Samuelson departs after proving he fit at BYU after all

Published: Thursday, May 1 2014 7:15 a.m. MDT

"Whoosh, Cecil!" BYU President Cecil Samuelson gives his trademark thumbs-up signal one last time during the Y Awards banquet on April 3, 2014, with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and Sharon Samuelson at his side. Sister Samuelson may have been the bigger Cougar fan, known for constantly checking team scores on her smartphone. Cougar fans long yelled "Whoosh" after a made free throw at basketball games, then added "Cecil" to the phrase, prompting the president to give each chant two thumbs up.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU

PROVO — Cecil Samuelson shared all the startled questions Brigham Young University alumni, faculty and fans had about him when he became the university's president in 2003.

Only he started asking them in 1989.

Back then, Samuelson was a vice president at the University of Utah and the search committee that would select Rex Lee as BYU's 10th president asked to talk to him. He assumed the committee wanted advice or insight on names on its short list.

He was right, but then one committee member asked Samuelson, "How do you think you'd fit at BYU?"

"I've never thought about that because you don't do what I do," he cracked, referring to his career as a professor and dean of medicine, "and I don't do what you do."

Committee members laughed, but Samuelson walked away thinking, "Why recruit an academic physician if you don't have a medical school or a health science center?"

Fourteen years later he was Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, immersed full-time in an ecclesiastical calling as a member of the presidency of the Seventy at the Salt Lake headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He thought his academic career was over — and had never given the 1989 search a second thought — when late church President Gordon B. Hinckley summoned him.

"We'd like you to be the president of Brigham Young University," President Hinckley said.

No search committee. No explanation for selecting a man with a medical background who'd been a founding member of the U.'s booster club, though President Hinckley did tell him, "We'd like you to put on a blue coat."

"I was out of his office in five minutes," Samuelson said. "It took 30 minutes for my wife to believe me."

Sharon Samuelson later joked that once she believed her husband wasn't pulling her leg, she started to wonder if she could believe President Hinckley.

Farewell, Cec

Today, the man known to friends as "Cec" — pronounced "seese" — walks away from BYU after exactly 11 years, giving way to Kevin Worthen, who had been working as one of Samuelson's vice presidents.

Samuelson, 72, changed the face of the university, oversaw a complete overhaul of his cabinet or president's council, steered the university through a recession that cost 70-80 faculty positions during a hiring freeze, and saw enrollment plummet last fall.

An interview in the final days of his administration also provided insight into the interplay between the BYU administration and the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns, operates and subsidizes the school.

Several of the white shelves on the wall across from Samuelson's desk were bare by the time of the interview. Behind his desk, a dark-brown bookcase no longer groaned under the weight of a voracious reader's books.

"For me, it's been a great experience," Samuelson said, "because at a really late stage of life and professional career, to come to an institution that didn't do what I did meant that I'd be immersed in new disciplines.

'I don't know that there's a period of my life that was any more intense of a learning experience than my 11 years at BYU."

He hasn't decided yet what he'll do "when I grow up."

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