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Elder Maxwell dies at 78

LDS apostle renowned as ultimate wordsmith

Published: Friday, July 23 2004 7:31 a.m. MDT

Neal A. Maxwell, shown at a BYU Devotional, served as a general authority for 30 years, including 23 in the Quorum of the Twelve.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

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."

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