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Sheri Dew: Living the unexpected life

'Unmarried' leader is almost a celebrity among LDS

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2002 12:15 p.m. MST

Sheri Dew talks on her cell phone on her way to her LDS Church office. She is the second counselor in the LDS Relief Society general presidency.

Peter Chudleigh, Deseret News

Sheri L. Dew is the CEO of a publishing company, one of the leaders of a worldwide church and the author of several books, but that's not how many people identify her.

"Oh, you're the unmarried one," perfect strangers will blurt out upon meeting her.

The unmarried general officer of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Dew might be better known more for what she doesn't have — a husband — than by what she does have — a dual career, brains, surpassing talent as a pianist, writer and speaker (and, umm, Game Boy player). This is a woman who has accomplished great things while waiting for love to come along, but she is still famous for her marital status, largely because she helps lead a church that is centered on marriage and family.

Dew is everywhere confronted with her singleness, whether in the family-lined pews of the chapel on Sunday and the constant emphasis on the family unit, or with questions from the curious.

"How come you're not married?" she is often asked.

"Because no one asked," she likes to say, using her deft humor, as she often does, to deflect painful or awkward moments.

The questions have even turned ignorant and mean:

How can you call yourself an LDS woman and not be married?

She always wanted and expected to be married, to raise children, to stay at home; she never meant to become a career woman, no apologies to feminists (who must be cringing). As she says, "There isn't anyone who wants to see me married more than I do."

But here she is, at 48, the newly named CEO of Deseret Book, the second counselor in the LDS Church's Relief Society presidency — the first unmarried woman ever to become a general officer in the church (there's that unmarried thing again) — and the author of four books. Never did she imagine such a career, nor that she would live her life alone. Dew's best friend, Wendy Watson, a professor at Brigham Young University who is also single, calls it "living the unexpected life."

It has become part of her appeal.

Sheri Dew, the Kansas farm girl, stands out in the LDS Church, and not just because she is 5-foot-10. She receives thousands of letters from church members and is approached on the street by her, well, fans. The LDS Church understandably shies from celebrity Mormonism, but there is no denying Dew's popularity.

"There is no question about it," says Sharon Larson, second counselor in the LDS Church's Young Women general presidency and another of Dew's close friends. "I have traveled with her to Africa, Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea, and truly everywhere we've gone people just come up to her. They tell her, 'You speak to my soul. You are so real.' And she is. She has her own following, independent of her calling."

Dew, whose appeal is such that the Republican Party tried to convince her to run for political office this fall, is a beacon for Mormons who are living the unexpected life, the life that didn't turn out as they had planned and hoped, the life that was prescribed for them by their church.

As Julie Dockstader Heaps, a staff writer for the LDS Church News, puts it, "She doesn't have the 'Molly Mormon' life story where everything is choreographed — get married, raise kids, husband becomes stake president by 35. She's a very real person and people can relate to her. Because most people out there aren't living that kind of life."

She has become a favorite speaker in LDS circles because of her vulnerability, honesty, hard-won wisdom and willingness to share so much of her life at the pulpit. "She has gotten so much mileage out of bad hair, her height, her weight," says Watson. "She's not afraid to poke fun at herself. That's classic Dew."

Dew has mined her past for lessons learned and future sermons, although there is one painful chapter of her life she hasn't shared with the public: A double betrayal and a missed chance at marriage that proved to be both.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's back up and tell this story the way she would do it in one of her popular sermons — through a few key events in her life and what they taught her.

Hoops Dew

To this day it bothers her. It is one of her biggest regrets. It is a gaping hole in her life left by her one true love.

Basketball.

She wanted to be a college basketball player. Perhaps there was no place, besides a chapel, that she was more comfortable or confident than on a basketball court. There, the girl who longed to be petite and pretty discovered her size was no longer a curse, but a blessing. She was a star player in basketball-crazy Kansas at a tiny high school in Ulysses (population 4,000), averaging 23 points and 17 rebounds a game. She had a hook shot, a post-up move, a jump shot, and she could move under the basket to get free for shots.

"With all the modesty I can muster, I was good," she says. "I haven't seen many girls who could play basketball at that age who were as good as I was."

But this was in the late '60s and '70s, when there were few opportunities for girls to play college basketball. She chose to attend BYU and planned to try out for the school's basketball team.

On the day of tryouts, she reported to the Richards Building, opened the gym door a crack, peeked at the players inside and the confidence drained right out the bottom of her shoes. She couldn't make herself step through the door. She thought she could work up her courage if she paced the hallway outside the gym for a while. She walked back and forth — for three hours.

She never did enter the gym. When the tryout ended, she walked slowly to her dorm, castigating herself for not having the guts to try out.

"It's is one of my biggest regrets," she says. "I've never gotten over it."

One of her e-mail addresses says it all: hoopsdew.

Jump ahead to last autumn. BYU athletic director Elaine Michaelis, who coached the basketball team when Dew was a student, invited Dew to speak to the school's female athletes. Dew told the above story for the first time in her life, one she hadn't even confided to her family. Her point was that these athletes were doing something she had wanted to do, but lacked the courage to try.

Afterward, Michaelis told Dew, "I remember my 1971 team really well. You know why? We played all season one player short. I tried to fill my roster, and I couldn't. That year I was looking for a tall center who could post up."

Sitting in her office, Dew finishes this story and says, "I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach when she told me that. That was supposed to be my spot on the team. You mean out of 25,000 students they couldn't find one girl who could fill that spot?!

"The truth is, nobody can take your place. That was a very interesting lesson. I thought I was good, but I'll never know. My fear and shyness paralyzed me. My whole life I've felt like I didn't quite measure up."

If there is one statement that defines Dew's life, it is that last one. It is a recurring theme and one she repeats frequently during several hours of interviews. Such feelings undoubtedly have their beginnings in her youth.

She grew up on a large farm in southwestern Kansas, where six generations of her family are buried on the Plains. She was driving farm equipment as soon as she could see over the steering wheel, which was the fourth grade in her case. She drove trucks loaded with grain during harvest and dragged a disc and sweep over the fields behind a tractor.

Dew grew up shy and backward and dated rarely. She was isolated in many ways — by her size, by the farm, by her religion. She reached her adult height by the seventh grade — "No 11-year-old girl wants to be 5-10," she says. "I always felt big and unattractive." Her religion was just one more thing that made her "different." She was the only Mormon in her school.

"I had a lot of friends who were boys," she says. "I played ball with them, but we didn't date. They didn't ask me that much because I wasn't cute enough or because I didn't drink or party. I had friends who were girls, but again, at a certain point in your adolescence they start doing things I couldn't do — drinking, sleeping around. There was this understanding that I just didn't do those things. I was a friend during school time, but not much after that. By the time I got to BYU, I was a social mess, an absolute misfit. There is not a shyer, more pathetic kid who stepped on that BYU campus than me."

Dew was an A student. She played keyboards and piano in BYU-sponsored USO groups that toured the world and for a time considered becoming a concert pianist. She was a star athlete. But none of that compensated for what she couldn't do.

"By the time you hit your early 20s, you've had reinforced for you what you've always feared — I must not be very cute or attractive or funny," she says. "Whatever it is that attracts guys. I still haven't figured that out yet. You see all your friends getting married, every size and shape of friend gets married but you. It internalizes in you that there must be something defective in you, . . . but at some point you have to come to terms with who you are in life. I can tell you when it started, but it's been a long, long process."

It started when she was in graduate school at BYU. Crushed by another relationship with a man that "didn't go anywhere," she packed her bags and drove to Kansas, showing up at home unannounced in the middle of the week.

She moped around the house for a few days and then one afternoon found herself in her younger brother's room, where she began thumbing through his journal. She read this entry: "My sister Sheri came home today. I was so excited to see her, but she seems really sad. I wish there was something I could do to help her because I really love her."

"I just started to cry," she says, "but it also triggered one of those clear moments of inspiration. I had a very clear impression that I should quit worrying about what I didn't have, because I had plenty, and that I needed to do something with what I'd been given. At that point, my view of the world started very slowly to change."

Anyone for Game Boy?

When you want to meet with Sheri Dew, this is what you do: Leave messages. And more messages. And wait. For weeks. When you do meet, it's at her office, between other meetings, which is where she spends most of her waking hours.

Dew has performed two full-time jobs for five years, plus a part-time job as an author. To accomplish that, she maintains a schedule that would exhaust a teenager. She goes to bed at 10:30 or so, and she's up by 3:45, sometimes even 2:30.

"I get e-mails from her at 3 in the morning," says her secretary, Nada.

Dew wrote the biography of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley mostly between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. "People ask me, 'Is it hard to write a biography?' I say, 'No, I did it in my sleep,' " she says, smiling at her joke.

During the day she hustles from one meeting to the next, dashing back and forth across South Temple between her office at Deseret Book and her office at LDS Church headquarters. When she isn't doing that, she's traveling the world as a representative of her church.

"I'm out of control," she confesses.

Dew's frenetic schedule makes her notoriously difficult to contact.

True story: Gladys Knight, the singer and LDS convert, was scheduled to appear on a celebrity edition of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Knight asked Dew to be one of her "lifelines," and she agreed. When the show tried to call Dew, they couldn't reach her.

"People ask me what's the secret to my success," says Dew. "I tell them I have two jobs, and I'm not doing either one well. I'm failing at both jobs. That's the secret. It's impossible to do both well. It feels that way to me. I feel like I'm always letting someone down."

As successful as her career has been, it is a total accident. Everyone she knew left BYU with a degree and a husband, and she expected to be one of them. When she wasn't, she was caught off guard.

"I looked around and thought, 'Now what?' " she says. "It had never occurred to me that I would need to support myself. I had no expectations about a career."

After earning a degree in history with an emphasis in American religious history, she was hired as the "lowest editor on the rung" at Bookcraft, an LDS-oriented publishing house, and got hooked by the publishing business.

"It felt to me like it had a great purpose," she says. "You could do good; you could make a difference. From the time I was a little girl I would go jogging on these country roads wondering what the church was like in the rest of the world. So when I started working at Bookcraft it felt like a way to help get the message of truth out."

She stayed at Bookcraft four years, then became a staff writer and editor of This People — an LDS magazine — for seven years. She has been at Deseret Book for nearly 15 years. Five years ago she was called to serve in the LDS Relief Society presidency. Over the years she also has written biographies for two church presidents and former Miss America Sharlene Wells and penned her recently released "No Doubt About It," even though she confesses, "I'd rather have a root canal than write."

Pop psychologists would say Dew is filling a void with her breakneck work schedule, but her brother Brad says, "She's always kept busy. People want to conclude it's because it keeps her from being lonely. If it does, it's a small percentage. Our upbringing is part of it, growing up on a farm and the importance of working."

Family and friends worry nonetheless about her exhausting schedule, especially considering her history of back pain and migraines (she takes medication for them).

"Her schedule is nuts," says Watson. "And most of the time she is ravaged either by migraines or back pains or vision problems. She just works through it. That is tough to watch. She works past exhaustion. At the end of the day she can go to sleep in 30 seconds."

"I'm actually not happy unless I'm insanely busy," says Dew. "I whine that I need a break, but if I have a day off I think, Now what? It's a sickness, I'm sure. But I have to find a way to relieve the pressure."

She accomplishes that with an hour on the stairstepper early each morning, riding a four-wheeler at her getaway in Midway and by playing Game Boy.

"When I come home at night, I eat, turn on Larry King and play Game Boy for 20 minutes and fall asleep," she says. "I would like to mention that I'm really good at it. I'd be happy to take on anyone in Tetris."

When Dew boards a plane flight for another long ride, she takes three things to her seat: scriptures, books and Game Boy. "My niece gave it to me before a long trip," she explains. "It's hilarious. Here I am, an older woman in a dress, playing Game Boy. The stewardesses kneel in the aisle and ask, 'What are you playing?' "

"Her de-stresser is not long walks or getting a massage, it's her Game Boy," says Watson. "She'll phone halfway around the world to give me an update, and I'm thinking, 'What's wrong with this connection.' It's her Game Boy clicking in the background."

'My best friend's wedding'

She came close to getting married once. She was in her mid-30s, and she was dating a man steadily. True to their religion, they decided they would fast and pray separately about whether they should marry. By the end of the weekend her suitor revealed that he didn't want to marry her — instead, he was going to marry her best friend and roommate, whom he had been dating unbeknownst to her.

Dew has never shared this publicly, although friends are more forthcoming. Ask Dew about it and she says, "I thought it would result in marriage. As it turned out it would not have been a good match, but it was the way it happened. That was such a painful part of my life. But I don't want to hurt those people. I still care about them."

Friends say it took her a couple of years to recover. In one fell swoop, she lost her best friend, roommate and boyfriend. Suddenly, she was coming home to an empty apartment and her best friend was off on her honeymoon. To make matters worse, she bumped into the man regularly because of her work.

"I've got to tell you, I think it was supposed to happen," she says. "I can't feel anything but grateful for that episode in my life. I think the Lord had to hit me in the back of the head to get me to dig deeper than I had ever dug before. It turned me to scriptures and prayer and fasting and the temple in a different way. I had no idea it was possible to feel so much loneliness and rejection.

"It changed forever, in the most wonderful way, my feelings about the Savior. I tapped into power that's greater than anything in this life. So it changed my life. I am sure I wouldn't have been prepared for my current church assignment without that experience."

Typical of Dew, she examined the experience and took from it every lesson she could find. One of them is genuine empathy for others.

"I haven't been divorced," she says. "I haven't lost my husband. But I have felt acute loss. I have felt pain. I have felt loneliness. And so when something happens to someone else that causes those emotions, I understand. Pain is pain." And here she pauses as her eyes well up with tears.

She also knows how to forgive. Do you know why Dew has back pain? Or why it's difficult for her just to stand at the pulpit? According to friends, when her former roommate was pregnant, Dew visited her at the hospital and took her outside in a wheelchair for fresh air. She injured several discs in her back while pushing the wheelchair up and down hills around the hospital.

In the end, as she recovered from the emotional trauma, Dew came to grips with her lot in life. She made her peace with being a single woman. "For my own sanity," she says, "I had to get to the point where I was willing and able to say to the Lord, 'Thy will be done,' and to really mean it. If you worry about it constantly, it wrecks your life. It's an ever-present issue, but I'm not distraught about it. I feel very confident I will get married in this life. But it doesn't look like I'll have children, because of my age."

Instead, she dotes on her nephews and nieces, taking them on trips to New York or to her cabin in Midway. They are, to an extent, her family. She is grateful they have allowed her to be part of their lives.

And, yes, to answer your next question, she does date, but not often and usually only when someone she trusts has a recommendation. The exposure she gets as a member of the LDS Church's Relief Society presidency has brought a steady stream of letters from people wanting her to date their brother, friend, son, which she declines.

"At this age, to date for dating's sake is sheer torture," she says. "I began dating in 1969, which means I have dated in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, and now a new century, and I still haven't found the right guy."

Perhaps the worst side effects of her marital status are the rumors and ignorance it fosters. She has threatened to hire a man to put his arm around her during General Conference just to stop the gossip that she is dating one of the general authorities of the church. Visitors to her house at Christmastime will commend her for decorating her house and for putting up a Christmas tree, as if they are surprised she would bother — being single and all. Strangers advise her about whom she should or shouldn't date or chastise her for being "too picky" or for choosing a career instead of marriage.

"They have no idea how many times I've cried myself to sleep because of acute loneliness or the hundreds of times I've fasted and prayed to be married," she says. "If fasting and praying could get you a husband, I could pick anyone I wanted. At least let me be busy with a career and not sit around and be lonely. Would they feel better if I was checking bags at Albertson's? But the vast majority of people have been accepting and wonderful."

In public, Dew is ever the confident, independent woman, but in private she still retains part of the same insecure girl of her youth. She peppers her sentences with self-deprecating humor and painful self-evaluations — "The truth is I've never been one of those girls who guys see on the street corner and think, 'I've got to take her out.' " She still thinks she doesn't measure up.

"I still struggle; I'm still surprised if I find out that somebody thinks I'm OK," she confesses.

"One of her charms is that she just doesn't get it," says Larson. "She does not realize what it is people love so much about her. She does not see herself as wonderful. She is a pure, honest human being."

Armed with the compassion and wisdom she has learned in the trenches, she is uniquely suited in her job as a representative of her church. There have been worse ideas than turning such a keen, sensitive heart and mind loose in the world to meet diverse people, to connect with them, to learn and observe, to extract life's truths and pass along to a church at large.

In her trips to Africa, for instance, she observed poverty, abuse, disease, starvation — but not the depression that's so prevalent in the United States. The people told her they were happy because of their belief in their religion.

"And we have everything here except sometimes happiness," says Dew. "I wonder who the Lord is really worried about — us or them? I have never heard people pray or sing as the people did in Africa. When it was time to fly home, I didn't want to leave. I was wiping tears all the way home."

For all the disappointments, Dew is living a rich life and she knows it.

"I love my life," she says. "I'm happy about my life."


E-MAIL: droby@desnews.com

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