BYU legend Janie Thompson launched careers, touched lives as founder of Young Ambassadors, Lamanite Generation

Published: Saturday, June 8 2013 8:57 p.m. MDT

LeeAndra Lowe, Cherilyn Eagar and Nancy Schultz sing a song during a memorial service for Janie Thompson, the founder of BYU's internationally touring Young Ambassadors, at the BYU multi-stake center in Provo on Saturday, June 8, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — Sandi Griffiths attended her first audition at BYU as a spectator, initially feeling too shy to try out herself. But the director, Janie Thompson, had no ill words for the plethora of hopefuls. If a student really couldn't sing, she smiled and said, "Oh, you're wonderful! Could you carry a flag?"

Watching Thompson, Griffiths worked up the courage to sing "I'm as Corny as Kansas in August."

"She changed the course of my life," said Griffiths, who later sang on "The Lawrence Welk Show" for 12 years.

Thompson, who died June 1 at the age of 91, had a chance at her own career as a professional entertainer, but gave it up to mentor others as the founder of the Student Program Bureau. She ultimately founded six groups at BYU, two of which, the Young Ambassadors and Living Legends, continue to tour internationally today. She continued writing and producing shows after her retirement and published more than 100 musical works.

But her greatest accomplishment, those who knew her say, was mothering the students she considered her children.

"She had a superpower, if you ask me, to know the potential of her students," her niece, Barbara Acheson, said. "She could look past the makeup and clothes right into the soul and pull that out."

International legacy

Thompson became the founder of a BYU entertainment initiative then known as the Student Program Bureau in 1952. BYU President Ernest Wilkinson called to ask her to start it shortly after she returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She had received a job offer from the Ike Carpenter band earlier that same day and was less than thrilled about giving up her opportunity with Ike Carpenter, but she considered Wilkinson's invitation a calling from God.

Randy Boothe, who performed with the Young Ambassadors during their first international tour, said the BYU job also helped align Thompson with her personal vision of using music to spread the gospel.

"She saw great opportunities — doors were opening for her right and left, but she also had opportunities to use her talents to sell cigarettes," said Boothe, now the director of the Young Ambassadors himself. "She thought to herself, 'I'm not going to use my talents to sell that.' What she was selling at BYU was everything that was good with the youth of America."

During her first four years, she put on more than 2,000 shows, traveling to every high school in Utah. At the same time, she put together several youth productions for the Young Women's Mutual Improvement Association. She burned out and then moved to New York for three years to teach in a professional studio.

Wilkinson eventually called again, and Thompson returned to BYU in 1959. She embarked on the school's first international tour a year later.

The Young Ambassadors came together a decade later, when BYU was invited to send a group to represent the U.S. at the 1970 world expo in Osaka, Japan. Boothe, who had played in a band for another BYU performing group, was recruited as a singer/dancer for the Young Ambassadors.

"We performed on the grand stage, which was separated from the main area by a fountain, like at the Bellagio," he said. "It was the first time anyone had seen water move to music with lights like that."

The band that accompanied the Young Ambassadors played from a motorized stage that moved around the fountain during the show, Boothe said.

"The international audiences just loved the group," Boothe said. "Year after year after that, they received invitations."

The Young Ambassadors have since performed in nearly 60 countries.

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