His father served as presiding bishop of the church, and Elder Wirthlin's dream as a young man was to be a missionary in Germany, just as his father had been. That dream came true when he served in the German-Austrian and the Swiss-Austrian missions from 1937-39.
An accomplished athlete, he played football for the University of Utah, from which he graduated with a degree in business administration. He also received an honorary doctorate from Brigham Young University in 2001. He and his wife were married May 26, 1941, in the Salt Lake Temple and are the parents of eight children.
He believed in a daily plan of each day's activities. "I make a schedule of what I am going to do and stick to it. I have learned that half an hour of planning will save several hours during the day."
His daughter, Jane, recalled waking "at 5 in the morning and hearing him at the typewriter," typing his schedule for the day. And Elder Wirthlin used time wisely even when eating meals with his family.
"He wasn't around much before or after dinner," his daughter Elisabeth said. "But we always had gospel discussions at the dinner table. I felt like he really tutored us in the church."
Elder Wirthlin loved the scriptures and would make time to read them. Elisabeth said, "Many times I would wake up and go downstairs and see him studying the scriptures at 4:30 in the morning."
Before his call to full-time church service, he was a prominent business leader in Salt Lake City. He was also president of a trade association in Utah.
Elder Wirthlin served just less than 17 years in the bishopric of the Bonneville Ward, then seven years as a counselor to Elder Russell M. Nelson in the Bonneville Stake presidency in Salt Lake City. Elder Nelson spoke once of Elder Wirthlin's faith and willingness to work.
"There was hardly ever a Sunday night when I didn't get a call from him asking if there was any more he could do for me," Elder Nelson said.
He also served for about four years as first counselor to Elder Nelson in the Sunday School general presidency before being called as an Assistant to the Twelve in April 1975.
When he was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Wirthlin said, "I've loved every assignment I've ever had in the kingdom. And in that service, every day seemed like Sunday, because it was in the service of the Lord."
"There is an old proverb," Elder Wirthlin was wont to say, "which says, 'An inch of gold will not buy an inch of time.' We must put a sufficiently high value on time. It is valuable and should not be wasted."
He was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy on Oct. 1, 1976, and to the Presidency of the Seventy on Aug. 28, 1986. Elder Wirthlin was sustained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Oct. 4, 1986, and ordained an apostle on Oct. 9, 1986, at age 69.
He often spoke of his faith in Jesus Christ and encouraged others to develop their faith as well.
"My life really is anchored to the testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ," he said.
In another conference, he said, "I wish I could engrave on every heart what I so keenly know and feel. I bear unwavering testimony that our Heavenly Father and his divine Son, Jesus Christ, rule and reign and that we must all understand that the gospel is everlasting."
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