OREM The first thing Arthur Watkins did when he opened his eyes this past Thursday morning at the Summerfield Manor Retirement Home was congratulate himself on making it to his 92nd birthday.
Then he got dressed and went to the dentist for a root canal.How's that for optimism?
I met Arthur through a friend, Kevin Hall, who is working with Arthur on a book with the working title "The Secret Power of Words."
Words have powered Arthur's life. He is conversant in a dozen languages, and even at 92, a 13th isn't out of the question. He loves words like A-Rod loves base hits, like Sean Hannity loves Republicans. Family legend has it that on his honeymoon, while his bride, Ruth, slept, he slipped in the closet and memorized the Hebrew alphabet.
As we visited in his room in the retirement home, where he's lived alone since Ruth's passing eight years ago, Arthur remembered back seven-plus decades to when he enrolled at BYU as a freshman fully prepared to major in chemistry.
But before he could get started, he was called on an LDS mission to Switzerland and Germany, where he met his first true love.
"The first time I heard the German language," he said, his voice rising with excitement, "oh my word, I just fell in love with it."
He waved his hand.
To this day, instead of English, he said, he sometimes finds himself thinking in German, or Italian, or French, or Norwegian or Gothic.
"Every language," he said, "opens up part of the world."
As a soldier in World War II, he helped translate and decipher German messages on the Italian front (where he also seized the opportunity to learn Italian). In his professional years, he got a Ph.D. at Stanford and then taught linguistics at BYU. In his retirement, he found time to merge a lifetime of diary-writing into his personal autobiography. It's titled "An Abundant Life," a two-volume epic that contains more than a million words, or roughly twice as many as "War and Peace.""The longest, most complete biography in the modern or ancient world," he proclaimed, and I swear, he was not kidding.
After wishing him happy birthday, I got a chance to ask Arthur the question people who are obviously happy and contented and make it to 92 inevitably get asked: "What is the secret to life?"
He did not hesitate before answering.
"Always have something you're looking forward to," he said.
"I don't let myself have a bad day," he continued. "That's the spirit of optimism. I'm always looking forward to something."
He offered some for-instances.
He's looking forward to seeing his son Lynn, who was coming to Utah the next day from his home in Oklahoma to see his dad. And Lynn is just the tip of the prolific Watkins clan that numbers eight children, 42 grandchildren and more than 70 great-grandchildren, most of whom arrived en masse this weekend to formally celebrate the patriarch's latest birthday.
He's looking forward to getting back to the book by his bedside he's currently reading: "Spellbound: The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling."
He's looking forward to the next word he learns and to seeing the book he's helping Hall write get published.
He's looking forward to the next time he gets to go to Chuck-a-Rama for dinner.
"I love Chuck-a-Rama," he said. "I'm so familiar with it, I just call it Chucky's."
And he's also looking forward to dying.
"Oh heavens, yes," he said. "Heavenly Father can take me anytime, 'cause then I can go straight to my sweetheart. I miss her so much."
To a man with Arthur's attitude, tomorrow's going to be a great day, no matter what happens.In the meantime, he plans to keep his teeth in excellent working order ever ready to do justice to a splendid evening at Chucky's.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.