Dallin H. Oaks: The Disciplined Edge
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“Dallin H. Oaks: The Disciplined Edge,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, 32

Dallin H. Oaks:

The Disciplined Edge

Brigham Young University campus was still shadowed by the mountains as I slipped into a vacant chair in 336 J. Reuben Clark Law School. Early as it was, the class had already been meeting for over an hour but the lecturer, Dallin H. Oaks, showed no weariness as he steered his second-year students through some of the pitfalls of their trust class.

A high-energy teacher, he jabbed the air with an emphatic forefinger to make a point, draped himself over his lectern to listen intently to answers, and smacked the table with the flat of his hand to punctuate the meaning.

He kept things moving and kept them light. “I want you to r’ar back and think about it,” he advised the class at one point. Introducing the next class assignment, he said, “You need to know what a flexible, wondrous device is the constructive trust.” He was encouraging to the students (“You’re doing very well, Mr. Jensen”), and courteous (“Maybe I don’t understand your question. Ask it once more?”)

Twenty minutes after the bell had rung, several students were still clustered around “Mr. Oaks,” listening fascinated to his examples of strange wills. One man, he said, designated his heir by writing the person’s name on a cow. “They went out and looked on the cow, put the name in an affidavit, and submitted the will to probate.” In another case, a man in a hospital room without paper wrote his will on a nurse’s petticoat. Both wills were held to be valid.

“No matter what he’s doing—hunting in the hills or weeding the garden,” says his wife, June, “he does it 150 percent.” He has the disciplined edge. And it’s remote from the stuffy associations that discipline sometimes conjures up. In Dallin H. Oaks, zest and commitment come together with a near-overwhelming effectiveness.

Eldest child in a Provo family, Dallin was raised along with Merrill and Evelyn by his mother, Stella Harris Oaks, after his father, Dr. Lloyd E. Oaks, died when Dallin was eight. She taught him faith. She taught him about loving. And she taught him to set high goals.

When he was fifteen, he studied on his own, scraped busfare together, and got his first-class commercial radio operator’s license at federal examination sessions in Salt Lake City and Denver. He soon had a job at a local broadcast station. As a freshman in college, he was announcing high school basketball games on the radio. It was at such a game that June Dixon, a drill team senior from Spanish Fork, first saw him and “stood around until I was introduced.” At the next game, he asked to take her home. Their courtship blossomed, and in time they married. Sharmon and Cheri were born while Dallin finished his last two years at BYU. Then they went to the University of Chicago Law School where he edited its law review in 1956–1957. Lloyd was born in his senior year.

He clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren for a year, then settled down in Chicago, where he practiced law for three years and taught law for ten. During that time he served two years as stake mission president, then nine years in the stake presidency. Dallin D. was born during these years, and then TruAnn.

Professionally, Brother Oaks was carving out his niche in legal circles. A member of the Illinois Bar in 1957, he was later admitted to practice before other federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. He represented large corporate clients in a multimillion dollar litigations, and was the first lawyer in his law firm to represent an indigent before the Illinois Supreme Court, “even though it’s fairly common now.” In 1961 he joined the law faculty at the University of Chicago.

In addition to family and church involvements, he was also serving his community. For five years, he organized groups of law students for summer fieldwork in legal services, including defenders’ offices, crime commissions, and neighborhood legal clinics. He also served as counsel to the Bill of Rights Committee of the Illinois Constitutional Convention. Foreseeing that abortion would become a legal issue, he published an article pointing out that it was inconsistent to deprive an unborn child of life without due process of law when that same unborn child was entitled to due process before being deprived of property rights.

When Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration declared war on poverty, Dallin, though opposed to the underlying legislation, served as a consultant to evaluate and set up legal services programs for the Office of Economic Opportunity. He also spent two years as chairman of southwestern Chicago’s Tri-Ridge Boy Scout District, serving about sixty Scout troops, many sponsored by black congregations. In between he wrote books and articles, served on the editorial boards of Social Service Review, Judicature, the Journal of Legal Studies, and Dialogue.

Then, in 1971, he came to BYU as its president. “If I think of times when I’ve really been proud of Dallin,” says Sister Oaks, “it was when he received that call. And I wasn’t even surprised. He’s the most outstanding man I know. At eighteen he was outstanding. He’s immensely gifted, and he’s prepared himself. I don’t think anything he accomplishes will ever surprise me.”

She may have been seeing potential more than performance in that eighteen-year-old. Brother Oaks himself admits that his early college studies were “erratic.” He had gone from a career in radio/television to aspirations in medicine and linguistics when his father-in-law, Charles H. Dixon, a bank president, steered him toward law. “I did not perform at a consistently high level until June came into my life. I owe so much to her.” (He graduated with high honors from BYU and cum laude from the University of Chicago Law school.)

Dallin’s nine years as president of the largest private university in the United States may best be remembered for a determined and intelligent resistance to the encroachment of government regulation. When HEW’s Title IX regulations ordered BYU to stop making distinctions between men and women in areas prescribed by university standards, President Oaks promptly drafted a notice of noncompliance and, with the Board of Trustees’ approval, read it to the assembled faculty. They greeted what amounted to a declaration of legal war with a standing ovation. Subsequently, the differences with HEW were resolved amicably.

But to remember him for this dramatic confrontation would be to over-simplify his administration. Over the nine years he served as president of BYU, he was the driving force behind an academic upgrading across the campus and the completion or planning of enough buildings to house all the college departments. “I don’t like to think of myself as being against things,” comments Brother Oaks. “I prefer to take the approach of being for things.”

This broad principle has governed his approach to community service, and his own sensitivity is instructive for other Latter-day Saints working with nonmembers in community settings.

It is not a sense of emergency that catapults him into public service. He tries to study an issue—like abortion—long before it becomes an issue and decides where he stands on it. He decides carefully how he can make the best contribution—and that includes screening the groups he joins, the petitions he signs, and the organizations he addresses. “I might sympathize with an organization’s purposes,” he comments, “but disagree with the means they are using to achieve those ends. For instance, many of the efforts of anti-ERA groups are misplaced and actually counter-productive. If I don’t like an organization’s methods, I won’t get involved.”

If a goal and a group pass this scrutiny, he next decides whether he has time to help, and, if so, how he can make a contribution. “I’m a lawyer. These are skills and resources that aren’t available to everyone, so it seems to me that I should use them as much as possible.”

His attitude is also instructive: “I don’t show up on a white horse saying, ‘I’m going to save you,’ and I don’t show up on a black horse saying, ‘I’m going to wreck you.’ I ask, how can I help accomplish the goals we share?

“I’ve always felt it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” He pauses and grins. “Of course, there’s a place for a little cursing—it’s how you get people to buy candles and light them and keep them lit—but for the most part it serves no useful purpose.”

For Brother Oaks, it’s a matter of integrity. “My relationship as a son of a Heavenly Father is the most important membership I have,” he says. “And because of that relationship, there are things I simply will not do and organizations I will not belong to if they require me to do—or consent to—certain things. When Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke during our centennial year on the gospel and the behavioral sciences, he used a metaphor that has had profound impact on me. He said, ‘The LDS scholar has his citizenship in the kingdom, but carries his passport into the professional world—not the other way around.’ (Ensign, July 1976, p. 70.) To me that means that I do everything—as a lawyer, as the president, as a member of boards—on my passport, but my citizenship is in the kingdom. When I say that I ‘belong’ to such-and-such an organization, that never means they own me.”

He observes another problem for Latter-day Saints involved in community service. “Many times the community issue isn’t a gospel issue, but simply one of making a better life—providing more freedom of choice or more wholesome communities. Those provide a better host for the gospel, but they’re not identical with the gospel. It helps to start with a healthy dose of a humility. Sometimes we think we’re the only people who love the Constitution, or prize freedom, or value the family. That turns everybody off. Joseph of Egypt moved into his high position in Pharoah’s court from a convict’s uniform, not on a white horse.”

When he teaches law students, sooner or later a case will allow him to teach another kind of lesson:

What if the only way a lawyer can gain an advantage for himself or for his client is to misrepresent the facts? “If you stop to weigh how important that advantage is, you’re asking the wrong question,” he tells them. “You’re putting your professional and personal future in the hands of any person who could, thereafter, get you on the witness stand and ask you to testify under oath whether you did or did not make that statement. If you tell the truth, you are admitting that you lied previously. If you lie again, you have perjured yourself. Do you like those options? Does it matter what the advantage is?”

Then he relaxes the mood with the story of a crook who asked a bookkeeper to juggle his employer’s books for a million dollars. Overcome by the sum, the employee agreed. “Okay,” said the crook. “Here’s a hundred dollars. Now get started.” The bookkeeper bristled. “What do you think I am, a thief?” he demanded. The crook eyed him wearily. “We’ve already established that,” he pointed out. “Now we’re just dickering over the price.”

One would think that teaching law, being president of BYU, and serving on a hospital board while also serving as Regional Representative would be enough to keep him occupied. But during his tenure, he also coauthored with Marvin S. Hill Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (University of Illinois Press, 1975.) It won the Mormon History Association’s best book award for 1976. Jenny June now five, was born, “our child of promise, longed for and prayed for,” says her mother. He also sandwiched in the chairmanship of the presidents’ council of the Western Athletic Conference; the Wilson Council of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and served seven years as an officer—including three years as president—for the American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities, on the advisory council of Notre Dame Law School’s Center for Constitutional Studies, on the Union Pacific Corporation’s board of directors, on the Deseret News’s board of directors, and on the Public Broadcasting Service’s board of directors—where he is now chairman.

After his release as university president in August 1980, Sister Oaks says, “People always asked me if I saw more of Dallin. The answer was no. And I didn’t expect to. He likes being busy.”

Since 1 January 1981, Brother Oaks has been serving as a Justice of the Utah Supreme Court.

In spite of his commitment to the bench, he finds time to involve himself in other affairs. It’s not just busy-for-busy’s sake, though. “Time is a stewardship,” says Brother Oaks, “and my goal is simply not to waste any time.” This involves using a telephone rather than calling a meeting. If a meeting is necessary, he makes it a short one. He always carries things to read with him. Since warm water “stimulates my mind,” he saves projects to think about in the tub. Driving is another place for thinking and dictating notes. Watching television is also a time for reading the paper. On the principle that a horse runs faster on the way back home, he does his work first, knowing that there will always be energy to play.

He also groups activities. “It’s faster for me to make all of my phone calls at once, to read through all of my correspondence and then dictate all of the answers, to save a stack of reading—with the most intensive material on top. It’s hard for me to change mental gears. June’s different. She loves to have three or four jobs going all at once. That would drive me crazy. I make lists. She doesn’t. And it’s been good for our children to see two strong models of two different styles.”

His work requires a lot of reading, and when he has the chance for some pleasure reading, it’s also carefully planned. Just out of law school, he decided he wanted to know the Prophet Joseph Smith better, so he worked his way through the seven volumes of History of the Church, a few pages each day. Next came Winston Churchill’s History of English-Speaking Peoples, in which he studied the style as seriously as he absorbed the information. Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s three-volume commentary on the New Testament was followed by Carl Sandberg’s multivolume biography of Lincoln. Always he savored the style.

“Now remember I’m talking about taking several years at each one of these works,” he says. “But it’s been influential on my writing. My goal is to write and speak wholesome, elegant prose—and it helps to read writers who have already achieved it.”

Few of the listeners who hear his polished, clear presentations guess that each has gone through about eight drafts. He typically starts several months in advance, if he can, collecting ideas, dictating parts as they occur to him, putting them together, going back over them, and filing patiently away at rough spots until they please him.

Typically his speeches combine the scriptures with insight and personal application. When he spoke to his BYU faculty in 1977, his theme was taken from the scriptures commanding the Kirtland Saints to “organize yourselves, prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning” (D&C 88:119). Focusing on the “house of faith,” he observed that from his window in the administration building, he could look north across the campus to the Missionary Training Center and the temple. “I tell the visitors who share this sight that these three institutions—university, mission, and temple—are three of the most powerful institutions on the face of the earth. … After studying the 88th section, I see even more clearly the common origins of all three institutions in a single great revelation.”

He likes quotations and uses them—Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Oxford Dictionary of Quotations neighbor Alternatives to Probate and Messages of the First Presidency on his bookshelves—but his own incisive clarity hallmarks his body of work. Sister Oaks observes thoughtfully, “People can understand what he says. I can tell that they like to listen to him and that they pay attention. He never sounds as though he’s talking down to anyone even when it’s something he knows more about than most people.”

He has analyzed his own work style and knows what’s best for him. For instance, he takes seriously the scriptural admonition: “Cease to sleep longer than is needful” (D&C 88:124). What’s needful for him is about six and a half hours—so that’s what he takes, “six if I need more working time, seven if I’m trying to catch up on lost sleep.”

Sometimes the most efficient way for him to get work done seems indirect. “Sleep is the one temptation I always succumb to. If walking around doesn’t get my blood circulating again, I’ll put my head down for a ten minute nap.” If he’s preparing a talk for Church, “it saves time to read the scriptures until I feel the Spirit. Starting in to work on a talk directly means that I’ll always have to back up and start over.”

He also takes time out from “sawing” to “sharpen the saw.” Hard-bought hours outdoors at their canyon home are usually spent in vigorous hiking. June goes along but regards his climbing from a respectful distance. She has a trick knee that won’t let her climb, although she makes it run forty-five minutes a day—something she’s never succeeded in getting Dallin to try. However, they meet on one of her most avid interests—tennis.

Gardening is another of Dallin’s interests, but it is more than another chore to him. “I can’t express why, but I feel it,” he says, searching for words. “Everybody needs to keep in touch with nature, with the rhythm of the earth. Somehow it’s bad for people when they can’t. There’s something humbling there, something like being in tune with the Spirit.”

And that’s something he and June have in common—a great love of gardening. “I like to do things that last!” Sister Oaks exclaims. “Besides gardening, I love to refinish furniture, sew, knit, and write my own music.” She also likes to cook—“and I admit I’m a good one,” she laughs. Cooking for dinner parties of up to eighteen and preparing all of the refreshments for parties of forty has been routine.

Discipline and measured relaxation are not the only keys to Dallin’s productivity. Another element—which he calls efficiency—is having good relationships at home. “A disagreement with June just wipes me out. Since I know I can’t work until I get it resolved, and since I’m usually wrong anyway …” (his smile flashes), “I just apologize as soon as I can.” June’s version is a little different: “He’s like his mother in that he never, never criticizes anyone. I’ve never heard him say anything unkind about anyone, and we’ve been married almost thirty years.”

This doesn’t mean that an unnatural aura of sweetness and light surrounds the Oaks household. “Our children can’t claim that they’ve never heard us disagree,” says Brother Oaks almost gleefully. “June and I have had some marvelous disagreements, but we’ve always worked them out.” This is a marriage where respect for difference—in workstyles, time sense, hobbies, and tastes—is held at a premium.

Part of that respect is clothed in the love and affection expressed in their home. “You hear ‘I love you’ a lot—oftener than once a day—and ‘you’re wonderful,’ too. Our kids are very secure, and I think that security extends to times when we’ve been separated. They’re somehow still in the home even when they’re out of the house.”

Making time for the family is also part of Dallin’s routine. He has always worked long days, but some of those hours come at home. “I go home for dinner,” he says simply, and there are tons of bulging briefcases behind that statement. Mealtimes are relaxed and casual, with people catching up on one another’s day. Twenty-four-year-old Lloyd and nineteen-year-old TruAnn, both BYU students, are living at home.

“If I had it all to do over again as a father, I would have tried to spend more time with the children, even though I appreciated how considerate they were of my work,” he says wistfully. By working at home, though, he was accessible—and they did take advantage of it.

Both Dallin and June are appreciative and solidly respectful of their children. “We’ve been blessed with wonderful children,” they say. “They’re really good—anxious to please us and their Heavenly Father. They wanted to marry in the temple. They wanted to serve missions.” Sister Oaks praises their openness, Brother Oaks their values. “Somehow they knew what was important to us, and those same things were important to them.”

As we would expect, the process had begun at least in the previous generation. Dallin had never felt tempted to drink or smoke while growing up because he couldn’t bear to violate his mother’s trust on things he knew were important to her. “There were plenty of things my mother hadn’t thought of, and I found plenty of trouble to get into,” he grins, “but on the things that were really important, there were no mistakes.”

Dallin’s home was also the source of his deep and abiding love of the scriptures. Now he reads them “repeatedly and regularly,” but claims that he is “no great scriptorian. I’m a great user of indexes. My method of studying the scriptures is to read them and think how they apply to me personally. Stories and their concepts are what strike me most deeply.”

His feelings about prayer are also rooted in his early home life, in the prayers his mother used to offer. A woman of immense faith, she would call on the Lord with perfect confidence when special blessings were needed.

Brother Oaks remembers that she would review in her prayers their commitments and covenants, “almost reminding the Lord that we had paid our tithes and offerings, that the desired blessing was, as nearly as we could judge, a righteous desire, that we were serving in our various callings to the best of our ability, and that now we were laying hold on the Lord’s promises. I can’t communicate the sincerity and the fervor of those pleas. Or the sincerity of the way she lived. She said once that she always paid her tithes and offerings because then the Lord would make things happen that she couldn’t. And he did.

“Because my mother had no doubts about the Lord’s reality and his ability to answer her prayers, I haven’t either.” He paused. “This is a very personal thing to talk about and I don’t very often, because it’s hard to do without sounding overconfident. But I would be scared to death to try and undertake something without asking for the Lord’s help, so I always pray for that help, and I’ve never failed to get it. Personal revelation is part of my faith and part of my approach to life. All my adult life I’ve had responsibilities for which I’ve needed a lot of extra help, but when I’ve had the assurance of the Lord’s help, I’ve never been afraid to go ahead. Coming to BYU was a big challenge, but I wasn’t afraid. I knew I could do it because I’d received that assurance.”

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, June Dixon Oaks, relaxing at home with their daughter Jenny June.

Dallin and his son Lloyd reviewing family genealogy.