Five years ago, on his 85th birthday, a friend told President Boyd K. Packer that if he kept having birthdays it would make him old.
“I did and it has,” President Packer said as he spoke with the Church News about his 90th birthday, which will be Sept. 10.
On a cooler-than-average August morning, President Packer and his wife, Donna Smith Packer, sat near a glowing fireplace in their home and reflected on the passing years that have brought him to the brink of his 10th decade of life.
“Unbelievable,” he said of how quickly the years have passed. “All of a sudden, it (his 90th birthday) is here. We weren’t conscious of the passing years. There was nothing we could do to hold time back. We tried to fill it with profitable lives. ... Ninety years. I feel we can’t waste time. We always seem to be in a hurry, that there’s something we need to accomplish.”
President Packer, who is President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said he doesn’t think in terms of looking at the past and wishing he could wind time backward, or do things differently.
“I’m quite content with what’s happened,” he said.
Most of his and Sister Packer’s contentedness stem from their family of 10 children, 60 grandchildren and 103 great-grandchildren.
“One of the joyful times was when we had our children in our home,” Sister Packer said. “Lots of times people think those are the stressful years. For us, it was just a very joyful time. I think Heavenly Father gave us some special spirits. We learned to work together on our projects.”
Believing children should have the opportunity to perform daily chores, they chose places to live where they could have gardens and animals to tend. In their early years, the Packers lived in Brigham City, Utah, where they both grew up, and Lindon, Utah. They moved to their current home in the Salt Lake Valley after he was called as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1961. That property provided plenty of projects: gardens to plant and harvest; weeds to pull; underbrush to clear; trees to fell; rails to split for fences; a barn to repair and paint; and gates to be constructed, hung and repaired.
Working together on all those “little projects,” Sister Packer said, helped make their home the joyful place it became and still is.
President Packer said that now all their children are grown, they come back — with their own children and grandchildren.
“They help us out,” Sister Packer said. “When you get older, sometimes you have little problems. Polio has come back to [President Packer] and he’s in a wheelchair. Sundays are our days with our family. They bring a meal and we visit and get caught up with everybody. We do that 10 times and then start over again.”
The polio to which Sister Packer referred afflicted young Boyd, the 10th of 11 children born to Ira and Emma Packer, when he was 5 years old. It was diagnosed as pneumonia, which left him unable to walk for a time. It wasn’t until after he served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and was suffering severe pain that total body X-rays showed evidence of polio in the malformed bones of his knees and hip.
If only one word could be selected to identify President Packer, it might be “teacher.” He has been a teacher in his home, in his career as a seminary instructor and administrator, mission president and as a General Authority, as well as a friend and neighbor.
“I’ve had a passion to give away everything I’ve got as far as knowledge and testimony,” he said.
He has one hope for those who he has taught and continues to teach: “It’s the same hope I’ve had for my children — that they will have a testimony of the gospel.”
One of the reasons he liked working with his children on various projects was that the work gave him opportunities to teach them.
“I liked to have them around and to teach them. They learned to ask a lot of questions and they still telephone about practical things. They call if they have a gardening question or a question about an animal or just about anything else.”
He particularly likes teaching about the Book of Mormon, which he “discovered” while serving in the military during World War II. “That was a great defining experience. I spent five years in the Air Force. I devoured the Book of Mormon and it became imprinted on my soul.”
As a young seminary teacher in Brigham City, he followed the Church’s curriculum of teaching the Old Testament, New Testament and Church history, then he added an early morning class on the Book of Mormon. When he became a supervisor of seminary and institutes, the Book of Mormon became part of the Churchwide seminary curriculum.
Sister Packer said, “He’s always sharing bits of knowledge about birds, any kind of wildlife. Often, I will overhear him sharing little tidbits that will help people with their family life.”
President Packer said, “I get that from my experiences with the older Brethren I served with.”
He spoke of LeGrand Richards, Henry D. Moyle, A. Theodore Tuttle, Marion G. Romney, Harold B. Lee, Howard W. Hunter and other late apostles and prophets who “were always volunteering information. You can learn a lot from what has been written, but there are a lot of things that are not written. I learned to be a good listener. I guess an attribute that has served me well after all these years is obedience. I’ve learned to obey the gospel and the leaders. Sometimes, it wasn’t easy but, unerringly, it was worthwhile.”
President Packer spoke of his association with Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Quorum of the Twelve and chairman of the Indian Committee of the Church. From that association and earlier work establishing the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, President Packer’s love for the Indian people grew. It was a love fostered earlier by his grandparents, Joseph Alma and Sarah Wight Packer, who served two missions among the tribes of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota.
While being the definitive teacher, President Packer is a constant student. He has learned for his own edification as well as for the benefit of the Church. Among his numerous assignments as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, to which he was sustained in 1970, was working on “the scripture package,” the database that enables computerized scripture searches.
“President N. Eldon Tanner (then a counselor in the First Presidency) sent me to Palo Alto, California, to a month-long computer school run by IBM. Except for working on my doctorate in education, I don’t think I worked any harder anywhere to learn anything than I did to take advantage of that training,” President Packer said.
Seeing the ease with which scriptures can be searched, thereby furthering gospel knowledge and increasing faith, testimony is one of the dividends of his efforts.
President Packer bases his teachings on scriptural and gospel truths. He has gained a reputation as one who “tells it like it is,” regardless of what critics might say.
He said he doesn’t care how he will be remembered or if people agree with him. “If you start to play to the audience, then you’re not genuine,” he declared.
Sister Packer said he is very conscious that he’s a servant of the Lord and needs to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. “Sometimes it takes courage to say some of the things he feels he has to say, but that is what the people need,” she said. “People don’t know him just by seeing him at the pulpit. He has a great sense of humor. He’s been a very good father, not the domineering type in any way. He is just a loving man who is considerate to all of us and is thoughtful.”
One friend of the Packer family who has known him more than 40 years said many of his general conference addresses are something like what a compassionate father would say in warning his children away from pitfalls, danger and harm. “He simply wants to keep us from getting hurt or losing our way,” she said.
President Packer’s humor showed through when he commented on why he teaches as he does: “I don’t want you to make the same mistake once!”
An associate said, “I’ve never seen him express anger, but I have seen him show sorrow.”