To know Elder Neal A. Maxwell was to know a master of words, eloquent in speaking but able to make anyone, regardless of culture, faith or station in life, feel unconditionally accepted and important.
He was the consummate educator and statesman whose death came after a long battle with a deadly illness. But to really know this modern-day apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one needed only to ask about the framed photograph in his office of a place halfway around the world — a place called Flat Top Hill.
We’ve all heard of those extraordinary moments of clarity born of intimate spiritual experiences that try men’s souls and set them on an unquestionable course of action for the future. They’re the stuff poets write about and of which movies are made. For Elder Maxwell, his defining moment came in a foxhole in Okinawa, on a hill now covered with sugar cane, during World War II.
As a young man of 17, Elder Maxwell had marched to the local U.S. Army selective service office and volunteered to serve his country as soon as possible after he turned 18. He was so young he said he “didn’t even need to shave in between inspections.” He was unconcerned that he was assigned to the infantry on the front lines of one of the bloodiest wars in world history.
During the middle of the battle for Okinawa, Elder Maxwell was part of a mortar squad that fired at Japanese positions hidden in the hills. The reality was that the enemy would eventually triangulate their position and hit with deadly precision. That time came one night when three shells in a row exploded just a few feet away from Elder Maxwell. As a teenager, faced with death, with no other course of action, he did what he had been taught in his home to do. He knelt and prayed, pleading for protection and dedicating the rest of his life to the Lord’s service.
Later he wrote, “After that triangulation occurred, the shelling stopped at the very time they were [about] to finish what they had been trying to do for days. I am sure the Lord answered my prayers. . . . The following night they began to pour [more] shells in [on our position], but almost all of them were duds — either the ammunition had gotten wet or they were not exploding in the very thick, oozing mud. . . . I felt preserved, and unworthily so, but had tried to be somewhat faithful to that promise that was given at the time.”
One need only look at Elder Maxwell’s life to see the fulfillment of that promise. After the war, Elder Maxwell graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in political science and worked in Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant to Utah Senator Wallace F. Bennett. The young Elder Maxwell was noted as having a future in politics, but he came to believe that “the solution to human problems lies with the gospel,” which can help each individual steer the right course through life. “The governmental approach to human problems is helpful, but it doesn’t really do the job. The gospel does.”
So, in 1956 he returned to the University of Utah, where he successively worked at a wide variety of faculty and administrative jobs, from the public relations office to dean of students to executive vice-president. During this time, he completed his M.S. in political science and was selected by a group of university students as their favorite professor. Longtime friend Elizabeth Haglund said, “Hundreds of young people are different today because he helped them see what they could do.”
In June 1970, Elder Maxwell was appointed commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Four years later he was called as an assistant to the Twelve Apostles and then as an apostle in July 1981. As an apostle, he helped govern a worldwide Church of over 12 million members, reflecting the organization of Christ’s ancient church.
Elder Maxwell believed his single cause as a witness of Jesus Christ included developing an ability to love all people with an understanding heart . His tutoring in empathy began early after painful childhood experiences. Fellow apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said of Elder Maxwell’s compassionate writings: “I seem to hear the echoed accents of a boy who has known the anxiety of a severe case of acne; what scarred the skin seems to have softened the heart. I hear as well empathy, born of ridicule cast at a late-developing boy living on the wrong side of town — a keeper of pigs, prize-winning 4-H pigs though they were.”
Elder Maxwell used the experiences in his life, such as his diagnosis of leukemia in 1996, as an opportunity to grow spiritually and understand and strengthen others. In January 1997 he began treatment consisting of 46 days and nights of debilitating chemotherapy. Even though his physical appearance was considerably changed, including a loss of hair, he felt impressed to address the worldwide Church membership at its conference the following April because “my special audience within an audience were all the people who’d lost their hair because of chemos. I wanted them to see that shining pate and feel a sense of hope.”
In May 1998 his leukemia returned and once again he beat the odds as it went into remission. He said of his illness: “It’s been a great spiritual adventure, one I would not want to have missed. I feel a little about it the way I do about Okinawa. If I’d waited my turn to be drafted, I would have never seen any action. It wasn’t that I was anything special as a soldier. Even though it cost me some hearing, I’m glad I saw that action. And even though this has cost, it’s been a great blessing.”
Elder Maxwell’s ability to so perfectly articulate his experience with cancer did not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with what he called his “love affair with the world of words.” His writings on gospel themes were nearly all laced with verbal imagery, metaphors, and alliteration. These poetic devices and his sense of the well-turned phrase often made his language closer to poetry than to prose.
He was rarely without a writing project. He read widely, virtually devouring everything from newspapers to works of history, biography and philosophy. With his trusty old manual typewriter, he used the “hunt-and-peck” system to write some 30 books and countless articles, talks and other materials.
But Elder Maxwell’s first experience with writing was less than exemplary after a wise high school teacher gave him a D minus because she felt he wasn’t giving it his best efforts. Spurred into action, Elder Maxwell became the co-editor of the school newspaper and was soon earning A’s in English.
Though his family of three daughters and one son appreciated their father’s speaking and writing style, they did not hesitate to remind him occasionally that when he first proposed marriage to his wife, Colleen, he used such big words and talked so fast that she was not completely sure she understood him.
Elder Maxwell met Colleen Hinckley at the University of Utah and they were soon married in November 1950. He has often said he “married up, spiritually” and all his married life looked to his wife for advice and support.
His daughter Nancy said their teamwork was critical to her dad’s success.
Despite his hectic schedule, Elder Maxwell’s family was always been at the center of his extraordinary life. His son, Cory, said his earliest memory of his father was of the two of them and his sister Becky raking leaves in their yard – and then laughing together, diving into the pile of leaves. It is still a Maxwell family tradition to spend some vacation time together each year. At these outings, Elder Maxwell often challenged his family to tennis matches in which he was known to be quite competitive.
Elder Maxwell’s love of family, empathy for others, mastery of language, ministry and study of the gospel lived up to his pledge in a foxhole decades ago to dedicate his life to the Lord, with whom he forged a personal relationship. Colleen said: “I think he has always loved the Savior. . . . He seems to have developed a special love and interest and greater appreciation for Him.”
That love and appreciation was a common subject in Elder Maxwell’s lifelong ministry in the Church. In his first address after being called as an apostle, Elder Maxwell bore strong testimony of the Savior: “I testify that He is utterly incomparable in what He is, what He knows, what He has accomplished, and what He has experienced. Yet, movingly, He calls us His friends.”