Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Vernal Dennis Wardle--Man of God, A Tribute

There are few men you met in the world today that do things for the right reasons. One man who embodies the quality of unselfish service is Dennis Wardle. I met V. Dennis Wardle back in 1985. He stopped by Reed Benson's office where I was working on the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. He found out from Reed that I was just beginning to work on it and he wanted to helped out in any way he could. He knew Reed from their involvement in the John Birch Society and had attended many ultraconservative group meetings with him. He said he was a close friend of Reed and that they were both patriots who cared deeply about the constitution and keeping our country safe for democracy. Reed wanted him to become involved to make sure the freedom issues were correctly represented in the book. Dennis Wardle was to make sure that all punchy quotes of that nature were included in the book.

He told me about his children and was proud that one son was an actor and the other son a lawyer. I asked him if his son was the same Elder Wardle that had served in Toronto Canada Mission and that could hold himself horizontal from a stop sign. The Elder Wardle in our mission was a legend among the other missionaries for his strength maneuvers. Dennis thought that was funny and never told me if he was or wasn't his son because he was laughing so hard. I think the lawyer son taught at the J. Reuben Clark Law School and was a noted expert on family law. I never met his daughters or third son. I only saw his youngest son once I think he was in a psychology class at UVSC. He might have stayed there briefly but for the most part they were all grown and out of the home when I knew him.

During our opening discussions he said that he was very interested in helping me to understand the importance of the message of God, Family, and Country. He thought he could help me by making sure the constitutional message was well represented in the Prophet's teachings book and that was his main reason for being there. I told him President Benson's mandate was to lead men to Christ. Dennis said we could do both and still bring out the themes of God, Family, and Country. When the book was published a lot of the stuff he extracted on communism was edited out by the Correlation Committee. At the time the Church was in negotiations with the Soviet Union to advance missionary work and the Twelve did want us to lose ground over statements about Communism. Dennis didn't seem affected when that decision was made and never said a negative word ever about the Brethren.

Dennis told me he had retired as the County Clerk in San Bernardino County. He said he was elected for six consecutive terms covering a twenty-four year period and because he did a good job the voters liked him. He had received some special statewide recognition because he had served so long.

He purchased a condo in St. George (Bloomington) to retire and play golf. Since he had lots of time on his hands he asked if he could help out by extracting quotes for as long as he was visiting. I gave him several talks to see how well he would do. I explained the subject arrangement to him how I was using the topical headings from the Church Magazines. I figured it would take him several days to finish them. Within a couple of days he was back with them all marked and categorized. He did an excellent job. I soon found out just how efficient Dennis Wardle was.

Within a few months he bought a condo in Orem just so he could help out on the Teachings project and to be closer to Salt Lake City where he hoped to help his hero Ezra Taft Benson and the other General Authorities in any way that he could. I remember going over there and helping him move a few boxes. The first few weeks on the project he commuted between St. George and Orem or stayed with friends. From that time forward he and I worked together combing over 4000 pages of addresses down to around one thousand pages in the end due to publisher constraints and the loss of the communist material, it came in at 733 pages. He was a fireball with more energy then most 65 year old men.

Dennis told of his time as a Church Services volunteer in Laie as the head of the Hawaii Temple Visitors' Center where he loved the Polynesian people. He said that was a great and spiritual time in his life. He also worked briefly in 1983 as the Coordinator of Church Service programs for the Finance and Church Records Department. I think he said he helped find lost members and did some auditing. Dennis told me he had been a bishop, stake president, and regional representative of the Twelve in California. I thought he told me he held the last calling but I didn't see it listed in his obituary. I found out later he was well-grounded in the faith and knew many general authorities from his past callings and assignments. Unlike me he didn't get in to name dropping and was very private about what projects he had done for a few of the brethren. I actually asked him one day what projects he had done and he stared a hole through me. I usually picked up on what he had done when I overheard him and Reed talking. He did a couple of research projects for members of the Seventy.

The average person doesn't really think about the fact that the Prophet or other general authorities are so busy that they don't have the time or energy to do all their own research on every talk, article or book since they are administering the affairs of the kingdom. Although they do most of their own research and writing, on occasion, they have a research staff, Church Publications, Church Archives and Library, the BYU Religion Faculty or volunteers like us give them a hand on background materials. Sometimes we even write up a rough draft that they polish in to an article or talk. It doesn't shake most people's testimony to know the Prophet's or general authorities write up the final draft themselves with occasional help from researchers. Those in academia and professional know it is a common practice in all professional fields that even the experts need occasional outside help. People don't coauthor a talk in a religious setting. Even professional writers need help sometimes read their forewords they name ten or twenty people in their books who gave them advice on something they didn't know. There is a complexity in writing or speaking. There are just variations on themes. Our leaders have to make decisions based on time consuming intense research which require methods such as demographic studies, statistical analysis, doctrinal positions historically traced that can take days, weeks, or months to analyze. The general authority has to make sense of that in their final product and convey their message so the general Church member knows what they are talking about.

People like Dennis Wardle had a knack and talent for distilling research in to a coherent form that is usable for the average person. Can you image a normal person sitting down in front of 40,000 pages of material and producing a product like the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson which is the most quoted book over the pulpit in the church today. It has to hold the reader's attention and they have to be able to quickly locate a particular passage on a subject quickly so they can give a talk or a lesson. Dennis Wardle had a genius for organizing material. A person like him in any organization is like finding a needle in a haystack they are hard to come by. I know there aren't more than a dozen or two dozen men in the church that would have the talent let alone the patience to do it. If you doubt it try to do it yourself. Hour after intense hour he worked. He was as good a compiler as me maybe even better. Dennis Wardle had a rare talent.

Dennis proved to be quite valuable on other various projects for the Bensons. One day I heard him suggest to Reed that his father should produce a short book on his recent addresses. I was asked by Reed to pull a few talks which I thought were important. Reed added a couple which I missed, the collection ended up as the brief compilation a Witness and a Warning. Dennis also helped out when Reid Bankhead, Gerald Lund, and Reed Benson researched material for A Constitution Our Heavenly Banner. Dennis made many helpful suggestions to Reed who coordinated their efforts. I heard conversations with my own ears when it was discussed. I didn't have anything to do with it other than encouragement. President Benson had played with giving this type of address for a few years. The final words didn't reflect the background discussions that led up to the published product. President Benson was able to give a great talk that is now a classic. I have heard a few rumors about authorship but as far as I knew President Benson was not the kind of man to use something without his own input. Despite accusations by some he was not a robot that just read what was in front of him he was an active participant in his public addresses.

I have to honestly say that Dennis did the lion's share on extracting quotes on the Country topic during that two year period. He was a hard working man who had persistence in any task he did. His patriotic commitment drove him in doing this work. He didn't see the teachings book as a task but as a means to stir the hearts of others. He didn't give up until the job was done and when it was done it had to be perfect. You knew he conducted his professional career the same way. He would sit with me side by side for hours pouring over the talks. Whenever I would give him a batch of talks he would crank them out hour after hour. We are talking sixty or seventy hour weeks. He was like the energizer bunny working long after others would have dropped including younger men. His attention span was amazing.

When we first started the project I initially typed in most of the quotes with some assistance from Jody Durrant and later from Jannell Johnson. Dennis even pitched in although his eyes were not the best and he caught a bunch of typos I made. He didn't make too many mistakes having 24 years of administrative experience. I made a joke one day about how my father claimed he could type on an old manual Corona one hundred words a minute with three mistakes. I said yeah right. Dennis smiled and said I think that is true because "I can consistently type on the same typewriter one hundred words a minute with one mistake. I did that down at San Bernardino." Dennis checked and counter checked every word typed was the same as in the original quote. I only slipped one or two editorial changes by him which I later got President Benson to approve where I made a word change. Dennis was one of the best editors I ever worked with.

Even though Dennis was so hard working he never missed an opportunity to golf. I remember one day going out and watching him play golf in the snow in December. He used a yellow or orange ball so he could see it on the white surface. He didn't just walk a course he literally ran between shots. He said he did that so he wouldn't grow old fast. He could outrun me on the course even though I was only thirty years old which was 35 years younger. Not to mention he shot scores in the high 80s and 90s when I was lucky I could break 100. He played either late in the afternoon or early in the morning at the Orem Cascade Golf Center so as not to conflict with our work. He was a fanatic about golf and that was the reason he had retired to St. George in the first place. He also liked Mormon art and said Minerva Teichert was a personal friend and he had once met Arnold Freiberg. He liked going to cultural activities and social events. He told me one day about a visit he had made to the Bean Museum and about some artifacts they used to have in Allen Hall. I told him that was interesting Allen Hall was being used as a museum since I had learned Italian there in the LTM back in 1975.

Dennis, Reed, and I sat in the Benson Institute at BYU for several days plowing through the compilation. Reed Benson referred to us as the "Three Musketeers." Dennis went to bat for me many times on a particular quote that I thought should be there. Reed had the final say on every quote. Reed would ask me are you sure about that one? If Dennis agreed then it usually stayed. I can only think of a handful of times Dennis and I differed. After Dennis would explain his logic I used saw the problem that could have existed had we retained the quote due to context, doctrine or current church practices. Between Reed and Dennis I had a two month course in church history and doctrine. I heard a lot of interesting stories as Reed felt comfortable enough sharing. Both men knew their stuff. I gained a respect for Dennis Wardle that he was a great leader. Another thing was that he could get you to agree with him based on persuasion rather than force. Reed one time said haven't we already said that a couple of times, do we need that again. Dennis told him it is the same but slightly different because he knew I was attached to it for emotional reasons.

I remember later when we were in the Prophet's apartment and we read that particular quote to him. President Benson started to cry with tears running down his cheeks. In a chocked up voice he whispered "Did I really say something as beautiful as that?" Dennis said "yes sir you did." I said "The Spirit was with you, you are a Prophet of God."

Dennis never asked for recognition nor did he ever expect it. He believed fully in ETB's motto that it was better to get God's pay than man's pay. Dennis Wardle was a prayerful man who always started every work session with a word of prayer. He would even remind Reed and me as we worked that we needed to invoke God's help.

Dennis accompanied me to the Prophet's Eagle Gate Apartment Building where from the Mission President's Seminar in 1987 for fifteen days we sat with the Prophet and his wife. Reed was busy with his teaching obligations so he wasn't there. President Benson made dozens of editorial corrections as Dennis and I alternated reading him each of the 600 plus pages. We then would correct the manuscript to make sure we represented what President Benson wanted published. We were able to pray each day with the Prophet and his wife. Dennis prayed on seven different occasions when the Bensons would make kind remarks. They always remarked every time we prayed. Sister Benson even though she was experiencing the onset of Alzheimer's still made a few lucid comments to Dennis about how meaningful his prayer was to her when he prayed for the two of them by name. She would thank him profusely.

He was always mindful of their health and would call for a break more for their sakes than for our own. We had lunch the first time we visited the Bensons. Before the second time Dennis was told by Reed to be careful about eating lunch with them since they were quite frugal and would go without eating rather than overspend the allowance they received from the Church. The second time, I asked Dennis what was the big deal about eating with the prophet when he tried to get us to take lunch and Dennis had excused us. He said Reed had told him they were generous but they would just eat less since they had a weekly budget they kept to. They didn't want to housekeeper to buy anything more than was on their list. Reed said his dad tried to safeguard the church's resources and did it to set an example. He couldn't ask others to economize if he didn't. We would walk over to the Lion House or ZCMI food court for lunch. I think we even tried Chinese once. I think Dennis stayed one night to go to some musical function. I think he liked the exercise since he didn't get to golf on those days.

One day Dennis and I got a lesson in leadership. We went in to President Benson's study and he was dressed in a Scout uniform with just his socks on. He leaned back in his recliner and told us before he began that day he needed to get our opinions about the scouting program in the church. President Benson told us about his concern for the youth and how some were pressuring him to dissolve the scouting program saying the mutual could handle the social needs of our boys. He wanted to know what we thought. Dennis discussed how when he was a bishop and stake president it made a difference in the lives of many boys. I said some similar things then I thought I would tell him ways to fix a few problems. When President Benson agreed with me he would ask questions but at one point it just became silent with me going on. It took me a while to catch on that when President Benson disagreed instead of telling you what he thought he just shut up. Dennis was smart and said after we left I hope you learn something important today, it will help you in your future church leadership roles.

He didn't realize President Benson got a kick out of my brashness. I made the man laugh on many occasions. I think it brightened up his day. One day President Benson asked me about my kids. I took out a baby picture of my daughters Genevieve and Gianina and showed it to the prophet. It was the only picture of its kind I cared around in my wallet. I am not much of a family picture carrier. They were quite cute being two and three at the time. Dennis tried to get us back on the book but President Benson asked me to tell about each child which took ten or fifteen minutes. President Benson kept the picture. When I asked for it back Dennis motioned with waving his head back and forth to leave it alone. President Benson put the picture in his pocket and kept it on his study desk. I was told he would look at it every so often. Reed told me later a couple times his good old dad asked how my daughters were doing. The Prophet considered them like his own grandchildren. He once sent them a crate of oranges and a bushel of potatoes because he was concerned that they were eating properly.

We actually met James E. Faust on the street walking one afternoon during lunch time who inquired as we entered the Eagle Gate Apartment Building what we were doing there. He congratulated Dennis on his fine work on the project and seemed to like him quite well. I think they might have met previously in some other way. Elder didn't say much to me other than asking me who I was he mostly smiled and nodded. A second time I ran in to Elder Faust closer to evening when I had parked my car over by the ZCMI mall and he was more pleasant. He would walk home between 5:00--6:00pm from the Administration Building past the Lion House to the corner and cross at the stop light he wasn't driven under the tunnel.

Any one that met Dennis could tell within seconds that he had been a church leader most of his life. He wasn't the kind of man who told you stories about when I was bishop or I was stake president. But he knew the church handbook and policies like the back of his hand. He said in his local ward there were at least 30 men in his high priest group that had served as bishops and stake president he was just one of many.

Dennis Wardle is coeditor on the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. His name is on the grateful acknowledgment page put there by Mark and Reed Benson. He told me he wished they had even left it off because he didn't care about that worldly recognition. He just cared about helping the Prophet and getting the message out. He even thought I should not be so worried about getting the credit.

The man genuinely served out of a love for his leaders. He didn't want recognition and actually resented anyone knowing. He never even wanted to be acknowledged on the things he did for the church no matter what they were. I figured it was truly part of his nature. Unlike me I was starting out in my career and needed the recognition. Reed Benson had promised me that would happen and later when his brother Mark decided otherwise it was Dennis who calmed me down. I knew no one ever asked President Benson about the authorship directly. I learned a great lesson from Dennis.

He was a generous man and bought me a meal or two. I remember he was late one day because he had made pancakes at some function or club for more than a hundred people.

Dennis Wardle was one of the finest friends that Reed Benson ever had. Dennis loved Reed and would do anything for him that was ethical. Dennis told me once that Reed Benson was one of the greatest son's that a man could have and he truly loved his dad. I can honestly say that I know the two Benson boys loved their dad even to sacrifice everything they had for him. Both moved to Utah to be near him and lived lives that would make any Mormon father proud. Dennis Wardle respected family relationships. He respected the Benson kids. Dennis genuinely loved Ezra Taft Benson as a great family man, a great patriot, and a great prophet. He devoted at least two years of his life to him. I was paid eight dollars an hour for forty hours each week but Dennis didn't make a dime. That was true dedication. When Bookcraft had us sign a waver for $1200 each giving up copyright to the Teachings Book, I cashed mine since I had small children and was going to be out of a job. Dennis didn't cash his check and told me I shouldn't either. I can't think of a more humble man that honored his friends and knew how to guard confidences. I know his pay will be greater than my own and God's blessings will come back buttered and toasted, just like his good friend Ezra Taft Benson promised him. I for one will miss Dennis for his quiet and devoted service. I am telling this story so others can learn from his example as I have.


Stephen said...

"lawyer son taught at the J. Reuben Clark Law School"

Still does.

Dr. B said...

Thanks for the clarification.