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Jerry Earl Johnston: How can you learn without asking?

Published: Friday, March 18 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

One of the most valuable tools in a columnist's kit is a good memory. And I've been blessed with good recall. People ask how I can remember minor details from minor moments. I tell them when a person is surprised by something, it tends to stick in the mind. And I've spent my life being shocked and startled by almost everything I've seen and heard.

Still, there are things I wish I could remember that I can't — not because I've forgotten them, but because I never asked for the answers.

My grandfather was given a Purple Heart in World War I. I think it had something to do with his being shot on the poppy fields of Flanders while carrying wounded soldiers to safety, but I don't know for sure.

I don't know because I never bothered to ask him.

Just as I never bothered to ask my great-grandfather — a man I knew — what LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff said to him the day they met; or ask my grandmother what it was like to have President Heber J. Grant stay in her home.

It would have been simple enough.

I didn't have to make a grand project of it, complete with tape recorders and notepads. During a lull in a conversation I simply could have asked. And I would have remembered what they told me because, whatever they said, it would have surprised me.

Even with a great memory, a person can't remember something he never knew.

You have to ask.

How often have children said to a parent or grandparent, "You never told me that before," only to be told in return, "Well, you never asked."

As for the moral of these ruminations, it comes down to something I heard Clive Romney, the LDS musician and composer, say. He said if we're supposed to turn our hearts to our fathers, we need to get know them. We need to learn all we can about them, because one can't give his heart to just a name, you have to give it to a person. And our ancestors become people when we ask those living to tell us about them.

As for my kids, let me finish with something to get them going. I once spent halftime at a Super Bowl game seated between legendary TV newscaster Walter Conkite and national advice columnist Ann Landers while Don King — the spiky-haired fight promoter — carved great slaps of prime rib for us. But before we could eat, Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" burst in with his cameras and began asking embarrassing questions.

There was a man who wasn't afraid to ask for information.

And if my kids want to know more about what happened at that Super Bowl, I'd be happy to tell them.

All they have to do is ask.

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com

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