With information from the LDS Newsroom.
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Photography by Scot Facer Proctor,
Copyright 2008, All rights reserved

December 3, 2008

Funeral services will be held at noon on Friday, December 5, at the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin has been stooped with age of late, but when he died Monday night, Dec 1, no one could forget that he had always kept his eye on the ball. At age 91, he was the oldest living apostle, and his was a life that had been filled with great energy in the service of the Lord.

When he died at 11:30 p.m. of causes incident to age, his oldest daughter Jane Wirthlin Parker was present as family members had been staying with him and taking care of him since his wife Elisa Young Rogers Wirthlin, died in 2006.

If ever there was a symbol of one man’s dedication to make the most of every day, it is Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s old Olympia typewriter. In a time when computers dominate most offices, it sat on his wide oak desk and was put to good use each morning as he personally typed out his daily schedule on a small 3-by-5 card. “Every day is an adventure,” Elder Wirthlin said. “Every day carries with it a responsibility. I thought, well, here I am — sort of the 11th hour maybe in my life — I’d better make the most of it.”

Elder Wirthlin made the most of it all of his life. Jane Parker, his oldest child, recalled one of her favorite memories was waking “at five in the morning and hearing him at the typewriter” organizing his schedule. The clacking of typewriter keys during those predawn hours became part of the rhythm of life for this apostle, who felt each day was a journey to be savored and enjoyed.

“Some of the happiest people I know have none of the things the world insists are necessary for satisfaction and joy,” said Elder Wirthlin. “My life has been filled with adventure, spiritual experiences and joy that surpasses understanding.”

Elder Wirthlin was ordained an apostle on 9 Oct, 1986. Before that he had served both as an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve Apostles and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

He went into work to pick up mail the day he died and attended the University of Utah/BYU football game the week before—as special guest of the Utes, a team for whom he had once played as a running back. They joked that they always liked to have him there watching the game, because then they seemed to win. And his loyalties were to the U—even when they played BYU.

Life Lessons

In fact, many of his best-remembered stories are drawn from his football days. He told us in October’s General Conference that while he had many fond memories of those days, not all of them were pleasant. He said, “ I remember one day after my football team lost a tough game, I came home feeling discouraged. My mother was there. She listened to my sad story. She taught her children to trust in themselves and each other, not blame others for their misfortunes, and give their best effort in everything they attempted.

“When we fell down, she expected us to pick ourselves up and get going again. So the advice my mother gave to me then wasn’t altogether unexpected. It has stayed with me all my life.

“’Joseph,’ she said, ‘come what may, and love it.’” He used the story as an opportunity to teach how we can respond to adversity, but already the phrase has become much repeated within the Church—a six-word sentence that captures what faith and trust in the Lord looks like.

He told the Church how he had learned to keep his eye on the ball in another football story laced with the vintage Wirthlin humor.

He said that he would never forget one high school football game when his assignment was to either block the linebacker or try to get open so the quarterback could throw him the ball. The game stuck in his memory because the man he was supposed to block “was a giant,” weighing as much as two of the young Joseph Wirthlin.

Those were the days before protective head gear and face guards and, said, Elder Wirthlin, “The more I thought about it, the more I came to a sobering realization: if I ever let him catch me, I could be cheering for my team the rest of the season from a hospital bed.”

But, Elder Wirthlin said, “I was fast. And for the better part of the first half, I managed to avoid him. Except for one play.”

When the quarterback stepped back to throw the ball to him, Elder Wirthlin said, “I could hear a lumbering gallop behind me. In a moment of clarity, I thought that if I caught the ball there was a distinct possibility I could be eating my meals through a tube.” Yet, knowing the team was depending on him, he reached for the ball—and at the last instant he looked up.”

When his coach asked him what happened, he had to admit, “I took my eye off the ball.” Elder Wirthlin said, “I vowed to never take my eye off the ball again, even if it meant getting pounded to Mongolia by the giant on the other side of the line.”

Later in the game, the quarterback threw the ball to him again, and once again the giant was in front of him “in a perfect position to intercept the pass.” The giant reached up, but the ball sailed through his hands, and never taking his eye of the ball, Elder Wirthlin “jumped high, stabbed at it, and pulled it down for the game-winning touchdown.”

Top of His Game while at the Bottom of the Heap

For Elder Wirthlin, keeping your eye on the ball meant having your eye singled to the glory of God and living with complete integrity and compassion. Another lesson he learned from the football field came from the bottom of a heap of 10 other players during the Rocky Mountain Conference championship game. He knew he was close to the goal line, but he didn’t know how close until he reached his fingers a couple of inches and could feel it. It was only two inches a way.

“At that moment,” he said, “I was tempted to push the ball forward. I could have done it. And when the refs finally pulled the players off the pile, I would have been a hero. No one would have ever known.

“I had dreamed of this moment from the time I was a boy. And it was right there within my reach. But then I remembered the words of my mother. “Joseph,” she had often said to me, “do what is right, no matter the consequence. Do what is right and things will turn out OK .” He left the ball where it was—two inches from the goal line.

It was a defining moment for him. He said, “Had I moved the ball, I could have been a champion for a moment, but the reward of temporary glory would have carried with it too steep and too lasting a price.

It would have engraved upon my conscience a scar that would have stayed with me the remainder of my life. I knew I must do what is right.”


The mother whom he speaks of so fondly was part of a dynamic team. Elder Wirthlin was born in Salt Lake City on June 11, 1917 to Joseph L. and Madeline Bitner Wirthlin.  His father was the Presiding Bishop of the Church and was the bishop of their ward during the Great Depression, where he worked tirelessly to bless the lives of the many who suffered.

His father, who owned a wholesale business, would load Joseph’s red coaster wagon with food for the needy. Joseph would make the deliveries, and when the wagon was empty he’d come back for more.

Elder Wirthlin said of his father, “ Those who knew my father knew how active he was. Someone once told me that he could do the work of three men. He rarely slowed down. In 1938 he was operating a successful business when he received a call from the President of the Church, Heber J. Grant.

“President Grant told him they were reorganizing the Presiding Bishopric that day and wanted my father to serve as counselor to LeGrand Richards. This caught my father by surprise, and he asked if he could pray about it first.

President Grant said, ‘Brother Wirthlin, there are only 30 minutes before the next session of conference, and I want to have some rest. What do you say?’”

Of course, my father said yes. He served 23 years, 9 of them as Presiding Bishop of the Church.

Elder Wirthlin’s mother, Madeline, kept an exhausting pace. Elder Wirthlin said, “Often she would say, ‘Hurry up.’ And when she did, we picked up the pace.”

It was this heritage that gave him the strength displayed in this story he shared in General Conference:

I remember when I was young, there was an older boy who was physically and mentally disabled. He had a speech impediment and walked with difficulty. The boys used to make fun of him. They teased and taunted him until sometimes he would cry.

I can still hear his voice: “You’re not kind to me,” he said. And still they would ridicule him, push him, and make jokes about him.

One day I could bear it no longer. Although I was only seven years old, the Lord gave me the courage to stand up to my friends.

“Don’t touch him,” I said to them. “Stop teasing him. Be kind. He is a child of God!”

My friends stepped back and turned away.

I wondered at the time if my boldness would jeopardize my relationship with them. But the opposite happened. From that day onward, my friends and I became closer. They showed increased compassion for the boy. They became better human beings. To my knowledge, they never taunted him again.

Happy Marriage

According to a son-in-law, Mike Stover, Elder Wirthlin’s marriage relationship was “legendary” and his daughter, Madeline, said that she never remembers an angry word between them.

He married Elisa Young Rogers May 26, 1941 in the Salt Lake Temple . Elder Wirthlin said of his wife:

I remember the first time I met her. As a favor to a friend, I had gone to her home to pick up her sister, Frances. Elisa opened the door, and at least for me, it was love at first sight.

I think she must have felt something too, for the first words I ever remember her saying were, “I knew who you was.”

Elisa was an English major.

To this day I still cherish those five words as some of the most beautiful in human language.

She loved to play tennis and had a lightning serve. I tried to play tennis with her, but I finally quit after coming to the realization that I couldn’t hit what I couldn’t see.

She was my strength and my joy. Because of her, I am a better man, husband, and father. We married, had eight children, and walked together through 65 years of life.

I owe more to my wife than I can possibly express. I don’t know if there ever was a perfect marriage, but, from my perspective, I think ours was.

Sister Wirthlin passed away on August 16, 2006, and he said the pain at losing her gnawed at his soul.

Concern for the One

Elder Wirthlin preached concern for the one, and left us with these thoughts to ponder about why some become lost.

Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.

Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole…

Some are lost because they are weary. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. With all the pressures and demands on our time and the stress we face each day, it’s little wonder we get tired…

Some are lost because they have strayed. Except for the Lord, we have all made mistakes. The question is not whether we will trip and fall but, rather, how will we respond?…

He urged all who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ to have compassion and proclaimed, “ I do…have a testimony of the renewing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. ”

Elder Wirthlin’s Affirmation

In this hour when we remember Elder Wirthlin, we are left with his declaration for all who are weak and weary, for those who are beset with troubles:

I think of how dark that Friday was when Christ was lifted up on the cross.

On that terrible Friday the earth shook and grew dark. Frightful storms lashed at the earth.

Those evil men who sought His life rejoiced. Now that Jesus was no more, surely those who followed Him would disperse. On that day they stood triumphant.

On that day the veil of the temple was rent in twain.

Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were both overcome with grief and despair. The superb man they had loved and honored hung lifeless upon the cross.

On that Friday the Apostles were devastated. Jesus, their Savior—the man who had walked on water and raised the dead—was Himself at the mercy of wicked men. They watched helplessly as He was overcome by His enemies.

On that Friday the Savior of mankind was humiliated and bruised, abused and reviled.

It was a Friday filled with devastating, consuming sorrow that gnawed at the souls of those who loved and honored the Son of God.

I think that of all the days since the beginning of this world’s history, that Friday was the darkest.

But the doom of that day did not endure.

The despair did not linger because on Sunday, the resurrected Lord burst the bonds of death. He ascended from the grave and appeared gloriously triumphant as the Savior of all mankind.

And in an instant the eyes that had been filled with ever-flowing tears dried. The lips that had whispered prayers of distress and grief now filled the air with wondrous praise, for Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, stood before them as the firstfruits of the Resurrection, the proof that death is merely the beginning of a new and wondrous existence.

Each of us will have our own Fridays—those days when the universe itself seems shattered and the shards of our world lie littered about us in pieces. We all will experience those broken times when it seems we can never be put together again. We will all have our Fridays.

But I testify to you in the name of the One who conquered death—Sunday will come. In the darkness of our sorrow, Sunday will come.

No matter our desperation, no matter our grief, Sunday will come. In this life or the next, Sunday will come.

We honor the memory of this great man who taught us so much.