Jeffrey R. Holland: A Style All His Own
June 1983

“Jeffrey R. Holland: A Style All His Own,” Ensign, June 1983, 44

Jeffrey R. Holland:

A Style All His Own

Imagine a popular speaker who never took a speech class; an avid—almost obsessive—reader who never reads a bestseller; a top-notch ski salesman who has never been on skis; an athlete who once lettered in basketball, football, baseball, and track but now has to be prodded even to jog.

Envision a small-town teenager, caught up with the idea of building and racing hot rods for a living, one day graduating from college with highest honors, obtaining a master’s degree with distinction, and then receiving his Ph.D. at Yale University. Or picture the high-school “funny man”—uninterested in going on a mission—finding himself becoming an institute teacher, then Dean of Religious Instruction, then Commissioner of Church Education, and finally president of the world’s largest church-owned university.


As an embodiment of these fascinating paradoxes, Brigham Young University’s president, Jeffrey R. Holland, may seem an enigma. But, with his very determined and clear-cut notions of BYU’s mission and destiny, he could hardly be described as wishy-washy. He is, instead, a many-faceted personality gifted with an enviable ability to approach life from multiple viewpoints simultaneously.

Jeffrey R. Holland

This reconciliation of opposites in President Holland goes back at least as far as his parents: for Frank D. Holland had been the unschooled, non-Mormon son of an Irish coalminer in Park City before he joined the Church and married Alice Bentley of St. George, Utah—a well-educated daughter of dyed-in-the-wool Mormon stock long dedicated to higher learning.

“I grew up,” Jeffrey Holland says, “with the interesting cross-section of a father really quite new and sometimes even uncomfortable in the Church, whose family—what few we knew—were not members, and a mother who came from a long tradition of Latter-day Saints with their pioneer stories and all the values of home and family.”

Nevertheless, it was as much from his father as from his mother that Jeff Holland inherited his thirst for education. “For someone unschooled beyond junior high school,” he recalls, “my Dad was very verbal and loved learning. There was an insatiable hunger there. I remember taking him, when he was in his early sixties, to the bookstore at Yale and watching him move, almost literally on his hands and knees, through the stacks of the bookstore. He was delirious, like a child in a toy store.”

Thus, paradoxically, it was both of Jeff Holland’s parents who were committed to education: “My dad,” he recalls, “because he didn’t get any; and my mother, because she had been a very bright student and both of her parents had been school teachers. So from my earliest years, I always knew I was to study. That was very clear at our house.”

A promising student himself, young Jeff Holland nevertheless went through a period where athletics seemed more important than any of the other things he studied while he attended Woodward Jr. High and then Dixie High School. Lettering in basketball, baseball, football, and track, Jeff also became aware, at this time, of the new, pretty dark-eyed cheerleader named Patricia Terry.

“Jeff was always a very good athlete,” Pat Terry Holland recalls. “I especially liked to watch him play basketball. I admired his ability, and besides that, he had cute legs.”

Although Jeff remembers himself as “self-conscious” during these years, Pat had a different impression of him. She remembers their first meeting when, at sixteen, she moved with her family from a small farm in Enterprise, Utah, to St. George: “I remember writing home to my cousin about how I had just met the smartest boy in school, who was also a terrible tease, and even though I couldn’t stand him at the time, I had the strangest feeling, even then, that, when I was older, I would marry him.”

And Jeff soon began to feel the influence of this shy new girl who was to change his life forever. “No one in my family had ever gone on a mission,” Brother Holland recalls. “But when I met Pat and we became reasonably serious, I could see that she was very firm about the fact that I should go.” In addition to receiving Pat’s strong encouragements, Jeffrey Holland became conscious of a genuine growing desire of his own to fulfill a mission. And though he was barely nineteen at the time—and missionaries then were not sent until they were twenty—the policy was in transition and he was encouraged by his bishop and stake president to make a special appeal to the Brethren to see if an exception might be made. Ten days later he received his call to the British Mission.

“As an experience outside those I’ve had with my parents or my wife and children, my mission was unquestionably the single most important, most pivotal, most persuasive experience in my life. Now that’s a cliche, I know,” Brother Holland adds, “but I think perhaps a mission matters more to some than others, and for me, it meant everything. If I had been hit by a Mack truck, I don’t think it could have been any more stunning or more permanent in its effect. It either substantiated or dramatically changed—in a good way—every goal, feeling, or aspiration I had ever had.”

Brother Holland sentimentally recalls one experience early in his mission when an old man in his eighties—a member of the Church who fixed bicycles for a living and always fixed the elders’ bikes free—came riding up to their door one night in a torrent of rain to see if the elders would come and administer to his wife. “That really touched me,” Brother Holland remembers. “I was very moved that this eighty-year-old man would venture through the heavy East Anglian rain to seek out the spiritual help of two young boys.” Slowly dying, but in such pain that she had not slept for forty-eight hours, the frail little lady was administered to by the young Elder Holland and his companion.

“It was the first time I had ever done that, being a new missionary of just two weeks,” Brother Holland reflects, “and I remember leaving the old fellow and his wife up in the room as we went downstairs in their tiny house to put on our raincoats and get ready to go out. And then he came down—this sweet little old man with his soiled, bike-repairing hands—and he dabbed at his eyes and managed to say, through his emotions, ‘She’s sleeping now.’

“I remember vividly going out into that rain and weeping, conscious of a spiritual revelation—a kind of ‘coming-to-realize-what-I-had’ feeling not unlike T. S. Eliot’s line at the end of Four Quartets: ‘The end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time.’ (“Little Gidding,” lines 891–97.) There were many other considerably more miraculous things that happened throughout my mission,” Brother Holland admits, “but none perhaps that touched me more deeply than this first manifestation which caused me, an average raised-in-the-Church, seminary-attending boy from southern Utah who had never really been anywhere, to examine my own values, and my own priesthood, and my own faith—and really see that they worked.”

Serving under three uniquely different mission presidents, T. Bowring Woodbury and Marion D. Hanks of the British Mission, and N. Eldon Tanner of the West European Mission, the young Elder Holland grew rapidly. “I don’t know of a time in a young man’s life that is more focused and concentrated than a mission. You sweep so much of everything else away for that time. And no one man walks into your life in that period like your mission president: he’s your father, he’s your friend, he’s your counselor and teacher, he’s the Lord’s representative—he’s everything. Probably never before or ever again does any one man represent so many personal virtues to a young man than a mission president does.”

Jeff Holland left for his mission with every intention of going into medicine, but something in that experience suggested that he would not do so. He left the mission sensing that medicine was not for him, yet unwilling to accept what he came increasingly to feel: that he should teach.

Brother Holland recognizes that the inner urgings that had pulled him away from the medical field and drawn him toward teaching were probably distrusted at first because he realized that every missionary, having devoted two years of his life to teaching, inevitably comes home with a certain amount of enthusiasm for the profession. “Perhaps because of that, I really came home resisting it—almost unwilling to acknowledge it—and as a result spent the next three years working toward the completion of my baccalaureate degree without a clear understanding of what I wanted to do.”

Coming home, for Jeffrey Holland, was not without its own paradox—for returning mingled with parting: his parents had been called to serve in his same mission and arrived just as he was leaving. Furthermore, although Patricia Terry had waited faithfully for him, just as he had hoped, his arrival home came only a few weeks before she was to leave for a year to study music in the East.

“When he returned,” Pat remembers with a smile, “we knew immediately that it was all there—and in a couple of weeks we were engaged. But then it was I who was leaving. We thought that if our romance had endured two years and was still that good, then surely it would endure another year while I continued my music training.”

But although that year allowed Jeffrey Holland to graduate from Dixie College before he and Pat married and then moved to Provo to complete their studies at BYU, it did not yet find him reconciled to the promptings he had felt to become a teacher. For a while he considered law school, then business, then a string of other vocational possibilities, while they lived in a $45-a-month two-room apartment, continued their classes, and worked—Pat taking care of new accounts at State Bank of Provo and Jeff as a salesman at Provo Sporting Goods.

“I sold thousands of dollars worth of skis and—to this day—I have never been on a pair of skis,” Brother Holland laughs.

“It’s his Irish gift of blarney,” Pat smiles. “Jeff has always had a real way with words.”

Indeed, it was Brother Holland’s verbal skills as well as his academic promise that prompted Dr. Robert K. Thomas to approach him in his senior year, not long after he had finally declared himself an English major and a history minor, with the prospects of becoming one of the first students, straight from the undergraduate experience, to teach religion at BYU as a graduate assistant.

Brother Holland admits that the offer surprised him. Using graduate students to teach religion hadn’t really been done before, but they approached him—and suddenly the idea of gospel teaching on a university level seemed like an answer to prayer. “It turned out to be a great experience for me,” says Brother Holland, “and, along with the teaching, I obtained a master’s degree in Religious Education.”

By now, intoxicated with the rewards of teaching, he went on to teach institute classes in Hayward, California, and Seattle, Washington. Then in 1969 he, Pat, their three-year-old son, Matthew, and their six-week old daughter, Mary Alice, left for Yale University where, for the next three intense years, Jeffrey worked on a second master’s and a Ph.D. in American Studies. “These were lean, powerful years,” says Brother Holland. “I can honestly say that, for all of our poverty, our sacrifices, and our challenges, that graduate experience in New Haven, Connecticut, was one of the important watershed experiences of our lives. Above all, it refined our spiritual commitment: our church opportunities there were at least as important in our education as the Yale academic experience was.” Sister Holland taught M.I.A., was president of the Primary, then president of the Relief Society. Brother Holland was called into a stake presidency.

Already having served in Seattle as a bishop’s counselor and then as a bishop, Brother Holland first gained experience in Connecticut as a high councilor and then as a counselor in two different stake presidencies. He also took on the task of teaching institute classes at Yale and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst while working dedicatedly on his Ph.D.

Though he was later able to see clearly a design governing what took place during these years, Brother Holland admits having felt at the end of graduate school some of the same haziness blurring the future that had dogged him near the completion of his B.A., almost eight years earlier. Having crammed four years of graduate study into three, taken his preliminary exams early, and sent Pat and the two children back to Utah while he worked almost around the clock to complete his dissertation on “Mark Twain’s Religious Sense,” Jeffrey Holland was still not sure exactly what goal he was being pulled toward nor why he was in such a frenzy to finish his academic work.

Something, however, prompted him to turn down a tempting offer to stay on at Yale, as well as an offer to join the faculty at BYU. “We talked long and often, Pat and I, about what we should do next—and got a most dramatic answer to our prayer: we somehow felt compelled to come back to the seminary and institute program of the Church—in many ways the least likely of all our prospects. My professors at Yale thought I was deranged. They couldn’t imagine such a thing.”

But no sooner had he returned to Salt Lake City and started teaching for the LDS Institute, than Brother Holland was asked to serve as director of the new Church-wide Melchizedek Priesthood Young Adult and Special Interest Program. This assignment—one which involved daily training from the General Authorities—was followed by a new one: an appointment as Dean of Religious Instruction at BYU—an exciting and heavy challenge for someone who had not yet even served as a full-time faculty member on any college campus. With a new son, David, added to the family, the Hollands and their three children moved to Provo.

Scarcely a year and a half had gone by before a new link was added to the surprising chain of events in the life of the still young man from St. George, Utah. In the spring of 1976 he was asked to return to Salt Lake City as Commissioner of Education for the Church’s entire world-wide educational program. Involving over 750,000 full-time and part-time students, four colleges, institute programs on 498 campuses, 71 elementary schools, 54 countries, and 17 different languages, Church Education kept Jeff Holland even busier than usual during those next four years.

But in this head-spinning chain of events, what was perhaps the greatest challenge yet lay ahead. Still in his thirties, Jeffrey R. Holland was suddenly called to be Brigham Young University’s ninth president.

Challenged by President Spencer W. Kimball at his inauguration to help BYU become an “educational Mt. Everest,” President Jeffrey Holland has responded enthusiastically. Striving to make BYU the “Harvard of the West” might be a worthy enough goal for some, but President Holland has gone on record as preferring to see Harvard and Yale fighting “to see who can become the BYU of the East!”

“I confess that I am an incurable, unrequited, fatally afflicted romantic. Camelot is a slum section compared to my dreams for BYU. … The air should be rarefied here.” In his second year, he formulated a statement of what he sees as BYU’s purpose. Asking all of the University’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni to join in a “call to high adventure,” President Holland wants to ensure that the BYU experience will “provide a period of intensive learning in a stimulating setting where commitment to excellence is expected and the full realization of human potential is pursued.”

With space at BYU now at a premium, there is little room for the sluggish, the half-hearted, the uncommitted. “It is in every way a privilege and not a right,” says President Holland, “for us to be here at BYU.” The students who receive this privilege must be “those who love learning, who love Christian living, and who want to make a constructive contribution to their world.” Upon leaving BYU, a student should not only be well-educated but “absolutely value-laden,” President Holland stresses. It will be this emphasis on moral values as well as scholarly information that will make BYU, as it should be, “a conspicuously Latter-day Saint school,” and thus a “truly distinctive” and “transcendently true university”—“a center of learning for the kingdom that is as spectacular in its scholarship as it is firm in its faith and powerful in its priesthood.”

A very visible university president, he is always there on the front row of any sports event. And you can find him at the symphony or the opening of a new play as well as catch him at a review of the university’s computer-aided design and manufacturing program. Moved easily and deeply by things spiritual, he is nevertheless always prepared to see the humor inevitably inherent in the challenges of this life. Though he refers to himself as more of “a private person” than a “joiner,” he often joins the students in the lunch line at BYU’s Cougareat and has, on occasion, accepted an invitation to bring his wife to dinner with students in their apartments.

He plays down panoply and ritual: his initial address to the faculty as president did away with the customary string of deans and administrators on the stand in order to approximate a more informal fireside-chat atmosphere, and, referring to the annual faculty banquet as “the family dinner,” he urged as many as possible to sit around the pulpit so that it “might be as much like a living-room experience as we can make it.” Admitting that “meetings are grossly overestimated as a means of communication or management,” he has tried to be an open and accessible administrator. He prefers meeting faculty and students in the classrooms and hallways and lunchrooms, rather than limiting himself to formal interviews and appointments within the four walls of the President’s office.

But this is not to say that he does not spend long hours in his office. Though it might seem, as one expressed it, that President Holland “carries the burdens of his office as easily as if he were carrying the Saturday-morning newspaper,” his wife notes that he often spends eighteen-hour days at work. “Jeff has no hobbies—just his family and his work. Fortunately he loves both,” she sighs. The typical Holland day begins in their home on the university campus at 5:00 A.M. when Pat and Jeff rise to exercise, go bicycling, or—somewhat begrudgingly, President Holland admits even jog. Family prayer, scripture reading, and breakfast come next, and by 6:00 A.M. high-school junior Matt is already off to basketball practice and eighth-grader Mary Alice is practicing the piano.

Evenings are usually taken up with invitations to university honor banquets, award nights, student activities, or fine-art functions, but the Hollands try to keep Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays reserved for family activities.

Reading provides a favorite pastime and is closest to a hobby for Jeff Holland. Now, with his time extremely limited, Brother Holland says he agrees with Emerson: “Never read a book that is not a year old.” Unimpressed by best-selling fiction, he finds his greatest pleasure catching up on a neglected classic chosen from his detailed list of authors he wants to read, contemporary nonfiction, or, perhaps, even more, reading “substantial expressions of faith from Christians who have had to come to it the hard way”—writers like St. Augustine, Teressa of Avilla, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, George Macdonald, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor. And whatever else he may be reading, the scriptures will get first priority. “I read some scripture every day. I can’t give that guarantee to anything else,” he confides.

Prose style, for Jeff Holland, is as important as content. For years he has read and admired Lincoln and Churchill. He still remembers standing, as a teenager, in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., reading both the Gettysburg address and Lincoln’s second inaugural speech and literally weeping at the beauty of the language. “I had the same feeling later as a missionary in Britain when I came across Churchill’s war speeches,” Brother Holland recalls. “Again, I dissolved into tears just hearing that kind of language and realizing how it could really lift an entire nation and, in this case, win a war. President Kimball has that same majestic command of language. One way or another, all the prophets have.”

Now a gifted speaker in his own right, Jeff Holland himself exhibits an enviable facility with language. His fondness for alliteration can be seen when he talks to BYU students of “double-digit depression.” And he loves imagery: “Cynicism is a crutch for a withered soul,” he once warned young scholars. And he remembers the right aphorism at the right time—such as the comment by Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye when so many feelings have to be soothed: “The only result of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is that everybody’s finally blind and toothless.”

And perhaps it’s his own wit, as much as anything, that makes Brother Holland’s writings and speeches so distinctively his. He successfully sprinkles his spontaneous humor throughout his public speeches as he refers to his days in St. George as B.B.—“before Bloomington” and says that, in regard to the jogging craze sweeping the nation, “I am standing fast.”

Even friendly echoes of the style of Mark Twain himself seem to reverberate through some of President Holland’s speeches:

“If there is one lament I cannot abide—and I hear it from adults as well as students—it is the poor, pitiful, withered cry, ‘Well, that’s just the way I am.’ If you want to talk about discouragement, that is one thing that discourages me. Though not a swearing man I am always sorely tempted to try my hand when hearing that. Please spare me your speeches about ‘that’s just the way I am.’ I’ve heard that from too many people who wanted to sin and call it psychology.”

It is this interest in religion and its application to help individuals become better that is at the core of Jeffrey Holland. Wherever he is—and now he finds himself in the university community and serving as a Regional Representative as well Brother Holland has sought ways to internalize the Lord’s call to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5.)

With such a deeply-placed inner gyrocompass guiding his life and his relationships with others, it is easy to see why the General Authorities have asked him to preside over the Church’s educational flagship, Brigham Young University.

  • Donald R. Marshall, professor of humanities at Brigham Young University, lives in the Oak Hills Third Ward, Provo, Utah.

Photography by Mark Philbrick and Don Marshall

Above: An overview of the BYU campus. Inset: Brother Holland visits with students.

Jeffrey and Pat Holland with their children: Mary Alice, Matthew, and David.