David Forsythe: Keeping Life in Perspective
July 1984

“David Forsythe: Keeping Life in Perspective,” Ensign, July 1984, 41–43

David Forsythe:

Keeping Life in Perspective

The view from thirty-seven stories above midtown Manhattan is awe-inspiring. On a sparkling clear afternoon the setting sun’s rays slant through skyscraper canyons, lending an air of majesty to the steel and glass facades.

From Dave Forsyth’s office in the southwest corner of the McGraw-Hill building, the panorama stretches to the south, where the Statue of Liberty raises her torch in the distance. The Empire State Building rises on the left. And on the right flashes the fluorescence of Times Square. Through the blaze to the west lies the Hudson River; beyond, New Jersey.

New York is a city rich in contrasts. On the one hand, it encourages and rewards high achievement—in the arts, in business, and in education. On the other, its particular stresses and temptations can try the strength of the firmest character. But Brother Forsyth seems to have mastered the art of living well in this paradoxical place. As vice-president of research for McGraw-Hill—a consummate professional facing a challenging business world—he maintains a commitment to people and principle.

Perhaps perspective is as important a key to Brother Forsyth’s success as any. He himself attributes this perspective to “the legacy of an LDS upbringing, heavily saturated with gospel virtues.” And it is the gospel, says Brother Forsyth, “that makes it possible or me to prioritize values, to determine what aspects of life are to be emphasized.”

Dave Forsyth grew up in Price, Utah, the son of faithful, believing parents. His mother, Abbie, had come as a young woman from Logan, Utah, to teach school in Price. There she met Sterling Forsyth, an enterprising young man who had taught himself accounting to get through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

When young Dave was just six, his parents moved with their family (Dave now had one brother and two sisters) to a coal mining town in the mountains outside Price. “It was a glorious childhood,” Brother Forsyth recalls. “I see ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and feel right at home—except that we had separate classrooms in our school.”

Watching during his growing-up years as his father served as bishop, young Dave began to learn the value of each soul. Bishop Sterling Forsyth’s deep love for the people he served was typified by the way he sometimes filled ward callings.

“Dad would go into this small coal mining town where there were a lot of backsliders,” his son remembers. “The man might be the heaviest smoker, yet Dad might call him as his counselor in the bishopric. Then he’d help him from complete inactivity to activity. We’d see the changes in these men and women, and in their whole families.”

The lesson deepened when Dave Forsyth became teachers quorum president. On the verge of giving up on his efforts to activate one particular boy, Dave sought his father’s advice. “‘What if we had given up on. …’ Dad asked, and he named two or three families that had become active. Then he added, ‘Always be sure that you give people a chance to repent. Never give up on someone.’ It was one of the lessons I will never forget,” says Brother Forsyth.

Indeed, he never has forgotten the worth of individuals. Coworkers see Brother Forsyth’s unusual concern for others as a hallmark of his management style. When his administrative assistant was having surgery in Philadelphia, she recalls that her boss drove all the way from New York City after work to see her, arriving at 8:00 P.M. She contrasts his concern for his employees with many other executives who “don’t really care.” This concern brings out the best in those he works with.

Dave Forsyth’s career in the print media began when, as a high school senior, he became editor of the Carbon Junior College newspaper. (In those days in Carbon County, the last two years of high school and the first two years of college were combined in one school.) When he was offered a scholarship as a college freshman to continue as editor, he was delighted. “That was the extent of my life’s ambition,” he recalls.

But his parents, feeling their son needed a little exposure to the world, suggested he find summer work in Provo and take a couple of university classes on the side. As they suspected, once their son got to BYU, he loved it and decided to stay.

At BYU he wrote for the campus Universe (now the Daily Universe) and held down two evening jobs—assistant manager at a local restaurant and printer for yearbook photos at the BYU Photo Studio.

It was in a mythology class at BYU that Dave first met Carmela Tanner. “I noticed a couple of those ‘stuck-up Provo girls,’ and one had red hair,” he recalls. Then one day Carmela stopped and offered him a ride to class. They talked, but that was all.

After two years at BYU, Brother Forsyth accepted a call to the British Isles Mission, where Carmela’s boyfriend had been sent a few months earlier. Each happy to find a familiar face, the two missionaries became fast friends. Thus it was that Elder Forsyth got to read Carmela’s letters and listen to her tapes. Carmela didn’t find out until years later, but her husband claims he knew “more about Carmela Tanner than Carmela Tanner did.”

A powerful lesson in faith and humility came when Elder Forsyth was called to serve as president of the two-thousand-member Wales District. The duties of his calling often included counseling with members. “Here I was, a twenty-year-old boy, sitting down with a couple who had marital problems. I would say, ‘Well, brother and sister, I’d like to do some thinking about this,’ and we’d make an appointment for the next evening.” He would then run to phone President Stayner Richards (Assistant to the Twelve and mission president) to ask his advice. By the next night he was ready to give the couple wise counsel on how to improve their lives. “It really humbled me,” recalls Brother Forsyth. “Until then, I had thought the boy from Carbon County knew so much.”

After his mission, Brother Forsyth continued his journalism studies at BYU—receiving the Deseret News summer internship and serving as editor of the Universe.

But his studies did not prevent him from accepting a call to teach the thirteen-year-olds in his ward. To his surprise, at his first Sunday School faculty meeting he saw that Provo redhead he’d learned all about on his mission. Carmela Tanner was teaching the nine-year-olds.

They often walked to meetings together, and one day Dave asked Carmela out. A month later they were inseparable, and two months later they were engaged. And on 6 May 1954, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple by Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve.

Within a few weeks, Brother Forsyth graduated in journalism and was drafted into the United States Army. So the young couple spent the first three years of their marriage in the fairy-tale setting of Heidelberg, Germany. They learned German and bought a little car to travel around the continent. Brother Forsyth taught the Gospel Doctrine class in the serviceman’s group (the counterpart of a branch), served in the group presidency, and helped build the Heidelberg chapel.

After his army service, Brother Forsyth received a scholarship to study magazine journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. While he earned his master’s degree, his growing family (by now including Tammy and Todd) lived in an eight-by-thirty-foot trailer—a little cramped, but full of love. After a year of teaching at the University of Iowa, the Forsyths returned to Evanston, where Dave earned his doctoral degree in business journalism at Medill. His dissertation on the history of the business press in America was published in 1964. (Several more volumes on the same subject are projects for the future.)

The birth of a second son, Tom, brought both a challenge and a blessing to the Forsyth family, for at about ten months of age, Tom was found to be completely deaf. “At first we asked, ‘Why is this happening to us, and to Tom?’” Brother Forsyth remembers, “But soon you look to the scriptures and that is what gives you the sanity and strength you need.”

Todd, who has always been close to Tom, believes his brother’s deafness has “unified us and brought us to a sensitivity we would never have had.” Tom has been patient while the family has learned sign language. Brother Forsyth explains, “It has taken different types of spiritual insights to understand and get through this experience. And it is a process that doesn’t take a day or a month, but years.”

Soon after Tom was born, Dave was asked by one of his Medill professors to create for the university a doctoral program in business and journalism like the one he had developed for himself. But, feeling that he needed some practical experience first, Brother Forsyth, now thirty-one, took his first publishing job at Chilton Publishing in Philadelphia.

So he entered Chilton’s research group, intending to return to Medill after working in each area of the company. But when his professor at Medill died, Brother Forsyth decided to stay with Chilton, where he spent seven years helping build Chilton’s research group into the largest business advertising readership program in the country. He also found time to devote to teaching a Gospel Doctrine class, then to serving in the stake Sunday School presidency and on the high council.

In 1968, another professional challenge came along. A former Chilton executive who had formed his own business magazine consulting firm asked Brother Forsyth to set up a research division for the firm. So the Forsyths left the Philadelphia area to settle permanently in North Caldwell, New Jersey. During the next eight years, Brother Forsyth helped Hagen Communications become a fine research company, with clients such as McGraw-Hill.

With another son, Terry, in the ranks, the family had now grown to six. Although Brother Forsyth’s professional life was demanding, he kept his family responsibilities in perspective. “He was always there for me,” recalls his daughter Tammy (now married and living with her husband and her own daughter in Pueblo, Colorado). Whether it was to help type and edit a report all night long or just to talk, she could count on her father. “He was so open-minded that we were able to talk about anything at home.”

The Forsyths had to be inventive to find ways to use the minutes and hours Dave could spend with them. In the car, Brother Forsyth would quiz the children on verb tenses or the multiplication tables, or he’d have them name the Apostles or prophets in order. “It was always a game,” recalls Tammy, “so we’d just gobble it up without realizing we were learning.”

Sunday afternoon was “family home evening” time because Tom returned to his deaf school in Trenton on Sunday night. After the family lesson or program, Tom and his dad would take over the blackboard in the kitchen for gospel study. “Perhaps one week we would take up the topic of the priesthood,” his father recalls. “We’d talk about each of the offices and what they do. Then Tom would write them down and take them to school with him. The next week, we’d have a review.”

Tom, now twenty-one, is thankful for the hours at the blackboard with his father. And Brother Forsyth feels all the hard work was well worth it. “The biggest thrill for me was meeting that young man coming off the plane from his mission in February 1983. The mission president said that Tom had shown great strength and maturity. He knows the gospel and can teach it.”

The Forsyth children began learning to be responsible even before they began school. At age five, each child was keeping a weekly budget showing income, disbursements, and a balance carried over each week. This no doubt helped son Terry in the mission field (he recently returned from Colombia). And Tammy has found this training invaluable. “It was drilled into us that you should fulfill your obligations, and once you’ve made a commitment, you do the best you can. I see the difference around me in people who never learned the value of following through on what they say they will do.”

Brother Forsyth’s personal integrity is an attribute his coworkers appreciate too. “Dave Forsyth is a man of principle,” says Dave’s boss, Eric Herr, vice-president of planning and development at McGraw-Hill. “You can see that in the way he deals with people. He always delivers what he says he will when he says he will.

Brother Forsyth has been with McGraw-Hill since 1977. As a senior executive, he has learned the subtle difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law in living the gospel. “The big things are easy,” he says. “It’s the greys you have to concentrate on. The test is in how we handle those things that aren’t quite dark or light, like the personal habits we have. They may not be evident to the world, but they are what the individual has to master before he or she can progress.”

When he speaks to groups of young people, Brother Forsyth is often asked what he does about the Word of Wisdom in the business world. “I say, all you do is live it.” And he advises them to live it from the very beginning of their careers, “because if you compromise the first time, you may set your path for the rest of your business life.”

His associates know which path he has chosen, and often watch out for his interests. “Sometimes I’ll be standing with another executive at a cocktail party when the waiter comes by with drinks. Before I can even speak, the executive requests, ‘Bring him orange juice.’”

He lets himself be known as a Latter-day Saint, but in a very natural way. “I just do the things I normally do, and people ask questions. It is going to come up just because of our life-style. When I am lunching with friends at McGraw-Hill, I’m often asked, ‘Tell me, what is a Mormon?’ Then I am pleased to tell them. The most fun is when someone will come into my office with an article they have found and ask questions about the Church.”

Brother Forsyth’s current calling as head of the New York/New Jersey biregional public communications council gives him plenty of opportunities to share his perspectives on life. And he sees a similar role for every member of the Church. “We must live so that our actions impinge on the consciousness of others. True missionary work is not only searching out and being friendly to people, hoping they will be baptized. It is reaching out and becoming such an integral part of our community that our fellow workers and next door neighbors become our most ardent defenders.”

An example of Brother Forsyth’s approach in spreading community awareness of the Church came some years ago when he was stake public communications director. He initiated an experimental program in which a member couple was called to attend town meetings and take part in community affairs.

Brother Forsyth has also organized a Good Samaritan program in North Caldwell. For the event, the community was invited to an evening of dinner and music to honor people who had made contributions in the community. It was a real success in terms of giving people in North Caldwell a positive view of the Church. According to Brother Forsyth, we should never get so involved in church and work responsibilities that “we don’t have time to be good neighbors.”

Brother Forsyth’s eyes light up when he talks about his current calling. “It’s tremendously satisfying to see an article in the newspaper advertising a ward genealogy class that is open to the public, then to have so many people come that the class has to be moved from the Relief Society room into the cultural hall.”

Carmela Forsyth is executive secretary on the public communications council, and this has brought them even closer in purpose. “It’s great to have our goals at home and church parallel,” she says. “Being able to think, talk, and plan together with one goal in mind is a wonderful and rich blessing.” At least once a month they travel to the New York City stake center for a council meeting. It is time that they once spent going their separate ways in church callings.

Son Todd, now married and living in Washington, D.C., speaks admiringly of his father’s relationship with his mother. “It is one of the most equal partnerships I’ve ever seen. And it is the deepest, most tender relationship possible.”

A life devoted to people and to principles does not have to be unbalanced. Brother Forsyth takes advantage of life’s pleasures—one of them, being a voracious reader. On his daily hour-long commute into the city, he can be seen pulling out anything from the New York Times or a Louis L’Amour western novel to the Book of Mormon. “He has a book tucked everywhere,” notes his wife.

His love of sports kept him in the stands at all three of his boys’ church basketball games during their high school years. He also keeps an eye on LDS athletes on college and pro teams.

“Perhaps the most obvious thing about Dave,” observes Brother Forsyth’s boss, “is that he is completely comfortable with himself. That is something rare in today’s society.”

Comfortable, perhaps, but not self-satisfied.

“New York City is for me perhaps the most exciting place to live and work. But I’m reminded every day how far short we fall as human beings in offering comfort, solace, and love,” reflects Brother Forsyth.

“The disadvantaged, the drunken, the drug-ravaged on the streets are poignant reminders that we are slackers in sharing.”

From Dave Forsyth’s perspective, high over mid-town Manhattan, the challenge of life is “learning to shower love on God’s children.” It is a challenge to occupy a lifetime.

  • Heidi Waldrop, a free-lance writer and a member of the Manhattan Second Ward, is Public Communications Director in the New York, New York Stake.

Photography by Tim Parker