If ever there was a symbol of one man’s dedication to make the most of every day, it is Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s old Olympia typewriter. In a time when computers dominate most offices, it sat on his wide oak desk and was put to good use each morning as he personally typed out his daily schedule on a small 3-by-5 card. “Every day is an adventure,” Elder Wirthlin said. “Every day carries with it a responsibility. I thought, well, here I am — sort of the 11th hour maybe in my life — I’d better make the most of it.”
Elder Wirthlin made the most of it all of his life. Jane Parker, his oldest child, recalled one of her favorite memories was waking “at five in the morning and hearing him at the typewriter” organizing his schedule. The clacking of typewriter keys during those predawn hours became part of the rhythm of life for this apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who felt each day was a journey to be savored and enjoyed.
“Some of the happiest people I know have none of the things the world insists are necessary for satisfaction and joy,” said Elder Wirthlin. “My life has been filled with adventure, spiritual experiences and joy that surpasses understanding.”
Keystroke by keystroke, line by line, schedule by schedule, Elder Wirthlin stripped down the complexities of life to the simple things that matter most; family, devotion to God, hard work and service.
Elder Wirthlin, the eldest of five children, was born in Salt Lake City on 11 June 1917 to Joseph and Madeline Wirthlin. A young Joseph learned true compassion from his father during the Great Depression, when many families were suffering. His father, who owned a wholesale business, would load Joseph’s red coaster wagon with food for the needy. Joseph would make the deliveries, and when the wagon was empty he’d come back for more. Looking back on that experience he said: “I learned from him to care for the poor and to not do it just by words but in deed. That was a great lesson for me. He was always kind to the poor.”
Elder Wirthlin’s desire to succor the poor in body and spirit resulted in his leaving his studies at the University of Utah, and a starting position on the football team, to serve a two and a half year mission for the Church in the late 1930s. At a precarious time in world history, he stepped aboard the S.S. Manhattan as a young missionary and began a long voyage that would take him into Germany and Switzerland. For the first six weeks he was alone in Salzburg, a missionary in a strange, new country not knowing if or when Hitler’s tanks would blitz across the border.
Elder Wirthlin said: “As I look back on it now, I wonder if those times of trial and loneliness weren’t instrumental in strengthening my character and heightening my desire to succeed. Those times of seeming failure may have been some of the most instrumental of my life, because they prepared me for greater things to come.”
His mission was a period of intense gospel study during which he learned to teach, preach and “love people more than ever before and to accept them for what they were.”
A defining moment for Elder Wirthlin came on a cold, clear, snowy night on Christmas Eve in the tiny village of Oberndorf nestled in the Bavarian Alps. After listening to organ music in a humble church, Elder Wirthlin and his companion started for home and became engaged in a serious discussion about what they wanted to do with their lives. “The Spirit was so strong as I walked with my companion that it’s hard to express,” Elder Wirthlin said. “I really had a burning testimony that the Church is true as never before in my life.”
On that soul-searching night, Elder Wirthlin also contemplated the type of woman he would someday marry. After returning from his mission he said he knew the first time he laid eyes on Elisa Rogers that she would be his wife — and she was just a year later, on 26 May 1941.
Theirs was a tender relationship that deepened through the years, said daughter Katherine Cannon. “You could tell that she loved him. She listened intently to him.” And he listened to her, many times relying on her “good, sound judgment.” Though often gone with a hectic schedule, Elder Wirthlin said he looked forward to coming home. “Every morning I kiss her goodbye and always say, ‘Auf Wiedersehen, till we meet again.’”
The Wirthlins settled into married life and eventually became the parents of eight children, seven girls and one boy. “Our boy came second, and when we had our eighth arrival and announced to him that it was a girl, “Elder Wirthlin laughed, “Joe said, ‘Not another one!’”
Life was busy, but Elder Wirthlin always devoted time to family, whether it was lunchtime with his children, letting his son play stowaway in his car to the office, or taking family vacations on which they always seemed to get lost. Sunday also became an important family time when they rested from work, attended church and held family home evening.
Elder Wirthlin was also devoted to living the gospel. After serving in countless Church positions spanning decades, Elder Wirthlin became an apostle on 9 October1986, joining 11 other modern-day apostles with responsibilities to govern The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church organization reflects Christ’s ancient church, and like those biblical apostles nearly two millennia ago, today’s apostles come from all professions and walks of life and serve in lifelong positions.
Fellow apostle Russell M. Nelson said Elder Wirthlin will be remembered for his “tremendous faith and willingness to work.” President Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church, described Elder Wirthlin as a man of great innate goodness who did not care for personal acclaim, only to please his Heavenly Father.
And pleasing his Heavenly Father included sharing his testimony of the gospel with others. “I wish I could engrave on every heart what I so keenly know and feel,” Elder Wirthlin said. “I bear unwavering testimony that our Heavenly Father and His divine Son, Jesus Christ, rule and reign, and that we must all understand that the gospel is everlasting. It is forever and applicable to all, and each of us is to be held accountable.”
Accountability, knowing what’s really important in life, strengthening family relationships, serving God, strengthening others, making the most of each day, having a written schedule and sticking to it — one can almost hear the keys of the old Olympia typewriter.