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Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 3 2008 12:48 a.m. MST

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In a moving talk in general conference not long after the death of his wife of 65 years, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke of the pain he felt. Quoting Gordon B. Hinckley, who then was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, "it is a devastating, consuming thing to lose someone you love. It gnaws at your soul."

Then Elder Wirthlin added, "He was right."

But then he went on to speak of the promise of Easter. "Think," he said, "of how dark that Friday was when Christ was lifted up on the cross. ... It was a Friday filled with devastating, consuming sorrow that gnawed at the souls of those who loved and honored the Son of God." But that sorrow did not endure. It was quickly wiped away on Sunday morning by the triumph of the Resurrection.

"We will all have our Fridays," he said. "But I testify to you in the name of the one who conquered death — Sunday will come."

Elder Wirthlin, who was the oldest living apostle in the church, died late Monday. For those who knew him, who grew to love him and who were touched by his sermons and his deeds, this is one of those Fridays. The world will surely miss this man who gave so much of himself to others. But his own words, as well as his life of devotion and testimony, stand as witnesses that death is not the end. He left life as he lived it, full of hope and faith.

Many members of the church remember his last conference sermon, two months ago, in which he passed along advice he received many years before from his mother, after he had endured a difficult loss in a football game. "Joseph," she said, "come what may and love it."

The message was clear. Learn from your difficulties. Do not let disappointments or sorrows dominate your life. Don't blame others for your troubles.

This was a recurring theme through many of Elder Wirthlin's sermons. Persevere through adversity, don't let defeats keep you from trying again, and turn your attentions outward to help others. Those were lessons Elder Wirthlin learned early in his own life. He spoke often of his own father and how he would load a wagon with food and supplies to wheel around to the homes of needy families during the Great Depression. He spoke of his mother, who taught him to do what is right.

And often Elder Wirthlin used sports and a delightful sense of humor as vehicles to carry these messages home to his audience. Elder Wirthlin was an outstanding football player at the University of Utah during the 1930s. His love for the sport never waned, and he often would attend Ute football games, becoming good friends with, among others, former Utah coach Urban Meyer.

But when he spoke of football, it was to bring home lessons that apply well beyond the field. He spoke of once coming inches short of a touchdown and how, although his knees were on the ground, he was under a pile of players and easily could have moved the ball forward to make it look as if he had crossed the goal line. But he knew his mother would have been disappointed, so he left the ball where it was.

"I didn't know it at the time," he said in a conference talk, "but this was a defining experience. Had I moved the ball, I could have been a champion for a moment, but the reward of temporary glory would have carried with it too steep and too lasting a price. It would have engraved upon my conscience a scar that would have stayed with me the remainder of my life."

Instead, he was a shining example of a man with integrity, wisdom and charity who spent a lifetime serving God and his fellow human beings. He has left a legacy that will long endure.

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