BYU professor remembered for Africa work

Published: Monday, Dec. 7 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

OREM — On a day in June 1978 in Johannesburg, South Africa, a black man named Moses ran down a long set of church steps, while a white man in his mid-thirties ran up.

They met in the middle and embraced.

E. Dale LeBaron, the white man with a pioneering spirit from a small Canadian farm town, was soon to conduct the first baptismal interview of a black man in Africa.

For years, Moses had been coming to the mission house where LeBaron served as president to collect pamphlets and books, then going out to teach the gospel to anyone who would listen.

That day marked the beginning of a rapid expansion of the LDS Church in Africa following the 1978 revelation that welcomed black men into the church priesthood.

LeBaron's daughter, Debra St. Jeor, recounted the joyous meeting of Moses and her father as one of his favorite stories.

"He developed a deep love for the African people," she said. "People who knew him knew that he loved them."

The renowned BYU professor of church history died Thursday after being struck by a truck while crossing a street near his home in Orem. He was 75.

Police said the driver reported being blinded by the sun when he turned on to 1600 North from 800 West. LeBaron's wife, Laura, and another woman suffered minor injuries.

St. Jeor said her father was devoted to his six children and 34 grandchildren, loved playing games and never missed a baptism in the family.

"His main passion in life was the gospel and his family," she said. "What my dad taught is what he lived."

The oldest child, St. Jeor was just 12 when the family headed to South Africa in 1972.

"It was unbelievable, like this perfect magical childhood," she said. "We went on safaris every chance we got. … He always felt blessed he was able to do that."

In 1988, LeBaron returned to Africa to collect oral histories from church leaders and newly converted members.

"Experienced collectors of oral history told me that I would be fortunate to average one interview a day in Africa," LeBaron said, according to quotes on the Web site of BYU Broadcasting. "But on some days I did as many as a dozen, and in one hundred days I accumulated more than four hundred interviews."

Brent Top, chairman of the church history and doctrine department at BYU, said LeBaron played a key role in chronicling the church's work in Africa.

"He was very much involved because he knew the people," Top said. "He made a real contribution in some of his writings to helping the Saints understand the significance of the 1978 revelation to the worldwide church."

But LeBaron's work abroad should not overshadow the impact he made by teaching at BYU.

"Students would talk about his dignity and authority," Top said. "He was not just another teacher, they viewed him as one of the great leaders of the church."

Funeral services will be Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Timpview Stake Center, 1050 N. 600 West in Orem.

For more information go to www.KSL.com.

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

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