Jaren Wilkey, BYU
BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson speaks at a VIP reception at Diaoyutai Guest House with the Foreign Ministry Young Diplomats. Samuelson revisited Jinan University, where he was an honorary faculty member.

Cecil O. Samuelson's promise wasn't said with either the historical magnitude of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's "I shall return" or the silver-screen aplomb of The Terminator's "I'll be back."

But his promise to return to China and resume acquaintances and friendships was kept just the same.

A decade's worth of annual visits and medical lectures at Jinan University in the People's Republic of China concluded in 1994 with Samuelson's call to the First Quorum of the Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and subsequent assignment in 2003 as president of Brigham Young University.

"I always promised I'd come back," said Samuelson, who explained to his Jinan friends that now as an LDS Church general authority, his travels would be assigned to him.

However, his role as BYU president afforded Samuelsonthe chance to return not only to China last year but to the city of Jinan and the university where he was an honorary faculty member.

Accompanying BYU's Young Ambassadors performance group in its 2007 tour in China, Samuelson was able to return to Jinan, give a lecture and resume acquaintances. After an absence of a dozen-plus years, Samuelson was surprised with the rapid development of Jinan and China as well as the advancement of the university students.

"I met with old friends," he said, "and witnessed the growth of the university and community."

Samuelson's ties to China and Jinan actually started at the concluding efforts of another LDS Church leader, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Prior to his call to the Twelve, Elder Nelson — a well-respected surgeon and personal physician to President Spencer W. Kimball — had been making the Jinan visits and lectures while representing the University of Utah's medical school.

After the call, Elder Nelson made a final, previously arranged trip to Jinan and asked Samuelson, then dean of the U. medical school and later as president of Intermountain Healthcare, to take over the Jinan assignment. The latter made the first of his annual, several-week trips and series of lectures in the fall of 1985.

For his first travels to Jinan, Samuelson recalled having to fly into Beijing or Shanghai, taking a long train ride to Jinan, never staying in a Western-type hotel and seeing multitudes of cyclists overwhelming the few cars on poorly constructed and poorly maintained roads.

And two decades later, he flew directly into Jinan's modern airport, stayed in modern, well-furnished accommodations and saw considerably more cars than bicycles on traffic-clogged modern thoroughfares.

Jinan had gone from what Samuelson described as "a charming, 'little,' very Chinese city" of several million to a population of nearly 6 million, complete with McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Super Wal-Marts, where inside the latter were rows of kiosks offering the latest technological gadgets of mobile phones, pagers and hand-held devices.

The rapid development in all Chinese fields — from engineering and entertainment to architecture and athletics — is an overall product of what Samuelson saw in his medical involvement there.

The Chinese have brought in international experiences and skilled specialists, while also sending their best and brightest students and professionals out into the world for increased training and exposure to the latest advancements.

The result has been a shortened learning curve for the Chinese as well as their rapid ascension in the various fields.

The noticeable changes throughout the country and city are paralleled on campus as well.

Returning to Jinan last year and accepting the invitation to provide lectures, Samuelson asked university foreign affairs representative to arrange for Chinese translation of his presentations. She responded that all the students would understand English — and he even held a lively question-and-answer session afterward.

"I was surprised not only how much they knew of the United States but how many knew of Brigham Young University, too," said Samuelson, who had asked how they gained their knowledge.

"They simply 'Googled' Brigham Young University," he added, recalling one man who knew enough that he wanted to attend as a student but admitted he was a longtime smoker. "He knew all about the Honor Code and all those kinds of things."

It was a far cry from Samuelson's first venture into Jinan — his lectures had to be translated from English into Chinese, and no student had the faintest idea where Utah was located on a map.

Now, the overall knowledge and command of English of the current crop of Chinese students impresses Samuelson. "I was surprised at even how many stream BYU-TV on their computers," he said.


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com