Family members and friends remembered Hugh Winder Nibley Wednesday not only as a world-class scholar of the scriptures and defender of the LDS faith, but as a loving father, a humble humanitarian and a staunch environmentalist.
Hundreds gathered in the Provo Tabernacle and scores of additional admirers were in the DeJong Concert Hall at Brigham Young University to pay their final respects to the man many consider the most brilliant scriptural scholar ever to come out of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Dr. Nibley died last Thursday at age 94 of causes incident to age. He is survived by his wife, Phyllis, and eight children, seven of whom spoke at his funeral.
Noting his beloved professor came to class in "trousers and a coat that didn't match" and "combat boots that were standard issue to foot soldiers in World War II," Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church's Council of the Twelve said he first met Dr. Nibley more than 50 years ago when Oaks was a student at BYU.
Elder Oaks later became president of the university. He presided at Nibley's funeral, along with three other BYU presidents who now are general authorities: fellow apostle Elder Jeffrey Holland and Elders Merrill J. Bateman and Cecil Samuelson (current BYU president) of the Quorums of Seventy.
"He was the first eccentric I ever met," Elder Oaks recalled, and provided his young student with a new appreciation for the "wonderfully diverse way the Creator distributes talents and spiritual gifts . . . He was the epitome of the Book of Mormon teaching, 'Do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor labor for that which cannot satisfy.' "
Elder Oaks described learning from Dr. Nibley whether in class, in personal discussion, as a student in his gospel doctrine class or as one of several church leaders receiving information from Dr. Nibley in the Salt Lake Temple as a "thrilling and unique learning experience." The impact on his own intellectual horizon was "enormous," he said.
Using his vast intellect to explain and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ and its scriptural canon, Dr. Nibley was a man of God who inspired his students to explore "the big questions, those that have the greatest meaning for the future," Elder Oaks said.
Latter-day Saints are better for his understanding and explanation of such topics as temple worship, priesthood power and the Atonement of Jesus Christ, he said.
Elder Holland read a letter from the LDS Church's First Presidency to Dr. Nibley's widow, Phyllis, and the couple's children, lauding his exemplary life and defense of LDS doctrine.
Despite public acclaim, Dr. Nibley was also an "extraordinarily humble" man, Elder Oaks said, a sentiment echoed by son Alex Nibley, who spoke of his father's "wrinkled hat and baggy pants" as akin to "a monk's cassock," designed to help to keep vanity at bay.
Such was an outward sign that his father didn't feel pride, "but he knew the danger" inherent in the public acclaim that flowed from his command of ancient languages and the scholarship he brought to a deep exploration of LDS doctrine.
His father's ability to focus intensely was directed at those around him as his health failed in recent years, Alex Nibley said. He spent untold hours providing help and funding anonymously those in need.
Daughter Zina Nibley Petersen opened the service, the first of the siblings to speak. Donning Dr. Nibley's signature gray hat, she told of how anxious he had been to die during the past several years so he could see what awaited him in heaven.
"I think he would be put off if we stayed very serious," she said, grinning. "Every night he went to bed thinking 'this could be it,' and every morning he woke up and thought, 'damn,' " she said smiling, garnering a knowing laugh from the audience.
"I think last Thursday, he woke up and said, 'Yeehaw.' "
Rebecca Nibley said her father was "the smartest, funniest, wittiest, wisest, silliest, sweetest man" she has ever known. She came unexpectedly to BYU on graduation day 1987, after deciding at the last minute to attend the ceremonies. Her father tagged along, asking if he could take her picture in cap and gown.
"Clothed in the robes of a false priesthood?" she queried, mimicking a statement Dr. Nibley once made at a BYU graduation ceremony that set off weeks of discussion on campus. The incident illustrated his ability to disarm the powerful and inspire the masses, many of whom found themselves wondering what part of his characterizations they didn't fully understand.
Christina Nibley Mincek told of outings in the Utah wilderness, where her father revered both the forests and the deserts. One occasion in particular found them alone in a desolate spot at Capitol Reef National Park. When she awoke in the morning his sleeping bag was empty.
She later learned he had climbed to the top of a steep slope to photograph her in nature, though she was only a tiny speck on the picture. It was a lesson to her of how her father put the universe in context. "Though I was a tiny dot, it didn't diminish my importance to him."
Paul Nibley's last gift to his father was the coffin that bore his body at the funeral service. It was hand-crafted of Douglas fir, redwood, pine and some exotic woods and fashioned after Egyptian construction methods that all had symbolic meaning to his father, he said.
"They represent the trees he cut down as a teen and then defended as an environmentalist."
"Though he eschewed wealth, he was enchanted with beautiful things . . . Inside are the remains of the greatest treasure of my life," the son said in a voice choked with emotion. "Meanwhile, his spirit soars the universe, exploring new mysteries."