“Virginia Cutler—Her Heart Is Where the Home Is,” Ensign, July 1985, 36
A home, Virginia Cutler taught, should be designed by the individuals who live there to help them do what they do best and enjoy most.
The design of the home should reflect the values that motivate the people within. That is a philosophy she demonstrated in many different settings, including a small California apartment, a Utah condominium, a house with woven walls in Passarmingu, Indonesia, and a village house in Ghana.
Now she lives with a younger sister, Fern Arnason, in an attractive little house in Salt Lake City. The story of her life is a kaleidoscope of scenes and circumstances—daughter, wife, single parent, academic department chairman, college dean, ambassador without portfolio to peoples of the Far East, founder of a department in an African university. But mostly, hers is a story of homes—the homes she lived in, the homes she transformed, the homes she planned for others.
The first home she remembers was a six-acre farm in the Salt Lake Valley where her father and her mother, Robert and Mary Farrer, produced fruit, vegetables, wheat, and feed for the animals—chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, and horses. Her father also worked full-time at a nearby smelter. Virginia grew up in a home devoted to worship of the Lord, productivity, and hard work.
She was taught early of the power of the Lord, so it was natural that when her younger brother, Arthur, was stricken with polio, she determined to do what she could for him—pray, as she had been taught Joseph Smith did in the Sacred Grove. Her four-year-old heart was broken when he was not immediately healed. But comfort came unexpectedly as she sobbed in her bedroom, wondering why her prayer had not been answered. “I could scarcely control myself when a light came through the bedroom window, and I felt the presence of a heavenly being—I knew not what—but the influence was overpowering, and I felt peace within my soul and assurance that all was well with Art.”
Through the years, she watched and admired her brother as he developed his talents and built a happy family life. But Virginia was not slow to develop her talents either, and that led to opportunities for her.
In 1922, when she was a senior at Murray High School near Salt Lake City, she sought a patriarchal blessing. In it, she was blessed to become a teacher of young and old and of friends and strangers, and that the way would be opened for her to obtain her education. She saw the beginning of the fulfillment of that blessing a short time later when she used her talent in home economics to win a competition that provided a four-year-tuition scholarship to the University of Utah. During the four years that followed, the way was repeatedly opened for her to find work to pay other college expenses.
After graduation in 1926, she taught high school home economics, first at Manti, Utah, and then in the Jordan School District in the southwestern part of Salt Lake Valley. She also served in the presidency of the Cottonwood Stake MIA, through which she met her future husband, Ralph Garr Cutler. At the time of their engagement in 1928, the young couple began building a home on property his family gave them on the Cutler farm. Garr and Virginia moved into their new home on 10 July 1929, the date of their marriage in the Salt Lake Temple.
The new Cutler family was cushioned against the economic crash of 1929 and the Great Depression by their own industry. Most of their food supply was produced on the farm, and Virginia bottled three hundred quarts of fruit and vegetables that first summer. The birth of their first child (Robert Garr, 23 April 1930) brought them great joy, and everything seemed to be pointing toward a lived-happily-ever-after life for them, one of service in the Church and delight in the home.
But another kind of life was ahead for Virginia and her little son. In the middle of November 1931, her husband, Garr, died after a brief bout with septicemia that spread throughout his body. With no antibiotics to fight the infection, his doctors and his wife watched helplessly as his life was snuffed out. After the funeral, with characteristic courage, Virginia took stock of her situation and went back to work within two weeks as a substitute teacher at Salt Lake City’s South High School.
By Christmas, a month later, she knew she was pregnant again, and, as that fact became apparent, she was asked to resign. Her second son, Ralph Garr, was born 27 July 1932. The following September she obtained a permanent teaching job in Taylorsville, across the valley.
That year was a long one. She hired a relative to stay at her home for twenty dollars a month, plus room and board, to care for the boys while she worked.
Virginia Cutler was determined to see that her boys had every chance for good lives. She never wavered from that determination. Her relatives and her in-laws were eager to help, but she established her own little family independently. The three of them were a special unit—Virginia, Robert, and Garr Cutler.
During that year on her own as a teacher with two small children, it quickly became apparent to Sister Cutler that she needed more education—that it would, in fact, open the doors to all she wanted for her boys. Accordingly, 1935 found her enrolled on a scholarship at Stanford University, with just enough money to see her through to her master’s degree. Her plans were almost ruined when her boys caught pneumonia, and then an automobile accident put her in the hospital for several weeks with a broken back. But she graduated on schedule in 1937.
With her master’s degree, she qualified as a home demonstration agent for the University of California Extension Service in Colusa County, at double her former salary. For nearly eight years she and her boys lived in the large home she purchased in the town of Colusa, and they helped start a branch of the Church there, with meetings in their home. They experimented with remodeling and decorating the home; Robert and Garr seldom climbed the stairs, preferring to use the rope ladder they made.
For her, some of the family values she had learned in her own childhood and youth centered around activities in that home—many of them at the old walnut table brought across the plains by pioneer ancestors. “When the family moved, other things could be stored or sold, but not that table. It became a symbol linking the generations together, and a reminder of our rich cultural heritage,” she recalls.
It was in Colusa that they first made bread together. The whole family—Virginia, Robert, and Garr—participated. Each of the boys had his own kneading board and made a loaf of his own. Besides concocting a delicious treat (and their supply of bread for the week), they were developing a skill and weaving an invisible pattern of family life, unconsciously tying themselves to each other in a way of living that gave them great satisfaction and reached out to others on the aroma of freshly baked bread.
On those long-ago Saturday mornings, she says, “The boys’ friends knew what we were doing, and when they smelled that bread baking, they’d come over to have some, fresh from the oven, with butter and jam. We had to put more leaves in the table.”
The ritual became a family tradition. Years later, Sister Cutler found deep satisfaction in the unexpected discovery, on a visit to his home in Eugene, Oregon, that Garr, a plastic surgeon, makes bread with his three children on Saturdays. “It made me happy to realize that he remembered what we used to do and that it meant enough to him that he carried on the tradition in his own family.”
Once again, in Colusa, she realized that she needed still more schooling to provide the income that could buy the kind of education she wanted for her boys. So they sold out and moved to Ithaca, New York, where Sister Cutler received a doctoral degree at Cornell University in 1946.
The move across the country was made on faith, guided by the promise that the way would be opened. As Virginia later recalled, “The head of my department welcomed me with open arms and urged me to accept a teaching assistantship, which had been relinquished by the person appointed because of illness. My patriarchal blessing was still being fulfilled!” Again, church meetings were held in her home in Ithaca.
Returning to her home state after receiving her doctorate, Sister Cutler became a professor and head of the Department of Home Economics at the University of Utah. There, her talents were put to good use as she helped plan the construction of the Sill Home Living Center at the university, a building paid for with funds raised by Elder Sterling W. Sill (now an emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy), with the help of other public-spirited Utah citizens.
The boys went on missions—Robert to West Germany, and Garr to Austria. Later, Robert earned a doctoral degree at Princeton and went to work as a research analyst for the Bureau of the Budget in Washington, D.C. Garr graduated from the University of Utah and Princeton Medical School. Both boys married.
Sister Cutler was asked in 1954 to go to Southeast Asia on the U.S. government’s Point Four Program with the Foreign Operations Administration. “The boys were gone,” she said, “and I needed to do something for myself.” So, “for herself,” she spent seven years (1954–1961) in the Far East, two in Thailand and five in Indonesia, adapting her ideas for homes to other cultures, other climes, helping the people there to improve the quality of their lives. She helped establish a National Home Economics Program in Thailand and, working with McCall’s Patterns, planned and carried through a standard pattern project in Indonesia. On the wall of her bedroom now she has a fanciful picture of herself painted by an Indonesian artist who saw her as so dynamic that she had no need for feet. It depicts her wafted through the air by some inner power of propulsion.
When her work in the Far East ended, she had short assignments in Cambodia and South Vietnam and visited eight countries and many parts of the sprawling islands that make up Indonesia.
Of her experience in the Far East, she comments, “I knew that my patriarchal blessing directed me to go, even against the advice of well-meaning friends who thought it was a terrible risk.” Her “beautiful brown-skinned friends” in that part of the world, she felt, were the strangers she had been promised she would teach. “Never have I known such kindness, courtesy, and goodwill as I found in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaya, and the Philippines.”
Returning to the United States, Sister Cutler went to work in Provo, Utah, as the dean of Brigham Young University’s College of Family Living, which she had helped to plan.
The death of her older son, Robert, now the father of five children, came as a severe shock a few weeks later. He died suddenly of a ruptured appendix. As Sister Cutler had been thirty years earlier, her daughter-in-law Beverly was a widow, with children looking to her for support and strength.
Sister Cutler helped Beverly and the children move from Washington, D.C., to Provo, Utah, so that Beverly could go back to school at Brigham Young University. Then, when she wanted to obtain a doctorate, Beverly went on to Stanford, where she won one of several scholarships that have been established by her mother-in-law. Virginia Cutler explained her philanthropy this way to a Palo Alto Times reporter in 1965: “My second fifty years is being devoted to paying back some of the debts incurred during the first fifty. The $10,000 scholarship is a token payment for the debt I owe.”
In that same spirit, Virginia Cutler has set up twenty other fellowship trust funds through eight universities or professional organizations. She was also prime mover in establishment of the Camilia Eyring Kimball Chair of Home Economics and Family Life at BYU.
After her years in the Far East, it seemed Virginia Cutler was home to stay. But in 1966, A. A. Kwapong, vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, visited Cornell University and toured the facilities of the College of Home Economics there. He wanted to know who could set up such a unit at his school. “There is only one person who can do it,” he was told—“Virginia Cutler at Brigham Young University.”
Sister Cutler agreed to go to Ghana, to start a new adventure, to build new kinds of homes, with another people new to her.
“It was a beautiful setup,” she remembers, “beyond all my expectations.” The University of Ghana is at Legon, a few miles from the capital city of Accra. Here she was instrumental in building one more house—Fidua—which in the Akan language of Ghana means, “Everything you are comes from the beauty of the spirit of the home.”
Fidua is a Ghanaian village-type house built on the university campus near the Department of Home Science in the Faculty of Agriculture. Virginia Cutler founded that department with eight students, no facilities, and one faculty member (herself). At the end of the first year, the new department boasted a teaching laboratory, a child study center, three offices, and a home science court. She had planned to stay in Ghana only one year on a Fulbright Lectureship, but she stayed three, to be sure the program there was well on course and to set up a new scholarship in home science.
Sister Cutler returned to Provo for two more years at BYU, and then retirement. But retirement has never meant inactivity. She served on the United States president’s White House Consumer Committee and was the original chairman for the Major Appliance Consumer Action Panel, which serves more than two hundred manufacturers of home products in the U.S. She is a popular lecturer. She devotes time to her family, which now includes eight grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren. She set a personal goal to do one thousand temple endowments; at last count, in spite of setbacks because of a broken hip and other health problems, she was nearing nine hundred.
Others, left in similar circumstances, might take a different path in life. But Virginia Cutler is glad that as a young widow she chose the course she has followed.
“I’m grateful I had the motivation necessary to get my master’s and go after my doctorate. It has added to my testimony that my patriarchal blessing led me to the very thing I needed most.”
That implicit faith in her patriarchal blessing gave her courage to go on in spite of difficulties. Everything else followed: The creativity and the skills she developed. The talent for planning houses and home economics curricula, which came from her feeling for what makes a house a home. And a generous heart that wanted to share with all the world.