Author Barbara Jones Brown has graciously shared with us some memories of Lorna Call Alder, who died last week at the age of 106. Also, don’t miss these additional resources: Lorna’s obituary at Legacy, an article in the Deseret News, “Remembering a Grand Soul,” and an interview with Barbara Jones Brown at Mormon Channel, “Life of a Century.” —Amy T
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On March 16 I attended the funeral of Lorna Call Alder, one of the most influential women in twentieth-century Mormon history.
Case in point: After the services I was perusing a display of memorabilia from Lorna’s life of nearly 107 years when I overheard a nearby conversation. “She was my sixth-grade schoolteacher and neighbor,” one woman was telling another. “But even before that she took me under her wing when my mother died. She taught me so much about cultural and applied arts. She helped me design and sew costumes for a school play.”
Hearing something like this didn’t surprise me. Lorna had designed and sewn the costumes for the first production of the Hill Cumorah Pageant in 1935 and had taught in BYU’s art and education departments for thirty-five years. But I was intrigued as to who this student of Lorna’s was. I introduced myself to her and asked her name.
“Carma de Jong Anderson,” she said.
I immediately recognized Anderson’s name. Among her many achievements, this 83-year-old has designed and hand-sewn the clothing and textiles for more than 20 historic sites of the LDS Church. When I asked Carma if I could take her picture, she picked up an old photograph of Lorna from the display table and held it over her heart.
As I left the Provo meetinghouse, my phone buzzed with a notification of new entries posted in Lorna’s obituary “guestbook.” Still in the parking lot, I read the first of these: “What a life she lived! It is impossible to be sad at the departure of one who has lived such a good life, but we of course grieve and send our condolences on her passing,” it said. “I knew and respected Lorna as a BYU teacher when I served there, and I have seen and heard of her from time to time since then. . . . Elder Dallin H. Oaks.”
I grinned a teary smile and shook my head as I started my car and drove off. Even after her death, Lorna was still amazing me. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Lorna, but apparently I was wrong. After spending more than a decade recording her oral history and writing her biography for her family, I had heard so many accounts like these that I gave Lorna the nickname “Forrest Gump.” It seemed that if there was a historical figure in twentieth-century Mormon and North American history, Lorna had known or influenced them. If there was a pivotal event, Lorna had experienced it. If there was a trend or movement, Lorna had been a part of it. I exaggerate, of course, but in reality a movie could be made about her remarkable life. And yet, other than those who knew her personally, few have ever heard of Lorna Call Alder—a testament, I think, to her humility. I feel grateful to be the ordinary woman who gets to share the story of this extraordinary one.
Lorna’s “Gumpian” experiences began with her ancestry. Her grandpa, Anson Call, was baptized in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836 by Joseph Smith’s brother, William. He was confirmed a member of the LDS Church in the newly completed Kirtland Temple by David Whitmer, one of three witnesses of the gold plates from which Smith professed to translate the Book of Mormon. Anson’s loyalty throughout the church’s struggles in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Utah earned him the friendship of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Lorna’s heritage closely intersects with the Church’s former practice of polygamy. In 1890, on the personal advice of LDS President Wilford Woodruff, Lorna’s father, Anson “Bowen” Call and his first wife moved to Dublan, one of several Mormon “colonies” in Chihuahua, Mexico. Like thousands of other late-19th century Mormons, they left the United States so they could practice “plural marriage” in peace, a principle then taught as a higher spiritual law.
On May 28, 1906, Bowen and his fourth and last wife, Julia Abegg, had Lorna, their first of twelve children. She was among the last children born to an LDS-sanctioned polygamous marriage. Lorna helped me envision what it was like to grow up with 24 siblings in a polygamous family on an early 20th-century farm. Though they were materially poor, Lorna said she didn’t realize it, remembering a childhood filled with wonder and love.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 brought her both thrilling and terrifying experiences. As a 9-year-old she watched with excitement as Pancho Villa and his army of 10,000 revolutionaries rolled into her tiny town, camping in the streets there for three weeks. Months later, she cowered with ward and family members on the second story of her father’s home while lawless marauders robbed and shot up the house downstairs and burned down another house on her street.
The ferocity of the revolution caused Lorna’s family and other Mormon colonists to flee north of the border three times in what they called “the exoduses.” Six-year-old Lorna and her family rode a long train of boxcars out of northern Mexico during the first exodus of 1912. On the same train was her contemporary, five-year-old George Romney, with whom Lorna attended Primary. George went on to become the Governor of Michigan and the father of Mitt Romney.
When anti-American violence prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send troops into Mexico in 1916, the troops made their camp just outside Lorna’s town of Dublan. The expedition marked the first time that U.S. forces used airplanes in a military campaign. Lorna never forgot running her hand in awe along the shiny metal of an Army plane that landed on the flats outside her town. Because her father was the town’s bishop and leader, the Army expedition’s head, General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his young aid, George S. Patton, came over a few times for dinner. Pershing soon went on to lead the American forces in World War I, and Patton became a general and a key military figure during World War II.
Lorna was the first woman in her family to go to college, heading in 1926 to a fledgling Provo school whose president, Franklin S. Harris, was then promising to make a world-class university. Working as the elementary school supervisor in the Mormon colonies in the 1930s, she instituted a dual-language program in the LDS Church-owned schools and, assisted by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico J. Reuben Clark, convinced the Mexican government to not shut them down. Through these schools, including the Juarez Stake Academy where Lorna also taught, passed countless students who went on to become bilingual leaders in the Church.
Lorna drove her first car to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, seeing the devastating effects of the Great Depression as she made her way across the country. This small-town girl went off to UC Berkeley and Columbia University in the late 1930s to to earn her master’s degree in education, where the legendary educators Helen Heffernan and John Dewey were her teachers. She brought this superb education back to Brigham Young University, where she taught thousands of elementary education majors for more than three decades. In 1943 she took a sabbatical to help establish the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City—the first library the U.S. government established abroad—as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” When the library exhibited the work of local artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Lorna hosted parties for them in her apartment across the street.
In 1942 Lorna became the third woman to serve on the Church’s general Sunday School board. She served in that capacity for 19 years, writing manuals for the Sunday School and Primary and traveling around the world training leaders. That was where she became friends with another board member, Gordon B. Hinckley, then a young man in his twenties. She usually commuted to weekly board meetings in Salt Lake City with fellow BYU educators Gerrit de Jong, Carl Eyring, and Thomas L. Martin. Of these commuters, only Lorna has not had a BYU building or hall named for her.
Lorna married Francis Marion Alder at age 39. She had her first child at 41 and her second at 46, continuing to teach at BYU and serve on the Sunday School board as she raised her children. After they reached adulthood and she became a widow, Lorna served full-time missions in Texas, Peru, and Guatemala. She worked in the Provo Utah Temple until she was past 100. At 102 she received the Mormon History Association’s Best International History award for co-authoring a biography of her father.
As I mentioned earlier, after writing Lorna’s biography, I thought I knew about everything there was to know about her. I was wrong. When her youngest brother, emeritus General Authority Eran A. Call, spoke at her funeral, he said that when he was president of the Mexico City mission from 1970-73, Lorna frequently sent him checks for $200. She instructed him to give the money to someone in need and to not reveal where the money came from. One of her sons spoke of her carrying on the tradition, as did her last bishop. When it became difficult for Lorna to make it to church in her final years, she often asked the bishop to come see her. She would then give him $200 and ask him to share it anonymously. Lorna was not a wealthy woman. In my many oral history interviews with Lorna as we chronicled her life, she never mentioned this lifetime habit.
The final speaker at Lorna’s funeral was emeritus General Authority Vaughn J. Featherstone, who served as Lorna’s mission president in Texas. He shared a quotation by John Ruskin that sits on his desk: “I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them.”
“I’ve just described Lorna Call Alder,” Elder Featherstone said. I think he was right.
I do not doubt that the greatness, that the power of Lorna’s humble life will always continue to amaze me.