“Elder Richard G. Scott: ‘The Real Power Comes from the Lord’” Ensign, Jan. 1989, 7
The news was heartbreaking. Doctors informed the family that their father had cancer and would live only a few more months at best. Medical science could do no more.
One of the grief-stricken sons was a nuclear engineer, an expert on what man can do through the miracles of technology. But in this situation, technology was helpless.
In a spirit of fasting and prayer, Richard Scott and his four brothers gathered in a circle and gave their father a priesthood blessing in which he was promised a full recovery. The blessing was fulfilled.
Elder Richard G. Scott, former nuclear engineer and now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has witnessed great power—man’s and God’s. He respects both. But man’s power is finite; God’s is infinite.
“I cannot comprehend [the Lord’s] power, his majesty, his perfections,” he told the Church in his first address as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. “But I do understand something of his love, his compassion, his mercy.
“There is no burden he cannot lift.
“There is no heart he cannot purify and fill with joy.
“There is no life he cannot cleanse and restore when one is obedient to his teachings.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 77.)
Over the years, as Richard G. Scott has worked on the cutting edge of technology, his faith in the Lord has grown ever stronger. He comes to the Quorum of the Twelve with an unshakable love for his “perfect friend—our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus the Christ,” and for another “precious friend”—the Book of Mormon. (Ibid.)
Born on 7 November 1928 in Pocatello, Idaho, and reared in Washington, D.C., Richard developed an early interest in science. His parents, Kenneth Leroy and Mary Eliza Whittle Scott, encouraged him and his brothers to explore—to tinker with mechanical things, discover how they worked, build them, repair them. They even trusted the boys to fix the family car. He smiles: “One time, as a joke, we put a caboose whistle on the exhaust pipe!”
His father was not a member of the Church, and his mother was not active. But they were people of principle, with high standards of integrity. Richard was an outgoing young man; he was a class president in high school, played clarinet in the band, and was drum major for the marching band.
Still, he felt something lacking in his life. Encouraged by bishops and home teachers to attend church meetings and activities, he went, “although at times reluctantly.” For some reason, he sometimes felt as though he were on the sidelines looking in. The same was true at school: although he excelled academically and was well liked, he lacked confidence socially and athletically and often felt alone.
It wasn’t until he was a missionary that he discovered what could have eliminated those feelings. “The expanded understanding of the gospel that came from an urgent desire to share the gospel with others filled all the voids of loneliness,” he says. “I began to recognize that those feelings need not have been part of my life if I had really understood the gospel.”
Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and U.S. secretary of agriculture, was the Scott family’s stake president in Washington, D.C. Richard’s father worked for him as assistant secretary of agriculture. President Benson’s example—“his integrity, his devotion, his great ability to defend principle—very deeply touched my father,” says Elder Scott. “As that relationship grew, President Benson had a significant influence in Dad’s conversion.” When Richard’s father was baptized, he invited President Benson to confirm him. He and his wife subsequently served for more than ten years in the Washington Temple, where he was a sealer.
As a teenager, Richard was determined to earn his own money for college, and he showed a remarkable spirit of adventure in going about it. One summer he worked on an oyster boat off the coast of Long Island. Another summer he cut down trees in Utah for the forest service; he also repaired railroad cars.
During a later summer, his application to work for the Utah park service was denied because all the jobs were taken. He tucked away the rejection letter without telling anyone about it and left for Utah. By the time he had made the trip across the United States, he had only three cents left in his pocket.
“Didn’t you receive our letter?” asked the man when he showed up.
“Yes,” Richard replied, “but I would like to work anyway. Is there a position as desk clerk?” The man laughed incredulously. Lowering his expectations, Richard asked, “How about bellboy?” He got hardly more than a laugh. Swallowing hard, Richard pulled out all the stops: “All right,” he said, “I’ll wash dishes!”
“Forget it,” the man said. “We don’t have any openings.”
Fingering the three pennies in his pocket, Richard was desperate. “I’ll wash dishes for two weeks,” he said, “and if you don’t like my work, you don’t have to pay me.” At least that way he’d have a place to stay and eat, he figured. The man relented.
Richard washed dishes—but he also went into the kitchen to see if he could help. By summer’s end, he was the number two cook.
These experiences did more than pad his college savings account; they also helped him grow spiritually. During spare minutes he read and pondered the Book of Mormon and experienced a powerful spiritual awakening.
Back home, he attended George Washington University, studying mechanical engineering and playing clarinet and saxophone in a jazz band. As he neared graduation, all of his career plans seemed to be on schedule. But then “the Lord placed a bombshell in my little world: Jeanene Watkins.” A vivacious young woman, Jeanene was the daughter of Utah’s Senator Arthur V. Watkins.
Their budding relationship presented a problem for Richard’s carefully laid career plans. One night Jeanene said to him, “When I marry, it will be in the temple to a returned missionary.” He had not thought much about a mission, but with that motivation, he prayed harder than ever before and ended up talking to the bishop about it. Soon after graduation, he left for a mission to Uruguay. Jeanene graduated the following June in sociology and left the next day for a mission to the northwestern states. Two weeks after he returned, they were married in the Manti Temple.
During his mission, he immersed himself in the Book of Mormon, and the foundation of his testimony became more sure. He discovered that the more he forgot himself and served others, the stronger his faith became.
On one occasion, a family invited Richard and his companion to their home to explain what the Church taught—with an agreement not to try to convert them. When they arrived they found another visitor: the head of another church for all of South America. “He challenged and contradicted everything we said. I was torn between trying to defend my beliefs with my meager knowledge, and keeping the commitment we’d made not to try to convert them. I settled on doing the latter. But when it was over, I went home feeling terrible. I felt I had defended the Church poorly; I knew my knowledge of the gospel wasn’t what it had to be. I did a lot of praying that night.”
The next day, the family invited the missionaries back. They were embarrassed by what had occurred and were impressed that the elders had kept their promise, even though the other person hadn’t. Now they wanted to be taught. They were eventually baptized.
Before Richard had left for his mission, a professor had tried to dissuade him from going; he would be throwing away a promising career, the man said. A few weeks after returning from Uruguay, Richard was invited to be interviewed by Captain (later Admiral) Hyman G. Rickover for a job on a top-secret military project involving nuclear energy.
The interview seemed to go miserably. In response to one question, Richard mentioned his mission. “What mission?” Captain Rickover demanded. “And what do I care about your mission?”
Richard reacted to that, because his mission had been such a precious time in his life. “Everything I really appreciate began to mature in the mission field,” he says. “So I decided to respond vigorously to every question.”
Then the captain asked, “What was the last book you read?”
“The Book of Mormon,” he responded. And so it went through the rest of the interview.
With all hopes extinguished, Richard got up to leave. “Just a minute,” said the captain. “I’ve been testing you to see if you could stand up for what you believe. This is not going to be an easy project. We need people who can work with confidence.” Richard got the job working on the design of the nuclear reactor for the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine.
Later, while checking personnel records, he discovered the name of the professor who had urged him not to go on a mission; the man was now working under Richard’s direction, about three levels down.
Brother Scott worked for Admiral Rickover for twelve years. In 1955 he completed the equivalent of a doctorate in nuclear engineering at the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology in Tennessee. (Because of the classified nature of the work, a university degree couldn’t be given.) He also helped in the development of the first commercial land-based nuclear power plant.
During those years, Brother Scott served as president of a seventies quorum and as stake clerk. And then in 1965, when he was thirty-seven years old, he was called to be mission president in Argentina. Again he had to make a decision between a mission and his career—and he was vigorously encouraged not to accept the mission call. But again there was no question in his mind, even though it appeared that he was putting his career on the altar.
As mission president, he again found the Book of Mormon to be a constant source of inspiration, and he used it extensively in zone meetings and in counseling with the missionaries. He was an efficient, compassionate mission president. One of his missionaries, Wayne L. Gardner, remembers serving in an outlying area and receiving the assignment to make arrangements for a conference. “Everything went wrong,” he says. “I had scheduled a building for us to meet in, but at the last minute it was cancelled. By the time I got to the airport to get the president, I was late and he had been waiting. I forgot to ask the taxi driver to wait for us, and there weren’t any others in sight. We were stranded.
“Even though I could see frustration in the president’s eyes, he put his arm around me and told me he loved me. He was so patient and understanding. I hope I never forget that lesson.”
When the Scotts returned to Washington, D.C., Brother Scott joined other Rickover colleagues who had a private consulting firm specializing in nuclear engineering. He served as counselor in a stake presidency and later as a regional representative. During that time the Washington Temple was completed, and President and Sister Scott invited many friends and associates to their home in preparation for the temple open house. One office companion and his family were baptized, as was a neighbor family.
Then in 1977, eight years after being released as mission president, Richard G. Scott was called to be a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. For a year he served as Managing Director of the Priesthood Department, then as Executive Administrator in Mexico and Central America. He and his family lived in Mexico City for three of his six years in that assignment.
Elder Scott’s great love for Latin-American people deepened even further as he served with them again. And that love was reciprocated. The people saw in him not only a leader, but also a friend.
One Sunday in Mexico City, Elder Scott sat listening to a priesthood lesson. The teacher was unschooled, his presentation was not polished. But it was obvious that he loved the Lord and his brethren and had a humble desire to share the gospel with them. A sacred feeling enveloped the room.
As he listened, Elder Scott received a spiritual confirmation of the man’s message and also some impressions for his personal benefit. He wrote them down and “found that I had been given precious truths I greatly needed to be a more effective servant of the Lord.” Through the morning, he continued writing the impressions that poured into his mind and heart. That experience has been repeated.
“I don’t think my experience receiving promptings is different from others’,” he says. “But I believe we often leave precious personal direction of the Spirit unheard because we do not record and respond to the first promptings that come to us when we are in need or when impressions come in response to urgent prayer.”
When he returned to Church headquarters, he was called as Managing Director of the Genealogy (now Family History) Department. A year later, in 1983, he was called to the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy and in 1984 became Executive Director of the Family History Department.
Over the next four years, Elder Scott oversaw some major shifts in the department. Not surprisingly, many of them involved applying technology to the challenges of family history research.
A clear signal of that trend was the change of the name from Genealogy to Family History. Other changes involved simplifying the steps necessary to identify ancestors; moving away from trying to train people to be genealogists and focusing more on helping them identify ancestors; increasing the rate of microfilming records around the world; internationalizing family history centers; and decentralizing key functions away from headquarters.
The man who spent much of his life involved in technology gets especially excited when he talks about computer-assisted family history work. So does his wife. “Since Rich’s father was a convert,” she says, “all his ancestors needed to be identified, and the temple work needed to be done for them. We worked with his parents to gather genealogy on his line. And now it’s exciting to see what we can do with computers; the kinds of little facts that I used to spend ten years gleaning here and there just pour in!”
Elder Scott refuses to assume any personal credit for the changes in the Family History Department. “They were made in accordance with inspired long-range goals established by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve,” he says. “And I was fortunate to come to that position after a great foundation had been laid by my predecessors—and to have the help of experienced Managing Directors and a devoted management staff. I have worked with outstanding individuals before. But I have never been blessed to serve with a more dedicated, capable, devoted group of men and women, nor more consistently felt the guiding influence of the Spirit than during this singular experience in the Family History Department.”
It’s no surprise to see Sister Scott immersed so completely in an area where her husband is heavily involved. “When I think of Dad,” says a daughter, “I think of Mother too. I see my parents functioning as a team.”
Elder Boyd K. Packer commented on Sister Scott’s strength when he welcomed her husband to the Quorum of the Twelve during general conference: “He is sustained by his lovely wife, Jeanene, who is not one whit less a spiritual power.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 18.)
The quality Elder Scott loves most about Jeanene is “her love of the Lord and her spirituality. And she is a devoted, hardworking, and capable wife who has made the family the center of her life. Besides,” he adds, “we have an awful lot of fun together!”
“We really do!” she smiles. “He’s my best friend.” That bond is immediately obvious. Humor and laughter are friendly companions in their marriage. “We know when to be serious and when to have fun,” he says. They tease one another, but it’s a gentle teasing. Their affection for each other and their sensitivity to one another’s needs are lasting memories for their children.
“A gift Jeanene has is to take things that I don’t do well, and because she has great capacity in them, she makes me think I’m good at them,” says Elder Scott. “Take dancing, for example. I can’t dance worth anything, but she dances beautifully. And she makes it look like I know what I’m doing. One time at a large stake activity we won a waltz contest! Highly improbable, since it was the first waltz we had ever done together!”
Since their dating days, they’ve shared an interest in jazz music. Now they also collect and listen to South American folk music. They both also love to paint, a hobby they’ve developed since they were married. He watercolors; she uses pastels. But neither finds much time for it any more.
Hiking and birding—as a couple and as a family—have captured their interest in the last few years. “Last summer we had some wonderful hikes in the mountains, just the two of us,” says Sister Scott. “Wildflowers were everywhere! We hiked farther and higher than we ever thought we would.” There’s a bird feeder in the back yard, and when the family eats out on the patio, there’s always at least one pair of binoculars at the table.
True to his mechanical inclinations, Elder Scott is the family fix-it man, taking care of the plumbing, the electricity, the cars, and anything else that needs work. He built a deck onto their current home, and designed and built an additional living room, master bedroom, and bathroom onto the previous one.
The Scotts have five living children: Mary Lee served a mission in Spain and is now completing her doctorate in applied linguistics at UCLA; Kenneth served a mission in Texas and lives in Salt Lake City; Linda lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Monte Mickle, and their three children; David lives in Salt Lake City; and Michael is studying in Israel and looking forward to a mission.
Mary Lee remembers lots of father-daughter talks. “I could talk to him about anything and know that he would be understanding and loving, and yet frank.” For several summers she worked at the White House, just a few blocks from her dad’s office, and they would commute to work together, listening to conference tapes or just visiting. “I would rattle on about what I had been doing that day,” she says. “He and my mother have always been my closest friends.”
She also remembers many priesthood blessings her father has given her over the years and the letters he sent her on her mission. “They are like scripture to me.”
Early in their marriage the Scotts lost two children. A daughter died just before birth, and six weeks later their two-year-old son died in heart surgery. Hard as it was, “it was a real testimony-strengthening time for us,” says Sister Scott. “We just knew it was the will of the Lord. As I look back on it now, I wonder how we were so strong about it. But there are many blessings that come from these sadnesses.”
Elder Scott’s own experiences in life—the happy as well as the painful—are “perhaps the reason I feel so intensely about having other people gain an appreciation of the Savior,” he says. “How much he would help us if we would but live his teachings! How the suffering and the loneliness could be taken care of if we were to come unto him!”
On 29 September 1988, President Ezra Taft Benson—“with tenderness and love and great understanding that I will never forget”—extended to Elder Richard G. Scott a call to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Scott was sustained two days later, on October 1.
“Sister Scott and I have prayed a great deal since the call came,” he says. “I know the call is from the Lord. I know that there is a great gap between what I am and what I am expected to do. That recognition is very humbling. No one would undertake to serve in this assignment without the assurance of the support and direction of a loving God. The real power comes from the Lord.”