"The last 20-25 years have been the most dramatic in the Church since the early days of the Restoration," said Dell Van Orden, who retired this week as editor of the Church News, a position he held for 23 years.
He was a seasoned journalist with 10 years of newspaper experience when he was transferred in 1968 from the news desk of the daily Deseret News to the weekly Church News. These were years of manual typewriters and hot lead type in a 2 million-member Church with 13 temples, and of providing coverage of ward activities in the 450 stakes.In 1968, he and the editor, Jack E. Jarrard, laid out the pages of the paper. Both wrote articles and took pictures along with the other four staff members. And when J Malan Heslop, the Deseret News' chief photographer, became editor in 1969, it was Brother Van Orden who provided the editorial expertise. The two became close friends and even teamed up to co-author seven books. In 1976, Brother Van Orden became Church News editor.
He has watched the flow of news, decade by decade, as it grew from a trickle to a torrent, and it is largely to his credit that the Church News has become what it is today. He also originated the Deseret News Church Almanac in 1974.
And he had a close-up view, through a window to the Church, as the Church grew from a membership mostly centered in the U.S. West to a worldwide membership. It was through his eyes, in his words and by his pictures that many watershed events were recorded and presented to the Church.
Brother Van Orden retired from his watch on Oct. 22, after looking at a Church that has grown to nearly 11 million members in more than 160 nations and 2,500 stakes, with more members outside the United States than inside, and with 115 temples in operation or announced.
During his career, he received a Deseret News Special Merit award in 1976 and a Deseret News Outstanding Performance Award in 1987. He also served as a bishop and as president of the Salt Lake Jordan North Stake. He and his wife, the former Sharon Larsen, reared a family of six children. They now have "5 1/2" grandchildren.
He has traveled to some 45 nations and his photos and articles have graced issues of the Church News through the years. He has covered many of the activities of all the Church presidents from President Joseph Fielding Smith forward.
"The first time I was ever in the same room as a president of the Church was with President David O. McKay in his Hotel Utah apartment," he said.
"President McKay was at the stage in his life where he was not in the best of health but, to me, it was really a thrilling experience as President McKay was the prophet in my later young years."
President Joseph Fielding Smith became president of the Church in 1970 at age 93, and when he went to Hawaii, Brother Van Orden was assigned to cover the trip.
"That was a great opportunity to be close to him," he recalled. "This was my first opportunity to photograph a president of the Church."
During a tour of the Polynesian Cultural Center, President Smith's keen sense of humor appeared. "He had earlier been given a big hat to keep the sun off him. I was kneeling to the side of him as I photographed him watching the canoe pageant. I put my camera up in front of my eyes to focus it, and when I looked through the view finder, I saw President Smith had the hat in front of his face. So I lowered the camera, and he lowered the hat. I brought the camera back up and he brought the hat back up. This went on for several times. He was just playing cat and mouse with me."
After President Harold B. Lee became president of the Church in 1972, Brother Van Orden covered his trip to the Sacred Grove and the Hill Cumorah Pageant in upstate New York. "On the evening of one of those days, President Lee gave a talk in the Rochester Ward meetinghouse. He talked about the sacrament and the Savior, and it was an extremely spiritual talk. It was a very moving experience. After the close of such a meeting, 'We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet' is normally sung when a prophet is leaving. On this occasion, somebody started humming -- not singing -- that hymn. And the whole congregation joined in and hummed all the verses of the hymn. Tears flowed greatly. We certainly thought we were in the presence of heaven."
President Spencer W. Kimball became president in 1973. "There were lots and lots of tears in connection with President Kimball as he had a close relationship with people. I remember once when we were at the airport in Chicago, waiting for our flight, when a long-haired man recognized President Kimball and started approaching. President Kimball, who was 5-foot-6, put his arm around this man, who was over 6 feet tall, and pulled him down so their faces were only inches apart. I could not hear what they said, but soon tears welled up in this man's eyes and then, as he left, he broke out crying. I have no idea what they talked about but this man was surely touched by something President Kimball told him."
Brother Van Orden described arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, where the airport is 12,000 feet above sea level and the city is 9,000 feet. "We were told as we approached the airport, 'You will probably get a headache, and you could get chest pains, and you could get very sick because the air is so very thin.' That is exactly what happened to me. After we landed, I had a headache, chest pains, and I was really feeling ill. At the hotel, I phoned to the front desk and they sent up a tank of oxygen.
"I was lying on the bed, inhaling the oxygen, when a knock came on the door. As I answered it, there was President Kimball. He inquired, 'How are you doing? Is everything OK?' I said I was fine and then he went to the next door and I could hear him asking the same thing to those in the room. Here he was, nearly 85 years old, and he went around checking on the health and welfare of everybody [in the traveling group] before he would lie down himself and rest. I know the altitude had to affect him the same way it affected the rest of us."
Brother Van Orden said that when President Kimball died in 1985, "it was a great personal loss. I was saddened when President Smith died and I was saddened when President Lee died, but when President Kimball died, I felt I had lost a very dear friend."
Brother Van Orden recalled covering a trip of President Ezra Taft Benson to Hawaii where he visited the first meetinghouse on the Islands. "It was a very small group that went with President Benson to the chapel. The Church president sat on the second row and he talked and we listened, and then we sang some hymns. It was a very moving experience. It was very moving to be a part of that and feel the Spirit on that occasion."
President Howard W. Hunter became president in 1994, and served only nine months. When he went to Navuoo and Carthage, Ill., Brother Van Orden was there to cover the story. President Hunter dedicated the renovated Carthage Jail. It was an outdoor meeting, which ended just before dark. After the meeting ended, the congregation formed two lines on the dimly lit plaza to greet President Hunter.
"As they pushed him in his wheelchair, he shook hands on the left and on the right. A lot of people had a chance to shake his hand. I remember what a warm and genuine experience that was for these people. He undoubtedly was tired, yet he made the effort to shake hands with many of the people who had gathered."
Brother Van Orden said he has had many experiences covering the activities of President Gordon B. Hinckley, including events that President Hinckley participated in along the Mormon Trail. But "one thing that really stands out in my mind was when he told me in an interview about his experience of receiving the inspiration concerning small temples, and how he sketched out the floor plan himself while on an airplane.
"President Kimball had said in 1978 at the dedication of the Sao Paulo temple that the day would come when there would be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of temples. President Hinckley received the inspiration and revelation to implement that vision of temples. To me, that is such overwhelming evidence of a prophet.
Brother Van Orden said it "has been great to stand at the window for the past 31 years and see the work of the Lord unfold."