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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
President Henry B. Eyring reads a letter from the First Presidency during the funeral for Truman G. Madsen.

PROVO — Instead of goodbye, Truman G. Madsen liked to say "love and blessings."

Heartfelt goodbyes to Madsen at his funeral Tuesday in a full Provo Tabernacle came from family members, retired quarterback Steve Young and five of the most prominent leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the LDS Church's First Presidency, and Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, Richard G. Scott, Dallin H. Oaks and Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve.

They said farewell to a man whose intellect and work thrilled and inspired many church members.

President Eyring called Madsen "one of the great witnesses of the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ." Imagining a heavenly reunion, he said, "I'm absolutely sure the prophets will crowd around him."

Elder Oaks was the president of BYU during many of the 37 years Madsen was a professor there. He said Madsen "influenced a generation of Latter-day Saint thinkers, was a revered teacher at BYU, was a powerful ambassador for the church and made such superb use of the tools of the academy to show that Mormonism has good answers for the great questions of philosophy and life."

Madsen died Thursday in Provo at age 82 after a year-long battle with bone cancer. A professor of philosophy and religion, he did groundbreaking interfaith work around the world as BYU's Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, laying some of the groundwork for the BYU Jerusalem Center, which he later directed.

The former LDS mission president was best known for his writings and lectures on philosophy, religion, Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ.

"I don't know," Elder Scott said, "of anyone who has done more to fulfill the statement (in a popular Mormon hymn) that 'millions shall know Brother Joseph again' than your beloved Truman," he said.

Elder Nelson recalled times he spent with Madsen in Boston more than 50 years ago.

"None of us then could fully appreciate the spiritual strength that he demanded of himself on getting his doctorate at Harvard," Elder Nelson said. "There, his unshakable conviction would have been measured against the traditional philosophy and standards of the world, yet Truman blossomed and flowered in that clenching and challenging circumstance."

Elder Holland also was a BYU president during Madsen's career, but he first heard Madsen and his wife Ann speak at BYU when Elder Holland was a a "wide-eyed and bushy-tailed" undergraduate student. He called it a privilege to have known Madsen and now to be able to celebrate "a magnificent life filled with faith, filled with devotion, filled with example, filled with idealism and hope, faith and charity."

A former BYU quarterback and Super Bowl champion and now an ESPN broadcaster, Young recalled meeting Madsen in Israel — an experience, he said, that changed his life.

"It was not long before he was feeding my soul and teaching me things I'd never dreamed of," Young said. "I began to feel deeply the marvelous life of the Savior."Emily Madsen Reynolds, a daughter, recalled 15 years ago visiting the garden tomb, a site in Jerusalem some Christians consider to be the place where Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

After dropping her off at the tomb, Madsen, then director of the BYU Jerusalem Center, later returned.

"He came to me," she said, "and entering (the tomb) he stopped and read the words on the door: 'He is not here, for he is risen.' On the last couple of words, his voice broke and he put his arms out to me. I stepped into his embrace and we stood there weeping together. So (now) he is gone — but not very far and not for a very long time."

Larry Kee Watchman, a foster son, was a 10-year-old Navajo child when he was placed with Madsen's family about 40 years ago. "Some people have a gift, by the tone of their voice, to bring comfort to those who are in need of comforting," he said. "My dad is such a person … with his deep, big voice."

Last week, as the family gathered around Madsen's hospital bed, someone suggested they sing the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee." Daughter Mindy Madsen Davis was surprised when her father joined in the singing.

"I was sitting cross-legged, facing him on the bed," Davis said. "At one point, he put his hand up to my face and cradled it in his hand as we sang. Such tenderness. We love him because he first loved us."

E-MAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com