Called to Lead Women
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“Called to Lead Women,” Ensign, June 1975, 56

Called to Lead Women

Barbara B. Smith’s gifts to the Relief Society have been perfected through a lifetime of sharing

The Tabernacle was hushed. A prophet of God, Spencer W. Kimball, had just called Barbara Bradshaw Smith to be general president of the Relief Society. She was replacing Sister Belle S. Spafford, a woman who had been a magnificent leader for nearly 30 years. As he announced the release, an involuntary “Oh, no!” swept the assemblage.

New Relief Society General Presidency

Sister Smith with her counselors, Sister Janath R. Cannon, left, and Sister Marian R. Boyer, right.

Sister Smith said afterward, “I was nervous and anxious. When the audience said, ‘Oh, no,’ tears flooded my eyes. I thought, ‘I knew the sisters would be so disappointed. I’ll never be able to walk up to that podium.’ Of course, the sustaining vote did give me courage, but I still wondered if I could make it. Then the words of the song we had sung the day before came to my mind. I had sung them many times, though I had not memorized them.

“‘Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,

For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.’

(“How Firm a Foundation,” LDS Hymns, No. 66.)

“Those words gave me strength to walk to the podium and express the thoughts I had and the feelings of my heart. I feel this strength came from the Lord.”

Those who listened felt the same spirit, as Sister Smith told how President Kimball had come to her home, and how humble she had felt at the calling he had given her.

“I could not believe it could happen to me,” she said, but those who had worked with her for three years on the Relief Society General Board knew her humility, intelligence, energy, stamina, and devotion to the gospel. They knew her zest for life and her sense of humor. They also knew her as a loving wife and creative mother, an example and an inspiration.

Douglas H. Smith, Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve for the Sugarhouse and Jordan regions and president of Beneficial Life Insurance Company and Utah Home Fire Insurance Company, speaks of his wife as a loving, compassionate, and charming woman. Their seven children, when asked who their mother’s favorite child is, all say either, “I guess I am” or “She doesn’t have one.” The children begin with Sandra, age 33, and end with Sherilynn, 18, with Lillian, Barton, Lowell, Blaine, and Catherine in between.

Their closeness as a family is based on the firm foundation of innumerable shared experiences that communicate love, teach self-discipline, encourage creativity and personal development, and, above all, stress devotion to the Lord and the gospel.

Lowell said, “I always felt she was spending special time with me, that I was important. I wasn’t just one of many.”

“Mother enjoyed each one of us,” says Sandra. Lillian recalls the feeling of knowing that “my mother loved me. She became my favorite woman in this whole world.”

Sister Smith helped her children “feel special” in many ways.

When Catherine was small Sister Smith made music lessons and practicing fun by counting the time or playing along with one hand, and encouraging, “You did very well that last time. Let’s try it again and see which of us can do it better.”

Homemaking skills were included in creativity. “Mother made a game of cooking and cleaning. Maybe that’s one reason I love to cook,” explained Sherilynn. “She’d show me how to do it, then if something didn’t turn out, she would talk about the things I’d done right and then make suggestions for my next try. Mother was really proud when things turned out well. When I baked my first bread, she praised me as if I’d really accomplished something great. It was neat.”

Catherine speaks for all seven children in appreciating the hours her mother spent reading to them. “Every single character came alive. Even when I was in high school I wanted her to read to me.”

Lowell remembers that his mother would read to him while he was helping with the dishes. “She’d say, ‘If you’ll help me, I’ll read to you.’ She always encouraged me to keep my room cleaner with a positive approach, such as ‘I think it would be a good idea if you did it this way. What do you think?’ We were often organized into work crews; I’d be in charge of this room, Blaine of that. We worked from room to room, laughing together.”

Sandra remembers her mother singing as she cooked and inventing games to get the work done. One game was to set a timer to see if they could finish a room before the timer went off.

Lillian adds, “She thought of a hundred ways to help us become responsible and enjoy work. We had check-off charts, charts that were starred, job-wheel charts, mystery-job charts, secret-pal charts—you name it, we tried it. I really do laugh now to think how challenging we must have been—but she kept trying, and she taught me her own motto: leave a room better than you found it.”

Douglas and Barbara Smith supported their children in whatever the children attempted. When any of them were in athletics, the Smiths were their foremost rooters. Blaine claims that his mother never missed a game. “Once she and Dad had to go to a dance, but they came to the game first, Mother in a formal dress and Dad in a tuxedo.”

They remember that no matter how busy she was, “she always seemed to be home when we were—after school and at night.”

A remarkably creative woman, she always tries to do things in a new way. She made Lowell’s campaign posters when he ran for a school office, “and all my friends thought I’d hired a professional.” Catherine remembers that her mother would usually say, “Let’s not buy it. Let’s buy the material. We can do it better.” Lillian remembers one marathon when they made 500 handouts, and innumerable occasions when “we sat around the table and made invitations, programs, favors, handouts, and booklets for some ward or stake lesson or social.”

Family solidarity is a prime article of faith in the Smith family. Sister Smith keeps in close touch with her brothers and her sister. For years they and their families came to the Smith home for Thanksgiving dinner, and Sister Smith made sure that they all went to their parents’ home for Christmas night activities. Since their mother’s death, she arranges for them to gather on many occasions.

These brothers and sister contribute much to Sister Smith’s perspective on life. Her sister, Carolyn Strong, is a stake Relief Society president; her brother, Frank, is president of the newly formed California San Diego Mission; her other two brothers, Tom and George, are successful businessmen.

Equally important are the in-laws. Sister Smith attributes to her husband’s mother, Winifred Hill Smith, much help for her constant example and talented assistance.

Sister Smith has nothing but appreciation for the men and women her children married. “I don’t know how anyone could have a more supportive family,” she said, citing examples of thoughtfulness from all of them. The same interest and love she feels for her children and their partners has expanded to include her 12 grandchildren, who eagerly anticipate the occasions when Grandmother tends them.

Every week the families of Sister Smith’s five married children are invited to join the Smith family for Sunday dinner. Grandfather Virgil H. Smith and his wife, Mary, and Grandfather Dan Delos Bradshaw’s widowed second wife, Helen, also frequently accept the warm invitations. Since early marriage, the Smiths have shared their home: “guests” have included such people as a young woman from South Africa, a young man from Taiwan, schoolgirls from out of town, and, for 17 years, Aunt Martha Mills, age 93, has been a welcome addition.

Brother and Sister Smith have worked hard at being good parents. If they found rivalry developing when a new baby came to the home, Brother Smith would pay special attention to the jealous child until he felt secure and happy again. Each child was encouraged to seek his highest potential and get the most specialized training possible. But everything else was secondary to a testimony of the gospel.

“Religion took priority before everything else,” Blaine laughs. “We began with it in the morning! When it was time to get up—and that was early—Dad stood at the head of the stairs and sang at the top of his voice, ‘Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion!’”

“Mother and Dad were always involved in Church activity,” says Sandra. “We held family nights before it was the Church-wide program. We read the scriptures together. We fasted together on special occasions for the sick.” Suggestions made in conference were always implemented immediately. Said Barton, “Mother has always respected the priesthood. When Dad was away on trips Mother would request the oldest son to call on a family member for prayer.”

“After I was baptized and confirmed,” says Sherilynn, “Mother found it necessary to punish me. I told her I didn’t think it was fair of the Holy Ghost not to help me—he wasn’t talking to me! Mother took the time to explain the way the Holy Ghost tries to direct us until I was satisfied.”

High standards, discipline, and love have enhanced the joyousness of their family life. “It’s been fun,” says Brother Smith. Barton recalls that a highlight for them all has been family trips, full of games while traveling, and complete with roll calls at every stop.

On business trips the parents often took just one child with them. Sherilynn remembers a recent trip to the Bahamas: “I felt so close to my parents and they told me things that would help me in my life.”

A testimony of the gospel, the opportunity to serve the Lord, and the chance to receive the blessings that come through such service are foremost among Barbara Smith’s values. When her husband was sustained in a bishopric as a young father, the presiding General Authority asked Sister Smith, “Well, now some people are going to refer to you as a Church widow. How are you going to feel about it? Let me ask you: would you rather be a golf widow, a fishing widow, or a poolroom widow instead?”

He helped her realize that since her husband was doing the work of the Lord, it would be a blessing to them. Consequently, their children never saw their father’s frequent absences as rejection or neglect. “I’m sure one reason Dad’s activity never became a problem is because Mother never questioned the importance of his errand or the hour of his return,” says Lillian. “She taught us that it was a privilege to have our father chosen to serve the Lord. We enjoyed him and made the most of him when he was home.”

As a wife, Sister Smith encouraged her husband to be the spiritual leader of their home. Temporary differences of opinion were discussed privately. “We’ve discovered,” commented Brother Smith, “that two strong-minded people can have a happy marital association if each has the right to freely express himself. Sometimes we will each express ourselves and still there are differences of opinion, but my wife always supports me when I make the final decision.”

One of the reasons Sister Smith is such a good mother is because she herself had a good mother. Throughout their lives, they had the tenderest of feelings for each other, and spent a great deal of time together until Sister Bradshaw’s death.

Dorothy Bradshaw’s special feeling for her daughter began at her daughter’s birth when her own mother, Caroline A. Mills, an early physician in Utah, delivered this grandchild. While Douglas was engaged to Barbara, Sister Bradshaw told him, “When my mother put Barbara into my arms, I had a profound feeling that I had been trusted to raise a chosen spirit. I was to teach her, train her, and guide her carefully. Now I’ve turned her over to you, and I want you to know that she is a very special person. I hope you will be kind and thoughtful to her.” Brother Smith testified he has indeed recognized that she is a special spirit.

Sister Smith recognized her mother’s love, and still remembers: “She encouraged all of her children to feel that we could achieve, and then she helped us to do it. For example, if we had a two-and-one-half minute talk to give, she wouldn’t let us read it. She would listen to the talk until she felt that we were able to present the message well.”

Sister Smith adds, “The pleasure that my mother brought into our home as she coached and wrote roadshows, dramas, skits, and taught classes helped me feel that Church service was part of the beauty of living.”

She emphasizes, however, that some experiences connected with Church work are painful. “We can either let them damage us or we can grow from them,” she says. She feels the following two experiences gave her needed insight and a proper perspective.

One of her sons disrupted a Primary class in a new ward, and Sister Smith overheard the teacher complaining about him. Very offended by the remarks, she went home determined not to send him to Primary again; but as she reconsidered, she asked herself, “What am I doing to my child? Will this be for his benefit?” He returned to Primary—with a report card of his behavior for the teacher to check; Sister Smith followed up by asking the teacher to verify it in person.

Only a few years ago, as a stake spiritual living teacher, Sister Smith participated in a regional conference that was so rewarding, the spiritual living teachers continued meeting occasionally to exchange ideas. For one of these meetings, Sister Smith wrote a skit from the lesson material, and the enthusiastic teachers from other stakes asked her for copies.

A few days later her Relief Society president called and said that Relief Society General President Belle S. Spafford had requested that the skit be recalled. Hurt and bewildered, Sister Smith immediately called all the spiritual living teachers of the other stakes, asked them not to use the skit, and then told her stake Relief Society president to report to Sister Spafford that the task was done.

A short time later, Sister Spafford called Sister Smith to the General Board of the Relief Society “because,” she said, “along with the talents you have that we need, you are obedient, and we need obedience in the work of the Lord.” She then explained that since the material had not been approved by the Church Correlation Committee, it should not have been distributed outside her own stake, reinforcing Sister Smith’s understanding that Church members should work only in their own areas of stewardships.

In addition to chastening experiences that have taught her obedience and humility, Sister Smith cherishes spiritual experiences that have given her great comfort and love. She recalls one such special experience: “One day I was preparing to give a social relations lesson. I had five little children at the time, so I studied whenever I had a spare moment. This day I was in the kitchen and felt that I needed a special reassurance to give this lesson. The sun was streaming through the window as I knelt by the kitchen table, and into my heart came the burning testimony that has been promised to those who seek it prayerfully. Through my needs as a Relief Society teacher came the answer of the Spirit so strongly that I could not question its reality. Since that day I cannot read the scriptures and ask for a confirmation of their truth without weeping, so firm and strong is my testimony.”

She also cherishes lessons learned through her association with the General Authorities. The Smiths attended a convention where President Spencer W. Kimball was to give a speech; while the group spent the day sightseeing, President Kimball worked in his room. Even on the plane, he’d been reading in preparation for his talk. Sister Smith recalls, “When he joined us, I said to him, ‘I guess I should have been studying instead of sightseeing.’ He answered, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to stand before a group and have all the inspiration of the Lord come right through you to the audience so that you could say all the things you needed to for their benefit and blessing? That isn’t the way the Lord works. If you want to receive his blessings, you have to put forth the time, the effort, and the preparation.’ So I learned a lesson.”

Sister Smith is an enthusiastic student, following the counsel of the Lord to his daughters to spend time “learning much.” (D&C 25:8.) Nighttime often finds her reading and cross-referencing the scriptures. Blaine reports that while Thanksgiving dinner was cooking last year, she was studying Church history. “I should have done this 20 years ago,” she explained.

“When she had a lesson or a talk to prepare, she’d put enough time into it to make a really professional presentation,” said Lowell. “Often it must have taken her dozens of hours to prepare them, but she never neglected us.” How does she do it? Blessed with remarkable energy, she “gets up early, stays up late, and works hard all day.”

As a leader, Sister Smith is dedicated and concerned. As a General Board member, she was always one of the last people to go home from a committee meeting. Her confidence in her coworkers is great, infusing them with the attitude she herself has: “You can do it.”

One of her deepest concerns is that the Relief Society truly meet the needs of sisters all around the world, including countries where the gospel has been only recently introduced. She has created geographical and common-language area committees of General Board members to become specialists in the background of their areas. For instance, the German language area includes Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, where Church members have much cultural background in common.

She has also planned training sessions for the General Board; educators, translators, businessmen, health experts, and non-professionals are sharing their expertise in many areas, so that the Board can be a better resource for every sister in the Church. She also reserves drop-in hours for her Board members, hours when they are free to visit her to clear up problem areas or to share special experiences. She accepts as many speaking invitations as her schedule will allow, using these times to discuss the mission of Relief Society in a free exchange of ideas.

Her easy accessibility, her responsiveness, and her executive ability have won her the respect, admiration, and loyalty of those who work with her. Her experience as a wife and mother, her training in Relief Society, and her travel to such far-flung areas as Australia, the Orient, and South America help her to appreciate the similarities and differences among people, help her feel empathy with the sisters of the Church. As they reach toward her for guidance and direction, she will touch their hearts and lives with her enthusiasm, dedication, and love.

  • Alice Colton Smith is no relation to Sister Barbara Smith although, in over ten years of service on the Relief Society General Board, she has served on some of the same committees. She is a member of the Logan 20th Ward, Logan Utah Cache East Stake.

Photography by Eldon Linschoten

Sister Smith at home with her husband, Douglas H. Smith, and daughter, Sherilynn.