Dean C. Jessee has been retired for eight years now, but two times a week he'll be in the east wing of the Church Office Building, working behind a door that bears his nameplate.
After devoting almost 40 years to the documents of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, Jessee is still finding ways to contribute.
"I continue because I like it," Jessee said. "I guess I'm sticking around because they keep putting up with me. I don't see that what I'm doing is indispensable."
No one would doubt Jessee's commitment to or affinity for the Joseph Smith Papers, an expansive scholarly project that operates within the History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But those involved would probably contest the soft-spoken Jessee's attempt at humor regarding his value.
After all, it was Jessee who put the project's foundation in place.
Jessee, who grew up in Springville, served a mission in West Germany and graduated with a master's in history from Brigham Young University, was caring for and researching manuscripts long before the Joseph Smith Papers became a certified project comprised of numerous scholars. In fact, for decades it was Jessee's one-man project one that began when he joined Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington as a member of the church's history division in 1972 and led to the publication of three volumes of Joseph Smith documents.
Now, the effort is an ambitious, highly esteemed venture with the goal of producing 30 volumes.
And Jessee is still on board.
Although he retired in 2000, Jessee remains with the Joseph Smith Papers as one of three general editors, along with project managing editor Ronald Esplin and noted Joseph Smith biographer Richard Lyman Bushman. Jessee now plays an advisory, decision-making role and is less involved in the detailed work of documentary editing. He also has no plans to quit.
"As long as I'm able to hobble around, maybe I'll come in and do a few things," he said.
While Jessee deflects questions about his contributions with humor, his motivation for working with Joseph Smith's documents is entirely serious.
"It's important for me because I have a strong testimony of Joseph Smith and what he did," Jessee said. "I'm convinced."
Having the Prophet's documents in his hands has only fortified Jessee's convictions. He gave as an example the Book of Mormon manuscript, which Jessee describes as "one continual sentence" with no punctuation. Jessee said he's written enough to know that authors go through "baskets full" of rough drafts.
"I could tell, this man was telling the truth," Jessee said. "This is a dictated record here."
"What I've learned is, he's who he said he was. He did have communication with the heavens."
Jessee's work has also helped him appreciate the Prophet's fortitude in a life of hardship.
"He had to use his fist, he had to use his brain, he had to use his inspiration, he had to use every fiber of his body to accomplish what he did," Jessee said.
And while few know Joseph Smith's history as well as Jessee, the scholar is less inclined to discuss specific tidbits or stories, instead choosing to focus on the theology. Jessee said he's at the point in his life where the most important pieces of knowledge he can learn from the Prophet concern Christ."In my estimation, the thing that's the most important contribution of Joseph Smith to mankind is the understanding he gave of the Atonement of Jesus Christ that comes in the Book of Mormon."
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