU grads do. Did you ever trek to Timp, run up Rock Canyon, encounter wildlife, or get lost? If you’ve got a fun tale from the trail, we’d love to hear it. Deadline: June 1.

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