A Vision of Brigham Young University


Brigham Young University in a 2006 aerial view


I’ve been struggling, frankly, over the past four months, to resuscitate the feelings of love and enthusiasm for Brigham Young University that I had felt without interruption for roughly forty years until June.  (These feelings, among the many other wonderful things that I owe to him, were instilled in me by my brother, who, after doing most of his college studies in California, completed his undergraduate degree in Provo . . . and fell in love with BYU.)  I’ve worried about this a great deal.


Tonight, at the invitation of good friends, my wife and I attended the 2012 Homecoming Spectacular in BYU’s Marriott Center.  I’ve never, to be perfectly honest, attended a homecoming event before.  Not at BYU nor even, except for once, at my high school.  (I was student body president in my senior year at San Gabriel High School, and I had to crown the homecoming queen.  So I took a really pretty and nice girl as a date, and went.  We left after the crowning, and had a great evening.)  Far and away the high point of tonight’s program, for me, was the story of a young student, Alfred Kelly.  Here it is — not in the abbreviated form I heard it tonight but as Jeffrey R. Holland, then president of the University, told it to the audience at a devotional assembly on 15 September 1987:


“Several years after Brother Maeser’s death a proposal was made to construct a memorial building in his name, not downtown on University Avenue but high atop Temple Hill, where a new campus might be built consisting of as many as three or perhaps four buildings someday. The cost would be an astronomical $100,000, but the Maeser Building would be a symbol of the past, a statement of aspiring tradition, an anchor to the university’s future.


The Karl G. Maeser Memorial Building
on the campus of Brigham Young University,
completed in 1912


“In spite of a staggering financial crisis clouding the very future of the university at the time, the faculty and student body took heart that in 1912 the Maeser Building was at least partially complete and the university would give diplomas to its first four-year graduating class. But even as graduation plans were being made, equally urgent plans were underway to sell the remainder of Temple Hill for the development of a new Provo suburb. The university simply had to have the money to survive. Eighteen members were graduating in this first four-year class, but even if the student body tripled in the years ahead, surely there would be more than enough room to accommodate them on the space now occupied by the Maeser, Brimhall, and Grant buildings on our present campus. Yes, the rest of the space on the hill should be sold. The graduation services would conclude with a sales pitch to the community leaders in attendance.


“When Alfred Kelly was introduced that morning as the student graduation speaker, he rose and stood absolutely silent for several moments. Some in the audience thought he had lost the power of speech. Slowly he began to speak, explaining that he had been much concerned over his remarks, that he had written several versions and discarded every one of them.


“Then, early one morning, he said, with a feeling of desperation regarding his approaching assignment, he walked north from his downtown apartment to where the partially completed Maeser Building stood (as Horace Cummings would later describe it) as an “air castle” come to earth on Temple Hill. He wanted to gain inspiration from this hope of a new campus, but he felt only grim disappointment. The sky was starting to glow from the morning light, but the darkly silhouetted Maeser Building seemed only a symbol of gloom.


“Kelly then turned his eyes to view the valley below that was also still in shadow. The light from the rising sun was just beginning to illuminate the western hills back of Utah Lake with an unusual golden glow. As morning came, the light gradually worked down from the hilltops, moved across the valley floor, and slowly advanced to the spot where Kelly stood.


“He said he partially closed his eyes as the light approached and was startled by what he could still see. He stood as if transfixed. In the advancing sunlight everything he saw took on the appearance of people, young people about his age moving toward Temple Hill. He saw hundreds of them, thousands of young people coming into view. He knew they were students, he said, because they carried books in their arms as they came.


“Then Temple Hill was bathed in sunlight, and the whole of the present campus was illuminated not with one partially completed building, nor with homes in a modern subdivision, but rather what Kelly described to that graduating class as ‘temples of learning,’ large buildings, beautiful buildings, hundreds of buildings covering the top of that hill and stretching clear to the mouth of Rock Canyon.


“The students then entered these temples of learning with their books in hand. As they came out of them, Kelly said, their countenances bore smiles of hope and of faith. He observed that they seemed cheerful and very confident. Their walk was light but firm as they again became a part of the sunlight as it moved to the top of Y Mountain, and then they gradually disappeared from view.


“Kelly sat down to what was absolutely stone-deaf silence. Not a word was spoken. What about the sales pitch? No one moved or whispered. Then longtime BYU benefactor Jesse Knight jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘We won’t sell an acre. We won’t sell a single lot.’ And he turned to President George Brimhall and pledged several thousand dollars to the future of the university. Soon others stood up and joined in, some offering only a widow’s mite, but all believing in the dream of a Provo schoolboy, all believing the destiny of a great university which that day had scarcely begun.”  (See B. F. Larsen, “Fifty Years Ago,” speech given at a BYU Alumni meeting, 25 May 1962, B.F. Larsen biographical file, BYU Archives, pp. 4–5.)


Being reminded of that story helps.  Remembering helps.  That’s why we’re to read the scriptures, to partake mindfully of the sacrament, to reflectively attend the temple, and, yes, to keep and re-read journals.  To be reminded of the mighty acts of God, and of his tender mercies, and to be reinvigorated in our faith and commitment.



  • Axel

    Great story Dan. We all have conflicting feelings about BYU. Between the spectrum of a modern Spanish Inquisition to what you just printed. It is always nice to be reminded of that light side of the spectrum.

  • Clinton King

    In some small way, BYU is kind of like the Church itself: an inspired institution designed to lift up all who are involved, yet run by imperfect people who make mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes.

    • danpeterson

      Very, very true.

  • Jason Covell

    Thank you for this, Dr Peterson. I was reminded of a morsel of wisdom from a half-remembered fireside talk (my brain is full of half-remembered fireside talks), which in rough paraphrase stated: “In 100 years’ time, nobody will remember the woes and troubles that seem so great to us today. But how we decide to face up to those challenges will have an impact throughout eternity.”

  • Eric

    Thanks, Dan. I regularly get a glimpse of that same vision. “their countenances bore smiles of hope and of faith” is a phrase that expresses part of what I have often felt. –Eric