SALT LAKE CITY — Rodney K. Smith remembers clearly the first board meeting he attended as the then-new president of Southern Virginia University.
Sister Okazaki died Monday of congestive heart failure. The groundbreaking leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was 84.
Widely known and remembered by church members as an arresting speaker, a compelling writer who sold hundreds of thousands of books and a counselor to then-general Relief Society President Elaine L. Jack from 1990 to 1997, Sister Okazaki converted to the church from Buddhism at age 15. Born to Japanese parents in Hawaii in 1926, she became the first minority woman to serve on the church’s Young Women’s Board and the first to serve in an LDS general presidency.
Her positive messages of hope in Christ made her books and tapes of her talks into bestsellers and she was in demand as a speaker until last year, when she said at a February “Time Out for Women” event, “You are a treasure. And you have a treasure to give. Give liberally. Give abundantly. ... Your greatest treasure is your testimony of Jesus Christ.”
Her smiling eyes and her own ever-present smile was one of her trademarks, and she encouraged others to join her. “You have an abundant supply of smiles,” she said at that same event last year. “Let’s start passing them out.”
Sister Okazaki is widely known and remembered by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a counselor to then-general Relief Society President Elaine L. Jack from 1990 to 1997. She is also known beyond the LDS community as a powerful motivational speaker, an author with a number of best-selling books to her credit and as the founder of The Children's Reading Foundation of Utah.
"Mother meant a lot to a lot of other people," said her son, Kenneth, a Salt Lake City attorney. "She had a way of treating people like they were special to her, and everyone felt special when they were with her."
Smith echoed that notion when he remembered the first time he met Sister Okazaki, when he was being interviewed for the presidential position at SVU and she was a member of the selection committee.
"I felt an immediate connection to her," he said. "Through my years of association with her I've noticed that that isn't unusual. Most people who met her felt that connection. She was one of those rare people who was so filled with the pure love of Christ that you felt that she cared about you — that you were important to her.
"And the truth of the matter was, she did — and you were."
Smith said that was even true of the last time he saw her, during a visit to Salt Lake City about three months ago. By this time Sister Okazaki's health was failing, and she was living in a care center.
"She was struggling a little — you could see that," Smith said. "But inside her was that great soul, and I was uplifted and touched by it. We had the kind of conversation that brought tears to both of our eyes. I'll never forget it."
Even those who didn't know Sister Okazaki personally were touched and influenced by her. Looking through various blogs and websites one can find any number of expressions that suggest her far-reaching influence.
"What is the appropriate way to mourn the passing of an individual with such limitless optimism and cheer as Chieko Okazaki?" wrote Cynthia L. on the "Common Consent" blog. "How can our hearts not ache and rend at the loss of someone whose life deeply influenced so many? And yet, can a memorial full of anguish appropriately honor the one with the sunny spunk to tell us to 'Lighten Up'?"
Another post to the same blog by Angela H. says: "Chieko Okazaki's intelligence, charity, fearlessness and clarity of vision has inspired me for so many years. I'm sure she will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life as I return to her writing."
"Her books and talks influenced me as a young wife and mother," writes Jennifer in GA. "I am a better woman, period, because of her."
Sheri Dew, president CEO of Deseret Book, observed that "Sister Okazaki had a unique style and distinctive gift for connecting with her audience — in both the written and spoken word. She was a master in drawing upon her own experiences in such a way that almost anyone could relate. Her success as an author was an outgrowth of her abilities as a speaker. No doubt she will be missed by many."
She also delivered what some consider a landmark 1992 talk on healing from sexual abuse that became a best-selling tape for Deseret Book (Deseret Book and the Deseret News are both owned by Deseret Media Companies) in 1993 and that she gave again at BYU in 2002.
Despite having to share their mother with so many others, Kenneth said that he and his brother Robert "always knew that, together with our Dad, we were her highest priority."
Others who knew her confirm her devotion to her family.
"She just delighted in her family," Smith said. "You could just see it and feel it whenever she spoke of them — which was frequently. I never met Ed — he had passed away by the time I knew Sister Okazaki — but she spoke of him with such tenderness and clarity, I have a feeling that if I meet him on the other side, I'll know him immediately."
"Ed" was her husband, Edward, whom she met when both were students at the University of Hawaii. Although he was not a member of the LDS Church at the time they were married, she said in an interview at the time she was called to the general Relief Society presidency that she knew him to be "a good man and a strong Christian." Edward was a decorated World War II veteran who joined the church 10 months after they were married and went on to become one of the first LDS mission presidents in Japan. Together the Okazakis had two sons and now, four grandchildren.
"She adored those grandchildren," Kenneth said. "Her eyes would just light up whenever she spoke of them."
Her love of children probably had something to do with her choice of careers. As an educator she taught elementary school in Hawaii, Salt Lake City and Denver. She also spent 10 years as an elementary school principal.
As a convert to the church (she was raised in a Buddhist family) and a person of Asian ethnicity, Sister Okazaki was unusual among the general leadership ranks of the LDS Church. Within the pages of her books she speaks openly of experiencing the sting of racism, the frustration of infertility, the pain and fear of cancer and the heart-wrenching death of her beloved spouse. Through it all, she said in 1990, "the Lord has been good to me. He has given me a lot of direction and guidance in my life. Now I want to do whatever I can to return my thanks to him."
Funeral services for Sister Okazaki are scheduled for Aug. 10 at 11 a.m. At the Holladay South Stake Center, 4917 S. Viewmont Street.
Quotes from Sister Okazaki's books:
"Perfect people don't need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He's not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief." — "Lighten Up!"
"In principle great clarity, in practice great charity."
"If we don't have time for masterpiece moments, the very reason we came to earth is being wasted on us." — "Being Enough"
"There's not just one right way to be a Mormon woman . . .as long as we are firmly grounded in faith in the Savior, make and keep covenants, live the commandments, and work together in charity. All of us face different family circumstances and home situations. All of us need strength in dealing with them. This strength comes from faith in the Savior's love and in the power of his atonement. If we trustingly put our hand in the Savior's, we can claim the promise of the sacramental prayer to always have his Spirit with us. All problems are manageable with that strength, and all other problems are secondary in urgency to maintaining a strong spiritual life." — October General Conference, 1993
"Part of [our] hope in Christ is hope in the future, a future that includes resurrection and salvation and exaltation. He is my hope on rainy Monday mornings, my hope on dark nights, and my hope in the face of death and despair." — October General Conference, 1996
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