20th Century Latter-day Saint History

David O. McKay Diaries with Harvard Heath

Harvard Heath is retired curator of the Utah and American West Archives at the Harold B. Lee Library, and the editor of “Confidence Amid Change: The Presidential Diaries of David O. McKay, 1951-1970.”

Harvard Heath is retired curator of the Utah and American West Archives at the Harold B. Lee Library, and the editor of “Confidence Amid Change: The Presidential Diaries of David O. McKay, 1951-1970.” President McKay’s biographies were made possible thanks to the efforts of Clare Middlemiss.

Who is Harvard Heath?

I was born and raised in Boise, Idaho. After serving a mission in Germany, I returned to Brigham Young University and received my B.A. and Ph.D. in History.  As an undergraduate I was selected to assist in the research and writing of BYU Centennial History under the direction of James R. Clark, with Ernest L. Wilkinson as editor. My dissertation was on Apostle-Senator Reed Smoot, the basis of which evolved into editing his diaries for publication. This abridgement was entitled In The World published by Signature Books. In addition to presenting various papers over the years, I have written introductions to two other books, House of the Lord  and Mormon Church on Trial, as well as treating the impact of the Reed Smoot Hearings 1903-1907 in the Journal of Mormon History.

I am married to the former Susan Graeber of Boise and have nine children and twenty-three grandchildren. I was on the faculty at Brigham Young University for a number of years in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections in charge of 20th century Mormon and Western History collections.

What is the most breathtaking manuscript you have personally handled at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU?

There have been literally hundreds.  If I had to select just one collection, it would probably be manuscripts from the Whitney collection containing some of the original revelations of Joseph Smith.

What is the backstory for how “Confidence Amid Change” came to be and what has been the availability history of the diaries?

The McKay diaries have a long history with me.  They were, among many collections, restricted for research at the Church Archives in the early 1970s.  We had sought through channels to receive access as part of the BYU centennial project research but were denied. Through some serendipitous circumstances, conditions changed and access was approved.  During this period, the “Age of Camelot” was dawning and the assumption was that others would see them during this new era. I went through the diaries quickly looking for BYU related material, assuming I would come back at a later date and give them closer scrutiny. That day never came as the “Ice Age” set in at the Church Archives thereafter.

My interest in them never waned but prospects looked hopeless until a set of fortuitous circumstances occurred with Greg Prince’s administrative history of President David O. McKay.  He had been given access to a copy of the diaries by the nephew of Clare Middlemiss, the late Wm. Robert Wright. They combined to publish David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism. I was allowed to use them for my project and later, working with Greg Thompson of the University of Utah Special Collections, persuaded the Wrights to donate the diaries and other papers to the University of Utah to augment their current McKay holdings. They are currently available for research there.

How did your work on “Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years” prepare you to edit and understand the presidential diaries of David O. McKay?

This has been partially answered in the previous response. The thing that struck me as I researched them during the Centennial Project was just how rich and informative they were to the real understanding of the emergence of the modern Church.

No other source seemed as important as these diaries in understanding both the changing contours of the Church and the trajectory in which it was heading.  Clare Middlemiss’s loyalty to President McKay, as well as her dogged effort to coerce him into keeping his journal, made this diary unique in so many aspects.  She also included letters, photos and newspaper clippings within the journal.  From my previous experience in the 1970s, I was prepared and anxious to have the opportunity to edit them.

Who are three or four of the individuals who figure most prominently in the journals?

This, of course, is highly subjective.  One could easily list at least a dozen. Clare would, of course, be the most important as she recorded and filtered the thousands of pages. In no order of ranking, I would argue Ezra Taft Benson, Ernest L. Wilkinson, and the First Presidencies of J. Reuben Clark and Stephen L. Richards and Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner.

Who were Ernest Wilkinson and Claire Middlemiss (in particular, what were their most admirable traits and what were the most important reasons they are often seen as controversial)?

First, Ernest L. Wilkinson, longtime President of BYU, was the master of power politics.  He was savvy and aggressive in promoting his BYU agenda.  His continual success at making end-runs around the Board of Trustees and the Brethren in order to get his way and defeat the opposing voices in Salt Lake City engendered real animosity from some of the Brethren – especially Harold B. Lee, among others.

But he also courted his allies and offset much of the opposition. His arm twisting and high-handed approaches eventually alienated enough people that his days were numbered as soon as President McKay died.  His death and Wilkinson’s subsequent resignation were not coincidental.

Second, Clare Middlemiss also engendered significant animosities among the Brethren as well by acting as a one person “palace guard” in protecting and shielding the President.

She had her favorites–those favorites lavished her with compliments and often with gifts and presents.  She returned their favors by offering almost immediate access to President McKay while others of the Quorum needed to make appointments days ahead for an audience, especially Harold B. Lee.  This made her unpopular in many circles.

It should be noted she was, and still is, the only female to serve as secretary to a President.  This might have added to the rancor of some.

Do the entries shed any light on the personality of President McKay—and is it possible to see that personality evolve over time?

His personality evolved only to the extent when his health ebbed and flowed and eventually declined. These problems dampened his usual ebullient spirit.  He was always gregarious and his many virtuous traits endeared him to all who met him–including Presidents of the United States. His diaries, as recorded by Middlemiss, daily evinced these attributes of his energetic and charismatic personality.

His traits mirrored in many ways what a prophet should and act like. He was tall and handsome and, from many accounts, exuded all the Christian virtues you would expect from a man of God. These observations were not just from devotees, these also came from people, not of the faith, that found him remarkable and they often commented on his radiant spirituality and goodness in their brief encounters with him.

Do the diaries provide any significant new details on the debate over whether to move Rick’s College to Idaho Falls in the 1950s? Could you summarize the situation that led to President McKay telling the brethren he would accept blame for the confusion that surrounded the process?

A response to this question would occupy too much space to adequately explain this important event.  The diaries spent an inordinate amount of time over this tumultuous and tortuous decision-making process.

The back and forth, the complete about changes and raw emotion that were exposed in this explosive issue is a case study in how not to make a decision.

Articles have been written that more than adequately examine the issues at hand.  Suffice it to say, this ended up being one of the few battles President Wilkinson lost to his opponents.  President McKay’s reversal would hurt Wilkinson deeply.

Share one or two diary entries you consider to be hidden gems.

I hesitate to respond because there are just too many gems. By listing one or two, I omit the other hundreds that would have equal claim.

One poignant episode, or I should say more than one, deals with his humanness.  There are moments when he becomes ill, incapacitated or a bit melancholy about these bouts. He expresses his frustrations, his worries, his desires to be made whole again. These are touching moments for a Prophet and President who one might think would be spared such emotions.  These feelings were not limited to just himself. He hurt deeply as his wife Emma Ray fell ill at times or when beloved friends were hurting.  His compassion was touching.

Another gem, however would be the opposite emotions he detailed, emotions of optimism, hope and faith in the eventual outcome of events and concerns.  These accounts are peppered throughout the diaries.

What were President McKay’s greatest bureaucratic strengths? Do any entries stand out in which he emphasized spirituality when dealing with challenging day-to-day issues?

It becomes evident perusing the diaries he was not an organizational man. As Mike Quinn argued in his masterful biography of J. Reuben Clark, Elder Statesman, he was totally opposite Clark’s measured decisions and methodical processes.  McKay was impulsive, often in the moment in the decision-making process.

Although the Correlation Program was created during his administration (primarily through Harold B. Lee), many aspects of it he disapproved of and wanted more freedom and less conformity. In the end with the rapidity of Church growth, he knew more organization was needed but hoped against hope for individuality and structure.

If you could go back in time and be a fly on the wall for any event from the diaries, what would you most want to witness and why?

How about most of them. I would have loved to be in on the give and take on a number of issues.

The political discussions with Quorum members, especially Ezra Taft Benson, would have been riveting as would the conversations with the Presidents of the United States.

Another fly on the wall experience would be during the deliberations on the missionary work in Nigeria with the Negro complications at the time.

Then the most interesting for me would have been the intimate and spiritual experiences he related to friends and the Brethren.  We have only imperfect and brief accounts from the diary of these conversions–and rightly so.  But, nevertheless, would be wonderful to have heard.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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