BYU's new president hailed as brilliant, kind, compassionate

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 8:45 a.m. MDT

A BYU student takes a selfie with new university President Kevin J Worthen during an impromptu lunch in the student cafeteria on Thursday, his first day on the job.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

PROVO — When the principal pinned Kevin Worthen against a wall in the junior high hallway, the skinny ninth-grader was understandably speechless.

It was the only time Worthen ever saw his father lose his temper with him, and he couldn't understand why.

One moment, the younger Worthen was nudging a friend and pointing toward a ripped phone book dangling from the hallway pay phone. The next, the 5-foot-8 kid was pinned against the wall looking up into the 6-foot-4 principal's eyes.

"Don't you ever do that again," his father said.

"My dad was very, very kind," Worthen said in an interview last week. "He was very kind and he demanded, if you will, that we be kind to other people."

It turned out that just as Worthen was pointing at the torn phone book, the most unpopular girl in the school — "the one everyone made fun of," Worthen said — turned the corner right by the pay phone.

Although his dad misunderstood — Worthen was pointing at the phone book and not the girl — it still made an indelible impression on the teenager.

"I knew it wasn't the time to say, 'I wasn't pointing at her,' but it really didn't matter, the lesson was delivered whether that was true or not. It left an impression. It instilled in me a sense of, 'You're kind to everybody, no matter what.’ ”

Worthen, 57, took over Thursday as the 13th president of BYU, America's third-largest private university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The job includes a clear ministerial component he has embraced during 27 years at BYU, both on campus and off.

Colleagues say the former college basketball player, U.S. Supreme Court clerk, Fulbright Scholar, attorney, BYU law school professor, law school dean and university vice president is uncommonly unassuming despite "an exceptionally bright mind."

They also say, above all else, that he is kind.

"It was nice to chat with President Worthen for a few minutes," BYU student Malcolm Miguel Botto posted on Facebook after the new president ate lunch in the student cafeteria on his first day.

"He made me laugh."

Smart, unassuming

Craig Smith became Worthen's friend in the third grade, the same year Smith remembers running into Worthen one day in the library in Price. Worthen lived in Dragerton, a small town owned by a coal mine several miles away.

Smith was working his way through the Hardy Boys books. Worthen was carrying a stack of novels that included "Advise and Consent," the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning political novel by Allen Drury.

"He was reading as an adult already in those days," Smith said.

Of all the tests they took in all the classes they had together in elementary school, junior high, high school and college, Smith, now a Salt Lake attorney, scored higher than Worthen one time.

Worthen earned an associate's degree at the College of Eastern Utah as co-valedictorian. He had turned down a BYU academic scholarship to play basketball at CEU and stick with his friends. Later, many of them lived together in what they called "the Price house" at BYU, where he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in political science.

"Kevin is a very smart guy, but he's also a very humble guy," Smith said. "He's usually the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't advertise that and doesn't care if people know that or don't know that. Lawyers usually want to let you know."

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