Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sheri Dew is Human Too--A Personal Encounter

I have been pleased over the years to see the influence that Sheri Dew has exerted over the women of the Church. She is a great role model having addressed millions of people throughout her career. Despite the fact Julie Beck has taken the Bloggernacle by storm as a topic of conversation Sheri is probably the most quoted Mormon woman in the church as she is constantly quoted on blogs and in LDS church meetings as a doctrinal authority almost on par with the General Authorities. She appeals to Mormon feminist housewives and conservative Mormon women alike because she is an attractive, articulate, and successful Mormon woman. She has been a member of the Relief Society Presidency. In her career she became president of Deseret Book in her thirties, which is a highly visible and lucrative position. She was called by George Bush to be a U.S. Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. Sheri Dew is placed on a pedestal by most who know her and there is good reason why. She doesn't let it affect her much having come from a farm in Kansas, she is well-rooted. Sheri Dew is just like the rest of us in that she admits her own weaknesses in her talks and writings. She is actually refreshing that way unlike many others in similar high-profile positions in the church.

Most of us don't want to admit that our heroes are flawed. Somewhere in the back of our minds we filter out the fact that they are just like the rest of us. I remember Ed Kimball telling someone that his father Spencer W. Kimball was on the lonely side in that he wondered why no one every called him up and wanted to go out bowling with him. Sheri Dew probably leads a fulfilled life with her busy schedule of work and public speaking but she might have moments too. Sheri Dew for all of her attractiveness has never managed to get married. I can't really know why nor can I speculate as to whether or not she feels lonely or the reasons for her singleness that is between her and the Lord. But since she is a high quality and faithful sister I expect one day she will be married to a righteous man in this life or the next. If I were a General Authority I would personally like to see her married to someone like President Hinckley (President Hunter took a second wife) or seal her to some great prophet but she might want to choose herself. The point to this is that she even has challenges. She herself points them out in talks and interviews because she is a humble person that knows her own limitations.

Even her Wikipedia listing describes one blunder she made in giving a speech at a conservative religious coalition meeting address when she said was appalled by a same-sex couple having adopted twin girls. It was the first Wikipedia listing I have ever read that had a negative spin most just list accomplishments. For her part Sheri tried to correct the mistake but the general media aren't as tolerant as those of LDS who know her better qualities. Even Sheri can put her foot in her mouth like the rest of us.

Sheri Dew has an aversion to snakes. In an interview with Doug Wright on KSL Radio she said: "And there's almost nothing that makes me flinch more, recoil in horror, would be more accurate than coming up on a snake. It goes back to my farm days in Kansas; there were snakes on the prairie. I just hated them. In fact, my mother got to the point where she would tell the kids--imagine telling your kids to lie--she would tell the other kids if they'd come in and say, "Mama, Mama, I saw a snake," she'd say, "Don't tell Sheri," because it would just paralyze me."

Catherine Arveseth in reviewing Sheri Dew's No One Can Take Your Place talked about a time when Sheri heard Marvin J. Ashton tell in Conference about a young man who referred to himself as a nobody. Sheri related to the man saying "When Elder Ashton spoke those words, my heart began to pound and tears began to pool in my eyes. I was all ears as Elder Ashton went on to say: I am certain our Heavenly Father is displeased when we refer to ourselves as a nobody. We do ourselves a great injustice when we so identify ourselves. As children of God we are somebody(195-196).

At that point in Dew's life, she wasn't so sure she was a somebody. She felt like a nobody. As a student at BYU she often felt inadequate. For too many years I had felt that I wasn't talented enough, thin enough, smart enough, cute enough, or basically anything enough to amount to much(196). But she hung on Elder Ashton's words and her spirit recognized them as authentic and true.

Over time, Sheri Dew learned countless lessons about the worth of one individual life, and not just her own; she came to see the need for every son and daughter of God to realize their potential, their calling, their duty to the Kingdom of God. No One Can Take Your Place is a dissertation upon this valuable pearl of truth, a rich collection of personal experiences that led Dew to this understanding."

I had a personal experience with Sheri Dew that might have changed the course of her life many years ago. Again it shows her humanness. It involved her trying to quit the Ezra Taft Benson biography due to frustration that caused her writer's block. Many writers including Stephen King and John Grisham have gone through moments of uncertainty when nothing would come to them. Sheri Dew experienced a similar block back in 1987. In my opinion the Ezra Taft Benson biography was the accomplishment that helped define her career. It made her well known. I think she got her job as President of Desert Book because of it. If she had quit her life's trajectory might have been different. She might have not become such a well known speaker, member of the Relief Society General Board, and White House delegate.

In 1985 I was hired to write the biography of Ezra Taft Benson and later his teachings. Sheri Dew at the time was an assistant editor of a small magazine called This People. She wasn't even personally acquainted with the Bensons. I set to work researching Ezra Taft Benson's life. One of the task I had to do before I could sit down and write was to compile in one place all of his talks, articles, books, and journals. After a few weeks I picked up an associate Dennis Wardle to help me navigate the John Birch constitutional area. He had moved up to Provo and was a good friend of Reed. The research occupied a couple of months of Flora Parker, Dennis Wardle and my time. Reed had the journals so we knew we could get those at any time.

My qualifications for doing the books was that I had been a research assistant to several professors in the BYU Religion Department and actually wrote rough drafts which were later polished and published in various journals by my employers. At the time I did them I didn't know that this practice was culturally specific to BYU that in other universities I would have gotten a co-authorship and still kept my six dollars an hour. I just saw it as a way of paying my dues on the way to my future which I hoped was to teach one day in the religion department like my esteemed employers. As a result of recommendations by these professors Reed approached me and asked me to go to work for "his good old dad." He called me Friend Bruno and Comrade Bruno.

Reed took me to Salt Lake City where I met with President Benson who was then the president of the Twelve Apostles. I asked if I could receive a personal priesthood blessing but Reed told me that couldn't be done as it might later be interpreted as my receiving some special status. In the Church Administration building I had an hour long conversation with President Benson. He told me that writing his biography and teachings books would be a service that I would do mostly for free. He said "You will need to work long hours many more than the usual forty hours a week for which you will be paid and you won't make much doing even that. Your job is more like a calling. If you do my books than the Lord will bless you later or in the next life. Are you willing to still do that?" I told him I would be glad to work sixty hours or more if it was necessary. He then he said "I don't want one word written or compiled unless it leads men to Christ. If it doesn't I prefer it not be written." He then went to his closet and took out copies of all his published books and pamphlets which he presented to me as a gift. A couple of the books he personally autographed in front of me with a pen. I later had to defend them to a book dealer who claims ETB used an autopen for everything. I still have an Our Constitution: Our Heavenly Banner with an original signature.

One day a few weeks later Reed Benson received a phone call when I was at his home working with him on the book. He had a beautiful home that Reid Bankhead and his sons built on the Provo River bottom. When Reed was done with the call he walked in and said to me,"Sheri Dew is taking over the biography." I asked him why. He said "Marvin J. Ashton pulled the rug out from under us going to dad and getting Dew to do it instead." He said "There is nothing we can do about it. Dad has made up his mind." I asked him who Sheri Dew was. According to Reed, she was the prodigy of Marvin J. Ashton. She had done a piece on him and Elder Ashton was impressed by her personality and writing skills at This People and so he went to the President Benson and asked him to let his friend Sheri do the biography saying that is what most of the Twelve wanted. Being a graduate history major and having been specifically hired to write the book I was greatly disappointed. I went out and read some of her articles and recognized from reading her stuff that she was a good writer probably a better writer than me. She conveyed her subjects in very personal ways that would appeal to general LDS readers whereas I was an unknown quantity who would have taken a more scholarly approach and bored them silly.

I immediately shifted gears and began working with Dennis Wardle on extracting quotes for a teachings book. I had some experience on how to categorize the quotes having helped Elder Kikuchi on Proclaiming the Gospel. I was impressed to use the Church's Indexing System when possible or adding my own topics. David Checketts later used my approach on the Hinckley one. We hired a secretary Jody Durrant, daughter-in-law to George who helped us initially. Then Jannell Johnson took over to the completion. Flora Parker who lived for a while with her grandfather President Benson helped to pull together the articles. She ended up being Sheri's assistant also. Flora made both books possible by spending dozens of hours copying tens of thousands of pages. Flora was a great person fun, smart, hardworking and devoted to her grandparents.

Reed was a busy man between teachings one thousand students a semester and coordinating both books. He had nine kids to worry about at home and his father constantly had him do minor research assignments. In addition he suffered from insomnia so he had to take prescriptions to keep himself awake. He actually fell asleep at the wheel one morning and drove his car down the side of the hill by the Grant Building. He had a lot on his plate so Dennis and I tried to move ahead without bothering him much since his Dad counted on him so much. He also worked with Sheri in that he had to approve whatever she wrote.

Sheri wrote her part with the published materials that she had and the manuscript material provided to her by Flora. One day I was sitting in Reed's office when the phone rang. It was Sheri Dew and she wanted to talk to Reed. I told her he wasn't there. She called back a second time and told me she really needed to talk to Reed. I asked her if she wanted to leave a message. She told me that she was quitting the book. I asked her why. She said that it was hard getting a hold of Reed and that she had writer's block. She also said she was frustrated and couldn't make any more progress unless she had access to Ezra Taft Benson's journals and to him personally. I told her I knew how she felt that it was true that Reed was reluctant to let the journals go and yes he was a hard man to track down. I told her that she needed to stick it out that I would help her get what she needed. I then assured her I would personally make sure she got the journals even if I had to copy them myself.

When Reed came back I told him Sheri Dew was going to quit unless he gave her the journals and put in the time to read her drafts. He said he would talk to her. A few more days went by so I bugged him for the journals. He finally brought them in. He decided she should also get copies of all the talks which which numbered over 44,000 pages just to make sure she had everything again. He went with me to the copy center. I had to physically put them on the glass which took me six hours with Reed and Dennis coming and going occasionally. I think it was so hot I actually lost a couple of pounds in water that day. Reed said he was going to cover up parts he didn't want her to read in the journal by marking them out with a black marker. Dennis Wardle I believe helped him so I don't know what they did after I gave them the copies or even if they marked them in the end. I remember I had to use a floor truck to carry them back to his office. Reed personally delivered them to her by driving them to Salt Lake City.

Reed also asked Richard O. Cowan to help do some editing to help Sheri through the writer's block. I don't know if Sheri was told that Cowan was helping out but I personally witnessed the two men rewriting parts of the manuscript. Sheri got back on track and was able to complete the book. Anyone that knows the writing process also know that Deseret Book probably had their editors clean it up. Editors make even great writers exceptional. Writing a book takes more than one person. I have fifty publication in peer-reviewed journals so I know my editor is first-class. The author just gets all the credit. My only real disappointment was that she never acknowledged me in the grateful mention page for helping her get the journals nor Richard O. Cowan on the editing.

My only other experience with Sheri was in submitting my missionary quote book Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord that President Benson had encouraged me to pursue after his teachings book to Deseret Book. I received a rejection form letter signed by her that misspelled my name and no good explanation of why the book was rejected. I didn't take the latter as being personal since someone as busy as she probably had an assistant send me the letter that she probably signed without reading in detail.

No matter who we are we are all human. I remember years ago President Hinckley talking about seeing a wart on an otherwise beautiful face. I think in Sheri's case she notices her pimples like the rest of us. They are just minor distractions that have nothing to do with how we really look and they aren't permanent. In Sheri's case she is a beautiful righteous person despite her humanness. I wish we all could be more like her and have her admirable traits.


Bored in Vernal said...

If I were a General Authority I personally would marry her to someone like President Hinckley or seal her to some great prophet but she might want to choose herself.

ya think?
DH, this kind of raises my hackles. Besides, I heard her say in a talk once that if she didn't get married soon, she was gonna wait for Captain Moroni.

Liam's Mom - Gina said...

This is a wonderful post! Thank you for this.