A. Gary Anderson: A Balanced Life

Jacob F. Frandsen

Jacob F. Frandsen (jakefrandsen@gmail.com) was a graduate student in linguistics at BYU when this was written.

Just weeks before he passed away in January 1995, Allen Gary Anderson’s family gathered to pay tribute to their father, grandfather, husband, and friend. Gary’s body was significantly weakened by the cancer that was slowly taking his life, but the power of his testimony remained solid, and he spoke powerfully as he gave them what would be his last counsel: “Center on Christ,” he urged, “and follow the Brethren.”

These two principles were part of Brother Anderson’s life from his youngest days. Another constant, along with hard work and family, was bicycling. And like the wheels of a trusty bike, the two principles of centering on Christ and following the Brethren provided balance and momentum as Gary maneuvered the path of his life.

Gary grew up in Ephraim, a quiet college town in central Utah, where he worked in his family’s grocery store. The little establishment was truly a family business; Gary’s father, Allen, was owner and Gary’s uncle worked as the store’s butcher. Gary worked hard but also knew how to have fun, and few things brought him more enjoyment than the freedom and fun his shiny little bicycle offered.

Spiritually speaking, Gary was without training wheels from a young age because he lacked spiritual support from his parents. But Gary didn’t falter; he attended church regularly, even when his parents didn’t. For months and years Gary encouraged his less-active father to attend church. Eventually, inspired by his son’s dedication to the gospel, Gary’s father did return to activity.

Gary was always good natured and made friends readily. As an adolescent, he and his friends, nicknamed “the Bib Boys” in reference to the overalls they often wore, passed their time at favorite swimming holes and always found enough time for sports. Gary’s athleticism won him a spot on his high school basketball team, and his amiable nature made him a shoo-in for the school’s student body president; he would later win the same position at Snow College.

After completing high school, Gary joined the Marine Corps and completed basic training in Quantico, Virginia. He also enrolled at Snow College in Ephraim, where he played alto saxophone in the school’s dance band. Fellow student and band pianist Annette Dean caught his eye, and the two began dating.

When the time came for Gary to serve a full-time mission, he was determined to serve the Lord. But he was equally determined not to lose his sweetheart, so he hatched a plan to keep Annette safe from the advances of other young men while he served his two-and-a-half year mission in Denmark. When Annette’s bishop asked her to prepare to serve a mission shortly after Gary’s departure, she gladly accepted, later receiving a call to serve in New Zealand for two years. Only later did Annette discover that at Gary’s urging his mother had convinced the bishop to encourage Annette to serve a mission. Gary knew that is Annette chose to serve she couldn’t date or marry for at least two years. “He planned it perfectly,” says Annette. Indeed, Gary and Annette returned from their missions within five days of one another and immediately resumed their courtship.[1]

Gary’s mission had a lasting impact on his life. Ever warm and friendly, he became close friends with his fellow missionaries. Gary and eleven of his closest mission buddies, known as “the Twelve,” traveled together after their missions and stayed in close contact for decades. But Gary gained much more than a handful of close friends during his years as a missionary; he gained a deeper, stronger conviction of the truth of the gospel and a determination to share his testimony with others, and this determination would soon begin to steer the course of his life.

Following his marriage to Annette in the Manti Temple, Gary’s life began to gain momentum. He completed his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Utah. Then, in accordance with his postmission goal to teach the gospel, he took a job in Milford, Utah, teaching seminary for two years. This first taste of Church education soon had him hooked, and he realized that teaching would be the perfect opportunity to serve others and share his love of the gospel. After Milford, the family moved to Orem, Utah, and he taught at the Pleasant Grove seminary for a year while pursuing his master’s degree in education at Brigham Young University.

After completing graduate school, Gary and Annette faced a wide open road of possibilities, but their hometown, Ephraim, and Snow College beckoned. The couple was delighted to take a short detour and return to the town for one year as Gary taught at the Snow College Institute.

Next Brother Anderson received the assignment to serve as institute director at Dixie Junior College in St. George, Utah. The couple and their little family were able to finally put down roots in St. George’s copper soil, and their family grew. During the summers Gary attended classes at BYU, and he earned an EdD in educational administration in 1968. His dissertation, a historical survey of the Church’s full-time Institutes, reflected two of Gary’s biggest interests: Church history and Church education. For nine years Gary loved and served the young people at the Dixie Institute and taught many bright students, including future Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland.

Elder Holland remembers: “Gary came into my life in one of those crucial moments that really has made an eternal difference to me. I was just newly back from my mission, wondering very much what to do with my life. I felt very much alone. I reenrolled at Dixie College but was really quite aimless as far as professional hopes and academic avenues open to me.” According to Elder Holland, Brother Anderson was an “instrument of the Lord in whispering to my soul, ‘Church Education is what you are to do professionally.’”

“Gary was knowledgeable and personally helpful about the ins and outs of the Church Educational System,” says Elder Holland. “He told me how much he enjoyed it, how much it had blessed his life, and the good he felt that could be done with every generation of young college students who come along. That kind of counsel was good enough for me. I jettisoned plans for medical school, law school, business school, and any other kind of school that I had in mind and pursued a CES career, which has been a great blessing to me, my wife, and our children.”[2]

Brother Anderson’s entire family felt at home in St. George, and Gary was thrilled with his job and his students. So when he was offered a job to teach in the College of Religion at Brigham Young University, he and Annette reluctantly decided to decline. But according to Annette, “Neither one of us slept well that night, so he called them back the next day and said, ‘We’ve changed our minds; we’re coming.’”[3] This new position shifted Brother Anderson’s career into the next gear, and despite his initial hesitance, he would grow to love his job at BYU and would enjoy the attendant blessings.

As a new faculty member at BYU, Brother Anderson quickly became famous among his coworkers for his daily bicycle ride from his home to campus. Neither rain nor snow could put a halt to his two-wheeled trek to work, after which he would roll the bike down the hallway of the Joseph Smith Building and park it in his office. But Gary promptly began to stand out among the faculty for other reasons as well. Not only did he excel at teaching about the Church’s doctrines and history, but he also emerged as an expert in the teachings of the living prophets. He became known as something of a living Conference Report, able to recall specific conference messages for months and years. Keith Perkins, a fellow faculty member and friend, remembers: “He knew general conferences backwards and forwards. If you wanted to know who spoke about what at which conference, he knew.”

Before long Gary was acting as the voice and face of the KBYU television program LDS Conference Report, in which he introduced recent conference addresses that were being rebroadcast. When it was decided that Religious Education should launch a new class called Teachings of the Living Prophets, Gary was the obvious choice to help head up the development of the course curriculum. Gary taught and championed the course for the rest of his career, and no matter which course he was teaching, Gary always tied the subject matter back to the teachings of the living prophets.

In his classes Brother Anderson always told his students, “You can never go wrong when you follow the Brethren.” According to Perkins, “Gary had learned over the years that you can trust the Brethren. He knew their teachings and he followed them.”[4] Indeed, Gary always stayed in tandem with the Brethren, remaining “stunningly loyal to the leadership of the Church” for his entire life.[5]

According to Robert L. Millet, “outside the classroom Gary was quiet, attentive, calm, and courteous. He was a serious listener. But inside the classroom he transformed into Mr. Personality. He had an enthusiasm about the subject matter that was contagious.”[6] While Gary’s enthusiasm and aptitude thrilled his students, his loving and amiable nature endeared them to him. “He was very approachable,” says Perkins. “He just loved people.”[7] And people loved Gary as well. “It was his Christian courtesy that was so attractive,” remembers Millet. “When I was a brand-new teacher at BYU, Gary was the very first person to come up to me to greet me and make me feel welcome.”

During his career, Brother Anderson traveled extensively, helping identify and locate a host of early Church history sites from Eastern Canada to the western US. Gary and colleague Lamar C. Berrett became the first researchers to travel the entire Mormon Trail and produce extensive documentation concerning significant sites along the way. Gary’s research and considerable knowledge of Church history sites made him an easy choice as coauthor of three volumes of the Sacred Places series: New England and Eastern Canada, Iowa and Nebraska, and Wyoming and Utah.[8] He also authored numerous articles on Joseph Smith’s family and other early figures in Church history.[9]

In 1987, Brother Anderson received a Brigham Award from the university “for going beyond the call of duty. He continually does outside research to help his students better understand the doctrines found in the scriptures. He exemplifies the principles he teaches and is always willing to counsel and help his students both academically and with their personal lives.”[10]

Gary’s expertise as a gospel teacher readily carried over into his family life as well. “General conference weekends were always a big deal at our house,” Gary’s son Clark remembers.[11] Parents and all nine children would faithfully gather to listen to general conference. Afterwards Gary would administer a quiz to the kids, and a piece of licorice was presented to each child who had listened carefully and could answer a question about the conference messages.

Gary’s family accompanied him as he directed study abroad programs to the Holy Land in 1977 and 1986. Since these took place before the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was built, the Anderson family and over fifty students lived in a Jewish kibbutz during their first trip and in a hotel during their second. The family also participated in the numerous Church history tours Gary led for BYU Travel Study.

In addition to their testimonies of the gospel, Gary’s children gained from their father a love for sports and physical activity. When they began construction on their new home in Orem after Gary accepted the assignment to teach at BYU, Gary made sure that a basketball court was installed in the backyard even before the home’s walls were completed. Weekday morning basketball games became an important tradition for the Anderson family. And on many Saturdays, Gary could be found riding toward BYU campus on his bicycle, with several of his children pedaling bikes energetically behind him. They would enjoy a day of swimming in the Richards Building pool, and then Gary would treat the kids to ice cream cones at Ream’s grocery store.

Clark remembers his father as being both a teacher and a servant. His family was a top priority, and according to Clark, Gary was unusual in his willingness to sacrifice for his loved ones. He would often wake up early on Sunday mornings and take a cold shower so that there would be enough hot water for his nine children. And although Gary insisted that he rode his bicycle to work for the exercise (the trip was five miles each way), Clark says that his father also did it so that he could leave the car at home for his children to use.[12]

Brother Anderson taught at his beloved BYU for twenty-eight years, always somehow managing to keep up with work, family, and Church service. Then, in the fall of 1994, at the age of sixty-one, Gary was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given just two to six months to live. Despite his weakened and exhausted condition, he was determined not to just sit back and coast but to push through to the finish line. He continued to serve faithfully as a counselor to Keith Perkins—his stake president, coworker, and lifelong friend. However, he eventually had to give up teaching.

As the cold winter months drew on, Gary’s illness confined him to his bed at home. As stake president Keith Perkins joined Gary’s family at his bedside, Gary, the ever-faithful counselor, murmured softly, “Keith, you’d better release me.” Perkins replied, “I’m not going to release you. The Lord will do that.”[13] And indeed, within a few short hours, Gary was released, his impressive life’s journey complete. Never backpedaling despite bumps and bends in the road, he had moved toward his ultimate destination with faith.

“It’s hard to say what made that man tick,” says Clark, “other than just his goodness. It was his desire to be like the Savior. He didn’t care about being in the spotlight or about any attention or self-serving activities. He was a servant-teacher. That’s why he was effective and why people loved him.”[14] According to Keith Perkins, “It was not the money, it was not the glory. It was none of that. He just loved to teach because he loved the gospel and his students. He was a true teacher and a true Saint.”[15]

As a teacher, as a father, and as a friend, Gary Anderson was a remarkable example of what it means to be a humble follower of Christ.[16] “As a Christian he was the real stuff, the genuine article,” says Millet.[17] “You just knew he was on his way to the celestial kingdom so you just wanted to be near him.” Gary centered his life in Christ, he followed the Brethren, he served and loved; but perhaps more importantly, Gary reached out with testimony and friendship and helped others do the same.


[1] Annette Anderson, interview with the author, April 28, 2011.

[2] Jeffrey R. Holland to A. Gary Anderson family, July 7, 2011.

[3] Annette Anderson, interview.

[4] Keith W. Perkins, interview with the author, April 28, 2011.

[5] Robert L. Millet, interview with the author, May 18, 2011.

[6] Millet, interview.

[7] Perkins, interview.

[8] Vols. 1, 5, and 6 of Sacred Places, ed. LaMar C. Berrett (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft/Deseret Book, 1999–2007).

[9] See, for example, “Smith, Joseph, Sr.,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1348–49; “Smith Family Ancestors,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 3:1361–63; “The Macks of Marlow,” Ensign, February 1977, 79.

[10] “1987 Brigham Award Winners,” The Center, n.d., 7.

[11] Clark Anderson, interview.

[12] Clark Anderson, interview.

[13] Perkins, interview.

[14] Clark Anderson, interview with the author, May 2, 2011.

[15] Perkins, interview.

[16] Perkins, interview.

[17] Millet, interview.