A bone-chilling rain trickled down the concrete walls of a parking garage on Condo Row. My father’s words rang through my ears: “Pack your things, I’ll be there in 24 hours.” A string of impetuous decisions led me to this point, where negotiating with my father was simply not an option. I was sent south to Texas to pay penance and to find my own way.
Five years, a mission to Taiwan, and a successful career in Compliance Consulting later, I had a radical thought: it’s time to go back to school. I met with several admissions counselors at schools in Texas, but each time I walked away with that gut feeling that something just wasn’t right. A well-connected friend offered to set up a meeting with the president of a university system in his Houston office. I agreed. The day was overcast, but clearing up and the view from the President’s top-floor office over that particular part of town was familiar. We discussed goals and opportunities, he shared his vision for his students with me as I shared my vision for my academic life. Each point and parry perfectly complemented the other. I felt, for the first time, that this was the place. Then, the clouds cleared.
I saw what I knew was there: The Houston Texas Temple. The words of Erastus Snow to Susa Young Gates seemed encoded in the sunlight beaming off the Angel Moroni:
If you want to go to school, I’ll tell you the place to go, a school which has been founded and endowed by your own father and where you will not only be taught the different branches of education, but a place where the Spirit of God burns in every line and word spoken and written by its preceptor. A place where you can fill your soul with the rich light of the inspiration as well as crowd your mind with the learning of the ancients and the moderns. This is the Brigham Young Academy at Provo.
Blinking back tears, I returned my attention to the President. We wrapped up our conversation and I thanked him for his time. As soon as I got in my car, I dialed the BYU Operator and asked to speak with Admissions. My pounding heart drowned out the hold music. A flood of thoughts overtook my brain: what if they say no? What if I’m not good enough? What if Provo hasn’t changed? What if it has? What if I make the same mistakes? What if I fail? The student receptionist’s voice cut through the clamor, but I had no words. I hung up without speaking to her.
Susa Young Gates left Provo much like I did: banished from the Salt Lake valley in 1870 for a series of imprudent decisions, she made a stab at life in St. George. Married Dr. Alma Dunford at 16 and was “admittedly unprepared for marriage both psychologically and sexually.” She formalized their divorce five years later in 1877, the same year her father Brigham Young died. The year following was a time of confusion and heartache for Susa, then just 23. She received a scholarship to what is now the University of Utah, but her encounter with Erastus Snow changed the course of her life forever. With legal custody of only one of her children, she arrived at Brigham Young Academy unsure of her position and facing public humiliation. What if they said no? What if she wasn’t good enough? What if she made the same mistakes?
The evidence of her accomplishments suggests she pushed these fears aside and contributed more to BYU’s future than most. During her time as a student she taught music lessons and founded Music Department. Drawing upon her skills as Brigham Young’s secretary, she taught stenography. She also organized the Domestic Economy Department in 1896, and served on the Board of Trustees from 1891 to 1933. Although I don’t know what Susa’s actual answers to my fear-driven questions would be, she made an observation in her culminating work Women in History, which I can safely surmise was the driving force behind her daily triumphs:
Brave, self-reliant, intelligent, progressive [children] are not born to stupid, lazy, and ignorant mothers. The stream never rises higher than its source, and the source of life is life. Find a nation where men [and women] are intellectual, refined, progressive, courageous and wise, and there you will find mothers who have trained [them] to be such…
Back in my car, my phone sat in my hand still reading “Recent Call: BYU Operator.” I looked around and saw rain water dripping down the concrete walls of the parking garage. The irony was not lost on me and I squeaked out a half-laugh half-cry. I could not deny the direction God was pointing me in, but that didn’t make the prospect any easier. I took a deep breath and dialed the BYU Operator again. A few weeks later I was readmitted as a full-time student. I packed my things. I’d be there in 24 hours.
NOTE: Quotes and references are from Patricia Lynott’s dissertation, printed by Loyola University of Chicago