“Colorado Ward Honors the Living,” Ensign, Feb. 1980, 71
It’s an old story: You care deeply about someone, and you really feel you ought to tell them about it. But you never quite get around to it—and the next thing you know they’ve passed away.
It’s an old story, but Bishop Jerry Decker and his counselors in the Mancos Ward of the Durango Colorado Stake wanted to change it. So they devised a program for honoring the living—letting a couple in the ward know how much they appreciate them.
The first step was to select the couple to honor. It wasn’t easy; their ward had many choice families! But the bishopric decided it would be appropriate to honor Vernon and Fern Ellis, an older couple in the ward. They had served faithfully for many years, too often with little thanks.
The next step was to choose an honoring committee. They were called to plan and prepare the program, working under the direction of Sister Susanne Halls, the ward cultural arts specialist. To complicate matters, they were to do their work in secret: the Ellises weren’t to learn about it until it happened.
The committee did their work well. A script was written telling of the service Brother and Sister Ellis had performed over the years. Lyrics were written to pay tribute to the Ellises. Letters and phone calls invited friends who lived outside the ward. And special invitations were made to family members in several states.
As was their charge, the committee kept their work secret. When the night of the program finally arrived, it was billed as “A Night of Music and Drama.” Only a few ward members knew that the night was designed to honor Vernon and Fern Ellis.
Brother and Sister Ellis are rarely late for meetings; in fact, they normally go early. But this night the committee wanted them to arrive after their out-of-town friends—so their daughter Maurine was assigned to “help them arrive at the last minute.” She filled that assignment with a will, very creatively taking an inordinate amount of time getting herself ready to go out with her parents. Finally they arrived at the ward cultural hall. The hall’s lights were dimmed—but somehow they were able to find some vacant seats. The Ellises were glad that, even though almost late, they had been able to get seats that weren’t too bad.
Little did they know that just a moment later they would be directly in front of the stage, enjoying the program from the best seats in the house!
The evening began with a song written for the occasion and sung by a chorus seated on the stage. The lyrics were homey, but they were heartfelt. A spotlight was shone into the Ellises’ faces and they were escorted up to the stage, where they were seated in two comfortable rocking chairs. From that point until the final standing ovation, the Ellises watched as highlights of their lives unfolded in narration and song.
They saw one of their granddaughters, Marie Ellis, wearing one of Fern’s old dresses and an old hat and quoting from Fern’s journal as she described Fern’s early years. Marie talked of Fern’s schooldays, of the day their home had burned down, of her mother’s untimely death, of her responsibilities as substitute mother for her sisters and brother, of her first date with Vernon.
Then, one by one, their children gave personal tributes—and children appeared on stage who were supposed to be in another state! Fern’s sisters and brother (also supposedly in another state) gave their tributes to Fern and Vernon as well.
Then came the finale. On cue from the announcer, people from all over the audience came up to the stage. They were relatives from several western states, and they’d practiced the finale song individually in their homes, coming together only twice for a group rehearsal.
When the finale closed, the audience rose in applause as Brother and Sister Ellis were presented with gifts and a scrapbook containing the program script, lyrics of all the songs (one of which had been written by Fern’s brother) and pages to be filled with photos that had been taken during the program. Then, following the benediction, refreshments were served while the Ellises received warm embraces and loving handshakes.
“I still can’t believe it all happened,” Sister Ellis repeated over and over after the program. “It was so beautiful I was afraid I was in heaven. They were all singing and talking about me and Vernon; people appearing from nowhere; voices of people who couldn’t possibly be there.”
Said Sister Halls, “It was probably the best-kept secret that ever happened in Mancos. And I’m sure it was the most joyous.”
The blessings to the ward were many. Ward members felt closer and expressions of love and appreciation flowed more easily. Those who had planned and prepared the program had experienced the thrill and excitement that come with secret service. And Bishop Decker observed that the program had been an excellent lesson in the value of genealogy and family histories. “The basis for the whole program was Sister Fern’s own genealogy and personal history,” he said.
Bishop Decker and his counselors are planning similar programs to “honor the living” in their ward, but they aren’t saying who!