“At least I’m not as old as this rock.”
I laughed as I read the words, etched in a granite stone that sat on the porch. When the front door finally opened, standing a bit unsteadily before me was 98-year-old Lorna Call Alder. Her kind eyes smiled from behind her glasses as she welcomed me in.
Though I was a near stranger, she chatted me up like an old friend as I affixed a video camera on a tripod, pointed it toward her and pulled out a notepad. When I pushed “record,” I had no idea that this white-haired lady, sitting contentedly before me in her comfortable polyester, was about to take me on a jaw-dropping ride through the 20th century.
Over the ensuing months and years, I went to Lorna’s home more than 40 times as I recorded her oral history and wrote her biography for her family. It takes a long time to chronicle a life of more than a century, especially one like Lorna’s.
On March 11, Utah lost its sixth-oldest citizen and the world lost a treasure of humanity when Lorna passed away. She was two months shy of her 107th birthday.
As I mourn her death, memories of the life story Lorna shared with me wash over my mind. As the video camera rolled, she spoke of her 1906 birth in the Mormon colonies of northern Mexico. Her earliest memories were couched in a pivotal period in both Latter-day Saint and North American history — the era of “post-Manifesto” polygamy and the Mexican Revolution.
In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the “Manifesto” on “plural marriage,” drastically reducing the number of these marriages contracted in the United States. But LDS polygamy continued for a time beyond U.S. borders, in Mexico and Canada.
Lorna's parents were among these families. Lorna described what it was like growing up with 24 siblings in a polygamous family on an early 19th-century farm. Though they were materially poor, Lorna said she didn’t realize it, remembering a childhood filled with wonder and love.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 brought Lorna both thrilling and terrifying experiences. As a 9-year-old she watched with excitement as Pancho Villa and his vast army of revolutionaries rolled into her tiny town, camping in the streets for three weeks. Months later, she cowered with ward and family members on the second story of her father’s home while lawless marauders robbed and shot up the house downstairs and burned down another house on her street.
The ferocity of the revolution caused Lorna’s family and other Mormon colonists to flee north of the border three times in what they called “the exoduses.” Anti-American violence prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send U.S. troops into Mexico. The troops made their camp just outside Lorna’s town of Dublan. She never forgot running her hand in awe along the shiny metal of an Army “flying machine” — the first airplane the local people had ever seen.
Because Lorna’s father, Anson Bowen Call, was the town’s bishop and leader, the Army expedition’s head, General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his young aide, George Patton, came over a few times for dinner.
If space here allowed, I could go on for pages about Lorna’s 20th-century adventures.
She was the first woman in her family to go to college, heading in 1926 to a fledgling school in Provo whose president, Franklin S. Harris, was promising to build a world-class university. In the early 1930s, she convinced the Mexican government to not shut down the Juarez Stake Academy and other Mormon schools in Mexico, assisted by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico J. Reuben Clark. She drove her first car to attend the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, seeing the devastating effects of the Great Depression as she made her way across the country.
This small-town girl headed to New York in 1937 to earn her master’s degree at Columbia University, where the legendary educator John Dewey was her teacher. She helped establish the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City, exhibiting the work of local artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and entertaining them in her apartment.
She talked about how she served on the church’s general Sunday School board with a “kid” named Gordon Hinckley. She married and had her first child at 41 and her second at 46. She taught elementary education at Brigham Young University for 35 years, creating a course that continues today. She served full-time missions in Texas, Peru and Guatemala and worked in the Provo Utah Temple until she was past 100.
At age 102, she received the Mormon History Association’s Best International History Award for co-authoring a biography of her father.
Staggering as Lorna’s experiences were, it was when I came to the end of writing her biography that I was most moved by her life. I gathered remembrances of Lorna written by her descendants, friends, siblings and countless nieces and nephews. Lorna was such a humble person, I don’t know whether many of them were fully aware of all the amazing things she had done in her life of a century.
What mattered to them, and what mattered to her, was what she had meant in their lives.
She had mothered her younger siblings after her mother died and had helped them obtain their own college degrees. She nursed one of her sons back to health from polio. She talked about how she hid chocolate cakes or watermelons along the back wall of the MTC for her missionary sons to find.
She served up delicious food for family parties at her home on University Avenue each year while Provo’s Fourth of July parade rolled by. She left her bottled fruit and flowers on the doorsteps of neighbors and always paid her nephews an extra 10 percent for working in her yard, telling them to use it to pay their tithing.
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She somehow managed to make each of her loved ones feel that they were her absolute favorite.
I used to wish I could be as grand a soul as Lorna Call Alder, but I’ve given that up. I’m just not that good. Few people are. Instead, I’m just grateful to be the ordinary woman who got to tell her extraordinary story.
Barbara Jones Brown earned a master’s degree in American history from the University of Utah. She is currently working on a book about the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.