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Remembering my time as secretary to Pres. Ernest L. Wilkinson

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 11:54 p.m. MDT

In February 1965 I had just returned from my mission to Argentina. I went to BYU with $25 in my pocket and needing a job desperately. My missionary companion, who had returned several months earlier, worked in the placement center so I headed there first.

She told me that secretarial jobs were few and far between, but that Ernest L. Wilkinson, president of the university, was looking for a secretary. She and her boss “double dared” me to just go for an interview. They also told me that President Wilkinson ate employees for breakfast.

I told them they were crazy, but what could I lose? At least it was an interview.

President Wilkinson had two other secretaries and needed a file clerk to file boxes and boxes of paperwork from his failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Prior to his returning to BYU, he had taken no salary since he was hired in 1951. As I sat outside his office waiting for his summons, I was really quite nervous and said to myself, “When I get out of here, I am going to strangle those two that dared me to do this!”

Then the buzzer rang and I was told to go in.

The carpet was a deep pile royal blue, and the walk to his desk felt like a mile. He was a little man behind a big desk and there was a big frown on his face. He motioned for me to sit down, never said a word or acknowledged me in any way. I sat for approximately two minutes without a word being exchanged between us.

Finally, he asked for my resume. I handed it to him, he began to read it, then threw it down in front of him and slammed his fist on his desk. "What in the world are you applying for this job when you can only take dictation at 60 words per minute? I require 120.”

I was shocked.

Finally, I said, “I just returned from my mission and my mission president spoke slowly, so I didn’t have to take dictation at more than 60.” Then I added, “But I’m a fast learner.”

Again, he began reading some paperwork on his desk and completely ignored me. I just wanted to get out of there. Finally, he looked straight at me and said, “Well, get to work.”

That’s how I began more than two-and-a-half years of learning to love that man. In time, I learned how to take dictation at 120 words per minute, how to set up a filing system, run his office and to always expect the unexpected.

I remember taking dictation many times late at night, even at times while President Wilkinson was on his exercise bike in the attic of his home. I have run across campus with completed speech in hand and reached him two minutes before he was scheduled to give it.

My “office” was a long room with a long table in the middle of it with boxes and boxes of papers underneath. Around the outside of the room were some 20-24 four-drawer filing cabinets, just waiting to be filled, and a buzzer that let me know that I was needed in “the inner sanctum.”

After I had worked there about six months, I had an experience that I shall never forget.

My buzzer rang, I stepped inside President Wilkinson’s office and saw Elders Hugh B. Brown and Nathan Eldon Tanner, and two other apostles. President Wilkinson said to me, “Jan, I need a talk that I gave back in (about 15 years before) about a teacher walking on the beach. Please find it for me.”

I said a little prayer, walked into my office and went to the third filing cabinet from the door. I opened the third drawer from the bottom, reached in about halfway and pulled out a talk. I quickly scanned the first page.

After finding it, I went back into his office, handed him the talk and said, “Is this what you wanted?”

He grinned a big grin and said, “Yes, thank you.” I left, but not before I saw the look of incredulity on the faces of four apostles.

Another time President Wilkinson asked me to find a certain document. I looked everywhere, but could not come up with it. Then he suggested that I go over to the archives across campus and look in all the dusty boxes over there.

Two hours later, tired and covered with dust, I told him that I could not find it. His reply made my day. “Well,” he said with that sly little grin of his, “if you can’t find it, then I guess it doesn’t exist.”

It was President Wilkinson’s practice to “clean off his desk” every Saturday. One of his secretaries took her turn every third Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I wasn’t aware of this practice until I was informed that it was my turn. Armed with steno pad and pencils, I arrived in time and began the worst experience of my young life.

Whenever he paused, I wrote in long hand above the shorthand. When the day was over, I had a steno pad full on one side and almost full on the other. I grabbed letterhead paper, carbons, envelopes, etc. and went home and began fasting.

I told my two roommates what had happened, and the three of us spent the entire weekend trying to figure out my shorthand. At times, because I remembered the theme of the memo, we made one up. We worked until bedtime Saturday, worked on it after church until almost midnight and because he had given me all day Monday to transcribe my notes, we worked on it again several hours Monday night.

When I walked into his office on Tuesday morning to present my huge stack of memos and letters, I just knew that this was the last day I would be working for President Wilkinson. He harrumphed his way through, signing as he went. Suddenly, much like my first interview, he slammed his fist on the table, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Don’t you know that all my rough drafts are triple spaced? Remember next time,” he said.

And with that, he handed me the whole pile, all signed, and all I had to do was get them ready for delivery. It was a miracle.

When Steven Covey was hired as an assistant to President Wilkinson, he was very young and very eager to please. One day as I was taking dictation and President Wilkinson was pacing, the door opened and in walks President Covey with an ice cream cone, evidently purchased from the Wilkinson Center across campus.

He greeted President Wilkinson and handed him the soft and melting ice cream cone. What President Covey had not yet learned was that President Wilkinson never ate sweets. But President Wilkinson, not wanting to offend him, accepted the cone, said “thank you” and held the cone far from his nicely pressed suit.

When President Covey left, President Wilkinson looked absolutely startled. Then, all at once, it was as though the proverbial “light bulb” went on over his head, and he handed the ice cream to me and said, “Here, you eat it.”

After a few of seconds of watching me hold the dripping cone in one hand, trying to hold my steno pad with one elbow and trying to take dictation, President Wilkinson said, “That will be all.”

Gratefully, I took the offending ice cream cone with me as I stifled a laugh, and only when I had cleared the door to the president’s office, I burst out laughing. Of course the other secretary came over and wanted to know what was so funny, and when I told her she laughed, too. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened in the president’s office. Thank you, President Covey.

A few months before I was to be married, doctors discovered a tumor in my abdominal cavity that they suspected was malignant. I needed surgery immediately. President Wilkinson called about eight of the brethren on the top floor of the administration building, including David B. Haight, Covey, both presidents’ assistants and President Joseph Bentley.

We all knelt in a circle on the carpet in President Wilkinson’s office. I was operated on the next day, and the tumor was benign. President Wilkinson also sent a lovely bouquet of flowers to me in the hospital.

Sister Wilkinson gave me the most wonderful bridal shower a girl could ever have, catered by BYU and attended by all the secretaries on the top floor of the administration building. She was one of the most kind and gracious women I have ever known.

On the night of our reception in one of the floors of the Wilkinson Center, I kept waiting for President Wilkinson to make an appearance, for he had assured me that he would. When the reception was over and he had not shown up, I was really disappointed.

While relaying my disappointment to a friend of mine, she said, “We rode up in the elevator with him and he had a large, wrapped package under his arm. We got off the elevator, but he didn’t.”

No one could figure out where he went. Then one of the secretaries who knew President Wilkinson pretty well said, “How does this scenario sound? He ‘thought’ he remembered which floor your reception was on, and assumed it was on the top floor, so he went up there. As he gets off the elevator he sees ‘a wedding reception’ and thinking it was yours, gives his gift to the little boys at the door.

"When it finally dawns on him that he has the ‘wrong’ wedding reception, he leaves, but cannot bring himself to ask for his present back, so he just goes home.”

It made perfect sense. We chuckled a long time over that scenario. But the worst part for me was wondering what Sister Wilkinson thought when she never got a thank you note.

Two years after we had been married, we made a trip to Utah and visited BYU campus. I especially wanted to say “hi” to President Wilkinson, but his secretary told me that he was home getting ready for a meeting with the board of trustees.

I remembered well the stress of getting all the paperwork ready for that monthly meeting. As secretaries, he would call us from the president’s home, and one of us would meet him out front and hand him everything through the window of his car.

“Hand me your little boy and you make the run,” she said to me.

Gleefully, I grabbed the huge stack of papers and ran down stairs just as he pulled up in his yellow Lincoln. I ran around the car, handed his the papers through the window and just then he recognized me.

“What are you doing here?” he said with a grin on his face. I told him about the visit to Utah. Then he said, “Well, is your husband happy?”

“Yes, I believe he is”, I replied.

“Well, good,” and he stomped on the gas and away he went.

That was the last time I saw him.

On a personal level, President Wilkinson could be demanding and harsh, but I soon realized that his motive was “to get the job done.” I saw a softer side of the man. And I can honestly say, besides my mission, and up until then, those years were the best two-and-a-half years of my life.

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