Sunday, March 28, 2010

Harold B. Lee's 111th Birthday

On this day in history, 111 years ago, Harold B. Lee was born.  Click on the link for a snippet of his early life preserved for us today through the magic of modern technology.

This day in history is important to me because without his birth mine would not have occurred. 

He made his appearance on this earth in a little obscure farming community not far from today's Preston, Idaho, in a town called Clifton.  There's a prominent geographical feature, a visible series of cliffs nearby, that lends its rock walls to the town's name.

My heritage linking me to Clifton, Idaho, has become more significant to me in recent years.  I learned of a long-forgotten building in that community that is undergoing a restoration -- the Oneida Stake Academy.  I met a dear friend Necia Seamons, who is president of the Oneida Stake Academy Foundation, while we were trying to assist them in their fund raising efforts through our Legacy Now securitization project in recent years.

A few weeks ago I was contacted to return to Preston for the purpose of making a video production to encourage donors to contribute to the project.  In hindsight, I could have said so much more than I did when I was actually filming -- you know, all the things that suddenly flood your mind after you're done?

So today, I thought I would reflect a bit on his childhood growing up in Clifton, Idaho, and what the lessons have meant to me that he gleaned in attending the Oneida Stake Academy.  All those basic truths have been transmitted to me and to the rest of his posterity.

The interviewer asked me, "If these walls could speak, what would they say to you?"  I gave an off-the-top-of-my-head response, but upon further reflection I would like to revise and extend my remarks some. . .

The Oneida Stake Academy building is still standing today, though it is a mere shell of its once grand opulence for such a humble community.  Back in the day it was the center of civilization for that community.  It was the hub of social, community, religious, athletic, artistic and musical expression.  Its magnificent stonework and interior woodwork still testify to loving devotion and sacrifice required to construct it and preserve it.

The early funds raised were devoted to moving the building from its obscure location on the campus of Preston High School, to its present location on a corner in the town park.  It took a million plus dollars to accomplish, a modern engineering feat that is astounding.

I toured the relocated building to get a feel for the need, and I was immediately engaged.  I was taken up into the bellfry where the graduating seniors scrawled their lasting signatures into the plaster walls lining the staircase.  I was enthralled with the living history that jumped out at me -- hundreds and hundreds of names, all real people, all progenitors of those now living.  They were preserved in a lasting memorial -- they had lived, loved, learned, played, sung and danced in that building, and the visual evidence of their existence is still there! 

I searched in vain for Harold B. Lee's name, but could not find it.  He was undoubtedly there somewhere, but in the fading light with little time to search for it, I had to be content with knowing merely that he graduated from that institution of learning.  There it was he had his first taste of the thrill of education.  He later himself was an educator, the principal at the nearby Silver Star School in Weston.  His love of learning never left him, and he transmitted it to me and the rest of his posterity.  He excelled in debate, wrestling, basketball, and music.

His love of music was no doubt instilled in him at the Oneida Stake Academy.  He played the baritone sax, the slide trombone and the piano.  His musical ability was a way to make a few extra dollars playing in a dance band during those early years.  His piano skills lasted well into his later years as the accompanist to his brethren of the Twelve in the Holy Temple as they gathered for their weekly Thursday meetings.

As I enter the front door of the Oneida Stake Academy today, it simply shouts out to me -- those walls indeed do speak!

The story is told that after they were married my sweet Nana, Harold B. Lee's first love, asked him, "Harold, what ever happened to your old slide trombone?"  He gently squeezed her left hand, pointing to her wedding ring and simply said, "You're wearing it, dearie."

Legion are the lessons of hard work instilled in Harold as a boy living on the farm, eeking out a living with his siblings and their parents.  Of course, I was never aware of the toil and sacrifice of his early boyhood, since I came along as his eldest grandson when he was a seasoned and revered Church leader, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and later eleventh President of the Church. 

I was married and had babes of my own when he died unexpectedly on December 26, 1973, the day after spending a good portion of Christmas Day with us in my parents' home. 

But when I toured the Oneida Stake Academy for the first time, those walls spoke to me as they still do whenever I'm there.  They tell me of toil and strife, fun and frivolity, serious and lighthearted study and learning, sweet music and childhood innocence. 

They speak of the early lessons in his life about how to recognize the voice of the spirit of the Holy Ghost.

They whisper that hard work always pays, that self-reliance is a necessary spiritual endeavor, not just a temporal reality, and that out of small beginnings come great lives.  President Ezra Taft Benson from nearby Whitney, Idaho, also claims the Oneida Stake Academy as his alma mater. 

They scream a warning to me that is unmistakable -- in a day of indulgent and lavish government spending, don't forget the lessons mastered by your ancestors:  "Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."  In the days that lie ahead I have a feeling those lessons will still be needed as never before.

They affirm that it was here within these walls and in the fields of the family farm that Harold B. Lee was uniquely prepared by God to shoulder the responsibility that would later rest upon him to give succor and aid to those valiant priesthood brethren of his beloved Pioneer Stake and later the whole Church as the managing director of what became the Welfare Program in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. 

Ezra Taft Benson succored the saints in war-torn Europe following World War II, and was Secretary of Agriculture under Dwight D. Eisenhower.  They came from the same rugged pioneer farm stock of the Cache Valley.

How ironic (is it coincidence?) and humbling it is to me personally that today my dear companion Patsy and I now serve together as a senior missionary couple assigned to Welfare Square as the Chair of the Professional Placement Program of the Employment Resource Center.  So what do those walls tell me?  "Go and do likewise, David."

And then I seem to hear, if I listen closely to those talking walls, "Coincidence in our lives is only God wishing to remain anonymous."

Those halls echo that the lessons of frugality, spending only what we earn and putting aside a little for a rainy day, are lessons still worth living in a society gone mad with entitlements, deficit spending and bailouts as far as the eye can see. 

So why preserve an old building in the midst of the "worst recession since the Great Depression?"  Why ask for donations from pockets that are already stretched to the limit?  Maybe because those walls in Preston, Idaho still speak peace to my soul, and they urge, "Preserve these walls today that we may continue to teach those old pioneer lessons to YOUR children and grandchildren when they step inside."

I urge the readers of this page to contact my friends at the Oneida Stake Academy Foundation and make a generous donation to a great old building worth preserving.

Just tell them Harold B. Lee sent you. . .  on his 111th birthday!


  1. Hello David,

    Nice to see one of Pres. Harold B. Lee's descendants on blogger. I have a great interest in the lives of the 16 men who have been called to preside over the LDS church.

    Recently, I have been researching the exact birth places of the prophets and found out some interesting facts:

    1. Heber J. Grant's birth place is now the ZCMI on Main St. SLC
    2. George Albert Smith was born where the Family History Library now stands.
    3. Joseph Fielding Smith's birth place is now the parking lot for West High School's LDS Seminary.
    4. The homes where Lorenzo Snow, David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Howard W. Hunter, and Gordon B. Hinckley were born in are still standing.
    5. Thomas S. Monson was born at the old St. Mark's Hospital but his boyhood home is now a storage place for the Deseret News.

    But I've been unable to determine the exact birthplace of Pres. Lee. In your father's bio of Pres Lee it mentions that the farm where he lived was two miles north of downtown Clifton along the "string". I know there is a monument built near the LDS church in "downtown" Clifton but I don't believe it marks his exact birthplace.

    Do you have an approximate address or gps coordinate of the birth site? I'm not sure if the house is still standing.

  2. Tom --

    I have been along the road in Clifton where the old home once stood, but it is long gone. Hard to pinpoint the exact location today. There is a monument in the public park in Clifton, but you are correct -- it does not mark his birthplace.