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Remembering my time as secretary to Pres. Ernest L. Wilkinson

Published: Friday, June 10 2011 6:30 a.m. MDT

In February 1965 I had just returned from my mission to Argentina. I went to BYU with $25 in my pocket and needing a job desperately. My missionary companion, who had returned several months earlier, worked in the placement center so I headed there first.

She told me that secretarial jobs were few and far between, but that Ernest L. Wilkinson, president of the university, was looking for a secretary. She and her boss “double dared” me to just go for an interview. They also told me that President Wilkinson ate employees for breakfast.

I told them they were crazy, but what could I lose? At least it was an interview.

President Wilkinson had two other secretaries and needed a file clerk to file boxes and boxes of paperwork from his failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Prior to his returning to BYU, he had taken no salary since he was hired in 1951. As I sat outside his office waiting for his summons, I was really quite nervous and said to myself, “When I get out of here, I am going to strangle those two that dared me to do this!”

Then the buzzer rang and I was told to go in.

The carpet was a deep pile royal blue, and the walk to his desk felt like a mile. He was a little man behind a big desk and there was a big frown on his face. He motioned for me to sit down, never said a word or acknowledged me in any way. I sat for approximately two minutes without a word being exchanged between us.

Finally, he asked for my resume. I handed it to him, he began to read it, then threw it down in front of him and slammed his fist on his desk. "What in the world are you applying for this job when you can only take dictation at 60 words per minute? I require 120.”

I was shocked.

Finally, I said, “I just returned from my mission and my mission president spoke slowly, so I didn’t have to take dictation at more than 60.” Then I added, “But I’m a fast learner.”

Again, he began reading some paperwork on his desk and completely ignored me. I just wanted to get out of there. Finally, he looked straight at me and said, “Well, get to work.”

That’s how I began more than two-and-a-half years of learning to love that man. In time, I learned how to take dictation at 120 words per minute, how to set up a filing system, run his office and to always expect the unexpected.

I remember taking dictation many times late at night, even at times while President Wilkinson was on his exercise bike in the attic of his home. I have run across campus with completed speech in hand and reached him two minutes before he was scheduled to give it.

My “office” was a long room with a long table in the middle of it with boxes and boxes of papers underneath. Around the outside of the room were some 20-24 four-drawer filing cabinets, just waiting to be filled, and a buzzer that let me know that I was needed in “the inner sanctum.”

After I had worked there about six months, I had an experience that I shall never forget.

My buzzer rang, I stepped inside President Wilkinson’s office and saw Elders Hugh B. Brown and Nathan Eldon Tanner, and two other apostles. President Wilkinson said to me, “Jan, I need a talk that I gave back in (about 15 years before) about a teacher walking on the beach. Please find it for me.”

I said a little prayer, walked into my office and went to the third filing cabinet from the door. I opened the third drawer from the bottom, reached in about halfway and pulled out a talk. I quickly scanned the first page.

After finding it, I went back into his office, handed him the talk and said, “Is this what you wanted?”

He grinned a big grin and said, “Yes, thank you.” I left, but not before I saw the look of incredulity on the faces of four apostles.

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