Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died at his home on Wednesday, July 21, 2004, at 11:45 p.m., surrounded by his family, after a long battle with leukemia. It was the 23rd anniversary of his call to be an LDS apostle. He was 78.

Funeral services are scheduled for noon Tuesday at the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

A general authority of the church since 1974, Elder Maxwell was ordained as an apostle on July 23, 1981. Regarded by many LDS Church members as the faith's ultimate wordsmith, Elder Maxwell's public addresses — particularly those during the faith's semiannual general conferences — included intricately crafted similes, metaphors and alliteration that cut to the core of the faith's most basic doctrines.

He was a prolific author, having written at least 30 books on religious topics, the most recent of which received a literary prize for LDS literature. His writings also included many articles on politics and government.

The First Presidency of the LDS Church mourned his passing Thursday as one whose "life has been most extraordinary. He has excelled in the very many endeavors in which he has been engaged and particularly in his devoted service" to the church. "His incisive mind, his tremendous teaching abilities and his remarkable leadership have greatly assisted in moving forward the work of the church in all the world.

"Our hearts reach out to his beloved companion, Colleen, and other family members. We pray the Lord will comfort and sustain them at this difficult time."

In recent years, church members became aware of his struggle with cancer, and he provided inspiration for many facing similar trials. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996. Though he preferred to focus on the message of his faith rather than his own illness, he told one group of cancer survivors that a "blessing" associated with his disease was the opportunity to order what is truly most important in life.

"We have a different perspective, a sharper focus," he said about cancer patients in 1999. "I've been given by the Lord a delay en route."

Many Latter-day Saints remember his appearance during the church's April 1997 General Conference, during his treatment for leukemia, and were surprised to see him at the pulpit of the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Extensive chemotherapy treatments had left him bald, and he joked about bringing "some different 'illumination' to the pulpit."

Early disappointments

No stranger to deep challenges, Elder Maxwell's 2002 biography chronicles several disappointments during his early years as a shy and retiring young boy. His failure to make the Granite High School basketball team, a bad case of acne, criticism of his writing ability and the fact that he raised pigs as a 4-H project made his early years a humbling time, though he would later express gratitude for the lessons he learned as a result.

"It may be that seeing some of these things and feeling them personally has given me an extra bit of compassion."

Although he felt ostracized during those years, he used the experiences as a springboard of caring, looking to see that others would feel valued and included. Those close to him observed his ability to pinpoint the shy person who hung back, unsure of how to be part of a group. If he saw someone leaving a chapel alone, he pursued them down the hallway.

"I don't want them to go away without shaking hands," he said. "I know what it's like to stand outside the circle."

That perspective came through in his numerous sermons and writings, born of deeply personal experience. "If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do," he said. "Sometimes the best people have the worst experiences, because they are the most ready to learn."

Early lessons

He was born July 6, 1926, in Salt Lake City to Clarence H. and Emma Ash Maxwell, their only son and the first of six children. A 2002 biography by Elder Bruce C. Hafen, "A Disciple's Life," chronicles how he learned early to prize hard work and spiritual wealth over ease and material possessions. The teachings came from his father, who was a convert to the LDS Church and worked in obscurity for the railroad and then for a furniture company. For much of Elder Maxwell's early life, the family didn't own a car, and he never recalled going to dinner at a restaurant with his parents.

His respect for the power of prayer and divine intervention was bolstered when, as a boy of 16, he came home late one night from his job as a "grease monkey" at the local bus terminal to find his parents and other adults huddling over his 6-week-old baby sister, Carol, who was suffering from whooping cough.

He watched from the shadows as they tried to revive her. She had turned blue and looked lifeless. Decades later he would tell television commentator Hugh Hewitt of watching as his father and others laid their hands on the baby's head and blessed her "after the manner of the New Testament, with the power of the priesthood," to live. Shortly afterward she revived and began to breathe again.

It was a watershed moment in his spiritual life, he later said, remembering his gratitude and prayers of thanksgiving to God for preserving his sister's life. She later married and reared six children.

An admittedly strong-willed child, Elder Maxwell struggled in his early teens to maintain an interest in church activity and "did not connect with Scouting." His parents had tutored him in the faith at home, in word and deed, and maintained their belief in his understanding of gospel principles, despite the fact that he was "a little feisty and independent."

"While my parents winced, they respected my agency. I knew somewhat how they felt, but they backed off a little bit in this almost sacred zone where our agency touches parental counsel." They would simply remind him, "you know how we feel," a tactic that bore rich fruit. As a result, he found himself "respecting and loving them all the more."

Respect for agency

It's a trait he exemplified well with his own children, who told the Deseret Morning News on Thursday that he never pressured them to toe the line for fear of how his own reputation or the family name would be affected. He extended the same courtesy to his grandchildren, they said, noting he "always had respect for their agency."

He learned early to hold the line on principle. Once he was with a group of friends who wanted to buy some beer, and he asked them to take him home. Rather than castigating them, his wife, Colleen, recalled he simply went home and cried — a reflection of the personal pain that friends and former students learned he felt for those who struggled spiritually or otherwise.

After graduating from Granite High School in 1944, he was not yet 18 but "anxious to be involved" in World War II. Without any sense of entitlement, he said he felt "it was my duty. I wanted to go," so he enlisted and was assigned to the infantry, where he would fight on the front lines in the Battle of Okinawa.

At the height of his battle experience, a mortar shell exploded five feet from his foxhole, and he knew the enemy had located his position and it would only be a matter of minutes until he was hit. He knelt for the deepest prayer of his life, "one of those selfish, honest prayers" for protection despite overwhelming odds to the contrary. He promised to spend the balance of his life serving God.

The prayer was answered, he later recounted. No more shells came near him that night; when shelling resumed the following night, the ammunition failed to explode. It was another life-altering moment whose implications would come into play again and again as he considered career moves and sought to keep his promise.

Anxious to serve

He returned home anxious to serve an LDS mission and was called to eastern Canada, where he served as district president and first came to know Elder Marion G. Romney and Elder Ezra Taft Benson. Both would later become influential in his life, the former as a mentor and the latter as president of the church and the person who set him apart as a general authority.

He met Colleen Hinckley in a class at the University of Utah, and they corresponded during his LDS mission. When he returned, he knew she was the girl for him, and after a relatively short courtship, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple on Nov. 22, 1950. She became his most trusted confidante, and he would later call her his "auxiliary conscience" and "an additional prompter, along with the Holy Ghost."

"She's not always convenient. I don't want to hear what she tells me sometimes, but I've learned long since to pay attention."

After graduating from the U. in 1952 with a bachelor's degree, they moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as a legislative assistant to Utah Sen. Wallace F. Bennett. Fancying a possible career in politics, he wanted to be in the middle of the action. He learned great respect for the political process and the art of negotiation but later concluded that it wasn't government — but the gospel — that held the answers to people's problems.

He completed a master's degree, also in political science, at the U. in 1961 and began moving through the ranks of university administration, beginning with a job as assistant director of public relations there at age 30. Though he never fancied himself a teacher, he began teaching political science and was often named a favorite among his students. He and his wife had started their family in Washington, where their son, Cory, was born, followed by sisters Nancy, Jane and Becky.

Over the next two decades, he worked his way up the administrative ladder at the U., serving as an associate professor of political science, dean of students, assistant to the president and, finally, executive vice president. There he honed his skills — both analytical and literary — along with many close friendships while serving the church in a variety of leadership positions, including his stint as bishop of Salt Lake City's University Sixth Ward.

Other church responsibilities would follow, and he served as a member of the general board of the YMMIA, a member of the Adult Correlation Committee, and as one of the first regional representatives of the Twelve. He was appointed commissioner of church education in 1970 before being called as an assistant to the Twelve in 1974.

A general authority

By 1976, he was a member of the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy until his call as an apostle in July 1981 at age 55. It was during his early years as a general authority that Latter-day Saints began to appreciate his command of language, and his sermons became talking points among those who heard him.

The scholarly world recognized his role as a public servant and educator, and he was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from the U., in addition to other honorary degrees from Westminster College, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Ricks College and Salt Lake Community College.

After his fight with leukemia became public in 1997, many who had become fond of Elder Maxwell accelerated efforts to show their appreciation. In 1998, the U. established the Neal A. Maxwell Presidential Endowed Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy and Public Service after friends and former students raised $1.25 million for the endowment.

He continued writing and working for the church until he became unable to do so weeks ago, his children said.

As he battled the effects of leukemia and its treatment during the last years of his life, they agreed he simply "never complained." On the day he died, "it was getting difficult for him to talk," said his daughter, Jane Sanders, but their father "told us two different times, 'You are all wonderful.' " The sentiment reflected his lifelong belief in and love for people, his children said.

"You always felt like after talking to him and mother that you could do anything," she said.


Funeral services

Comment on this story Funeral services for Elder Neal A. Maxwell are scheduled at noon Tuesday in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, followed by a private graveside service before burial in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. No broadcast of the services is planned, according to church spokesman Dale Bills, and there will be no public viewing. Condolences can be e-mailed to: condolences@ldschurch.org or mailed to church headquarters, 47 E. South Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150.


Contributing: Tom Hatch and Lynn Arave

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com