LDS leader, author, speaker Chieko Okazaki dies

Published: Thursday, Aug. 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Rodney K. Smith remembers clearly the first board meeting he attended as the then-new president of Southern Virginia University.

Sister Okazaki died Monday of congestive heart failure. The groundbreaking leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was 84.

Widely known and remembered by church members as an arresting speaker, a compelling writer who sold hundreds of thousands of books and a counselor to then-general Relief Society President Elaine L. Jack from 1990 to 1997, Sister Okazaki converted to the church from Buddhism at age 15. Born to Japanese parents in Hawaii in 1926, she became the first minority woman to serve on the churchs Young Womens Board and the first to serve in an LDS general presidency.

Her positive messages of hope in Christ made her books and tapes of her talks into bestsellers and she was in demand as a speaker until last year, when she said at a February Time Out for Women event, You are a treasure. And you have a treasure to give. Give liberally. Give abundantly. ... Your greatest treasure is your testimony of Jesus Christ.

Her smiling eyes and her own ever-present smile was one of her trademarks, and she encouraged others to join her. You have an abundant supply of smiles, she said at that same event last year. Lets start passing them out.

Sister Okazaki is widely known and remembered by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a counselor to then-general Relief Society President Elaine L. Jack from 1990 to 1997. She is also known beyond the LDS community as a powerful motivational speaker, an author with a number of best-selling books to her credit and as the founder of The Children's Reading Foundation of Utah.

"Mother meant a lot to a lot of other people," said her son, Kenneth, a Salt Lake City attorney. "She had a way of treating people like they were special to her, and everyone felt special when they were with her."

Smith echoed that notion when he remembered the first time he met Sister Okazaki, when he was being interviewed for the presidential position at SVU and she was a member of the selection committee.

"I felt an immediate connection to her," he said. "Through my years of association with her I've noticed that that isn't unusual. Most people who met her felt that connection. She was one of those rare people who was so filled with the pure love of Christ that you felt that she cared about you — that you were important to her.

"And the truth of the matter was, she did — and you were."

Smith said that was even true of the last time he saw her, during a visit to Salt Lake City about three months ago. By this time Sister Okazaki's health was failing, and she was living in a care center.

"She was struggling a little — you could see that," Smith said. "But inside her was that great soul, and I was uplifted and touched by it. We had the kind of conversation that brought tears to both of our eyes. I'll never forget it."

Even those who didn't know Sister Okazaki personally were touched and influenced by her. Looking through various blogs and websites one can find any number of expressions that suggest her far-reaching influence.

"What is the appropriate way to mourn the passing of an individual with such limitless optimism and cheer as Chieko Okazaki?" wrote Cynthia L. on the "Common Consent" blog. "How can our hearts not ache and rend at the loss of someone whose life deeply influenced so many? And yet, can a memorial full of anguish appropriately honor the one with the sunny spunk to tell us to 'Lighten Up'?"

Another post to the same blog by Angela H. says: "Chieko Okazaki's intelligence, charity, fearlessness and clarity of vision has inspired me for so many years. I'm sure she will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life as I return to her writing."

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