Sanctified Memory

Last Tuesday, I attended the funeral of a long-time English department colleague, Richard G. Ellsworth, who was also in the Provo ward of my childhood: Oak Hills II. Richard was our enthusiastic chorister, the kind of conductor who invested his body and his hair (it was long enough to react to his arms’ energetic movements–and he always led us with both arms) in every phrase of music.

When I was about ten, he was my Sunday school teacher for the simple reason that his son was the most mischievous child in class. I’m sure the bishop pulled Richard out of whatever other calling he had so that the Ellsworth kid would have his father right there.

I remember several of Richard’s lessons–particularly the one on Lazarus. I remember him saying, “And they said, ‘Hold on! He’s been dead FOUR DAYS! By this time, he stinketh!” We tittered. Stinketh is a funny word to a pre-teen. Richard stopped our laughter and told us this was a sacred story.

Those years, just before middle school, were painful to me. I remember only a few of the details, mostly just the pervasive suspicion that I was ugly and nobody liked me. I was intensely aware of my own efforts to fit in (which always seemed to fail), but rarely of anyone else’s insecurities. In other words, though my life seemed awful and traumatic at the time, it was pretty normal.

Within a few years, I became more aware of the Ellsworths, whose oldest son was rebelling in the ways teens rebelled during the 1960s. Sister Ellsworth talked to me about it sometimes, always in tears. Eventually, this son left home, experienced a few degrees of Hell, and finally returned and got married.

Forty years have passed since then. He spoke at the funeral. It was one of the most beautiful talks I have ever heard. He talked only vaguely about that rough spot in his life, and said that as he came to appreciate his father, he longed to know the things his father knew and to love the things his father loved. He quoted a scripture which I have also committed to memory, found in the Book of Exodus:

And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation and wash them with water. And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments and anoint him and sanctify him.

This son of Richard Ellsworth, now an ordinance worker in the Los Angeles temple, bore testimony that all of us can receive the greatest blessings known to Aaron and his sons, and which are promised to all of humanity. All of us–regardless of what sins or misconceptions taint our pasts–can be sanctified. Our minds can become more discerning; our eyes can be taught to see our own beauty and even our glory; we can quit falling for the distortions which suggest that we’re not loved or liked; we can quit paying attention to those invented mirrors which warp our reflections. We can get beyond the noise of naughtiness and hear God’s word without tittering like children when, in fact, a miracle is before us.

I had plenty of rough spots in my youth, and even beyond. I am an incredibly self-critical mother, often tormenting myself in a bad moment rather than believing in my own capacity to love my children as God does.

Years ago, at an anguished parenting moment, my husband gave me a blessing with a phrase I still repeat to myself in hard moments: ““I bless you that your memory will be sanctified as the larger picture unfolds, and you will view all of the difficulties and trials you’re enduring now with gratitude and love.”

At Richard Ellsworth’s funeral, I saw the arc of life which reminded me of my husband’s blessing. I remembered Richard quoting the New Testament and stopping our laughter at the word “stinketh.” I remember his fervent conducting of the hymns which are now a part of my life. I remember his testimony, and rejoice in what he knew and what he loved. I remember the words which come soon after “By this time he stinketh!” “Behold, I am the resurrection and the life.”

I look forward to seeing Richard Ellsworth again and telling him how much he meant to me, how sweet my memories of him are, how glad I am that he was my teacher.


  1. I have some people who are for me what Brother Ellsworth is to you, Margaret. Thank you for putting my thoughts and feelings into words.

  2. Is that son named Jarom? If so, he’s in our stake.

  3. Nope. Different name. I decided to not name the children–not that there’s anything embarrassing in the post, but decided not to.

  4. Thank you, Margaret, for this beautiful remembrance. As an English major at BYU in the early 70s, I had Richard Ellsworth for a couple of classes. My favorite was 19th century American Lit. He truly taught with his whole soul. He was also my mother’s second cousin, and he sometimes referred to our common relatives in class. From him I learned much more than how to interpret Huck Finn (though I learned a lot about that too).

  5. I’m in the process of polishing/re-editing a funeral address that is upcoming. Thank you for this account.

  6. Bless your heart. I hope to be remembered half so fondly by those I know.

  7. michelle says:

    I needed this message today. Thank you.

  8. I distinctly recall the devotional talk he gave. Well worth the read:

  9. I really appreciated the phrase from teh blessing your husband gave you…what a beuatiful thought to ponder.

    Thank you for sharing about this wonderful man.

  10. When I was an early adolescent, my Sunday School class was a typical early adolescent class, so it was hard to find a teacher willing to teach us. Fortunately, our bishop was wise and knew there was one sister in the ward who loved our class–she had been my Sunbeam teacher and then my teacher when I was 11. She taught us when we were 12, and the second half of the year when I was 13. (By an odd quirk of having a teacher who never showed up for church during the first half of that year, I somehow took on the role of teacher for six months–an event that helped foster my passion for teaching). Her husband taught us when we were 14 and 15, then she took over again. Is it any surprise, then, that she was one of my most influential Gospel teachers?

    As the Sunday School teacher for the 13-year-old-boys in my ward now, I long to have the same positive impact, but I’ll admit, it has been rough-going so far. Right now I am in a pull-out class our ward is rotating everyone through, so I’ll be returning to them in a couple of weeks. I pray that I can be the Sister Quinn, Brother Quinn, or Brother Ellsworth to these young boys.

  11. “I bless you that your memory will be sanctified as the larger picture unfolds, and you will view all of the difficulties and trials you’re enduring now with gratitude and love.”

    Thank you, Margaret. That is what I needed to hear this morning.

  12. StillConfused says:

    Oh holy heck. My husband and I were Bro Ellsworth’s home teachers (still are for Sis Ellsworth I assume). I didn’t know that people in the bloggernacle knew him. Small world. To those that attended, thanks for attending the Apple Chapel!

  13. Otherwise known as the Birch Church. I’ve heard both. Glad you’re the home teachers. Things will be lonely for Betty. She and Richard were such a united couple.

  14. So, StillConfused, I assume that my brother is your bishop. I’ll have to pay closer attention to your comments. :)

  15. StillConfused says:

    Oh my.. that would be your brother. So much for my stealthness — foiled again

  16. small world.

  17. Margaret,

    Thanks for the lovely rememberance of Richard — a relative on my wife’s side, and a former professor of mine in the English department.

  18. Hi Margaret:

    I came across this post after reading about your movie on the Daily Beast. I took your creative writing class at BYU a few years ago. Reading this post made me feel like I was back in your class again, listening to you read writing samples aloud. Although I’m not much of a creative writer, that class was a nice experience. You are a great teacher. I also took Bruce’s Shakespeare class and enjoyed it.

  19. Yes, Tyler, Margaret really IS a great teacher, in and out of the classroom, and a rare teacher who can enlighten us because of deep conviction and wisdom without a drop of the didacticism and over-simplification that plague other teachers.

    Margaret, I appreciate your tribute to Richard. He and I were colleagues for decades, yet I never knew him very well.
    My loss, obviously. What I remember most is that Richard was almost unfailingly cheerful around the corridors of the English Department. That may seem like a minor virtue, , but I consider it otherwise. People who wear the grimy robes of cynicism or bitterness, or who simply always are ready with a complaint of one sort or another, can make daily life dreary. Richard’s big smile and friendly rgeetings brighten the halls, even in the days when we had few windows to let in the sunshine.

    I good friend spent a few minutes with Richard just before his death, and sure enough, this good man spent those minutes asking her to pass along his good wishes to me. Thank you again for the gift of your memories of him, Margaret.

  20. (Sorry for the typos. I seem unable to find the Preview or Edit buttons on the current

  21. Neal Kramer says:

    Richard taught my English romanticism course when I was an undergradaute at BYU. He was a lively and provocative teacher, with strong opinions and some very stubborn views about Wordsworth and and Keats. He was very at ease with the idea that truth was truth and emphasized that we seek it in the Gospel as well as in the beautiful poetry he loved almost as much.

    About a year, maybe 2 years ago, Leila and I spent a lovely hour with him in a sealing room in the Provo Temple. The liveliness of mind, willingness to teach, and love of idisyncratic knowledge was still there. We reintroduced ourselves to him, were greeted warmly, and loved being with him in another temple of learning.

    I will miss him but always remember the sparkle in his eye and the sheer joy he often displayed as he taught our class. He is surely one of the reasons I became and English teacher at BYU.

  22. Sorry I missed the final comments. Thank you, friends.
    Richard Ellsworth touched so many lives. I am writing this little addendum on Aug. 19th, 2011. Betty Ellsworth, Richard’s widow, died yesterday. She followed her husband less than four weeks after his passing. It feels right. Those two were one. How I loved them! The world has changed.

  23. Thank you Margzret for your inspiring and meaningful comments. It is certainly ok to name names: I am Richard & Betty’s oldest son. And am very grateful for such a worthy heritage.

  24. My grandfather was indeed an amazing teacher, and a wonderful guy. He had a sense of the proper use of patriarchal and teacherly authority that was rare. I was close enough to see his flaws and strengths. I will miss him and my grandmother dearly, but I’m glad that as a teacher I get to follow in his footsteps.

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