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LDS leader describes writing Elder Neal A. Maxwell's inspiring life story

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 11:05 a.m. MST

“That miracle made possible a biography that drew on lengthy interviews with Elder Maxwell, and … he and Sister Maxwell were able to read the whole manuscript and offer comments,” Elder Hafen said.

The work caused him to reflect on the question, “Why do we read and write biographies?”

“When we tell our own stories to each other, we realize the cosmic quest to overcome evil and find God is a very personal quest for each of us,” he said.

“Elder Maxwell’s story is valuable … on a couple of levels: one as a chapter in the history of the Church; the other, particularly his story, illustrates the process of trying to become a disciple of Christ.”

Saying he learned a biographer can’t be much better than his primary sources, he said he asked Elder Maxwell if he had written letters home while serving in World War II or on his mission.

“Oh, there’s nothing profound in those little letters,” was the reply.

But searching the letters, he found matter-of-fact accounts that allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

For example, young Neal Maxwell wrote of being on the island of Okinawa when a shell exploded not more than 5 feet away. In terror, he jumped from his foxhole, moved away seeking protection, then crawled back into the foxhole. “There, he knelt trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer of his life, pleading for protection, and dedicated the rest of his life to the Lord.”

From books about the fighting on Okinawa, Elder Hafen learned of the adverse conditions that beset the servicemen there, including constant thirst. One historian wrote that the only thing that saved them was coffee, which was boiled and rendered relatively sanitary.

Later, he ran across a paragraph in a short letter 18-year-old Neal Maxwell wrote to his parents: “Had a dream the other night. You folks were holding Carol [his sister] up to a window and I was saying ‘Boo’ to her. And she laughed as she does. Boy, if that didn’t make me blue! It’s rough here. … Still not smoking, drinking tea or coffee. Nothing great, but the coffee is tempting sometimes.”

Elder Hafen said that helped him discover how the battle shaped Elder Maxwell’s character. “I believe the coffee was a very practical, youthful expression of the commitment and sacrifice on Okinawa to serve the Lord. This illustrated for me the value of specific details and contemporaneous sources in telling the story.”

Elder Hafen spoke of Elder Maxwell’s prolific writing and speaking, his distinctive style, his keen sense of humor – and his nearly illegible handwriting. He quoted President Gordon B. Hinckley as saying, “Surely a man who has so many virtues must have a vice or two. Have you ever seen Neal’s handwriting? I don’t know how in the world Colleen ever derived any comfort from anything he ever wrote to her.”

Elder Hafen said the tales of Elder Maxwell’s gifts in writing are legendary, adding that translators at general conference assigned conference sermons to categories ranging from one to four, indicating level of difficulty. Category 5 was reserved for only one speaker: Elder Maxwell.

“The challenge was not that he used big fancy words,” Elder Hafen said. “The challenge was that his language was so compressed, full of carefully chosen imagery, metaphors and allusions.”

Elder Hafen told of the mentoring relationship that Elder Maxwell had with many young students in academia.

“He encountered with zest the confusion and doubts of the modern secular world at very sophisticated levels and emerged with a spiritual maturity that was enriched rather than undermined by his educational and professional experiences. Then, as a role model, he taught other young teachers and students how to blend their hearts and their minds.”