My Journey as a Scholar of Faith
Larry St. Clair
Larry St. Clair is a professor of integrative biology, the curator of non-vascular cryptogams, and director of the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at BYU. In this address, he tells the story of his journey as an LDS scholar. Click here for an abridged version of this address. Below is the transcript for the abridged address.
Baptism: Mother’s influence
In my patriarchal blessing it talks about my mother, and it specifically says, ‘Brother St. Clair, you have been taught the eternal principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the knees of your good mother.’ My mother gave me both a love of the restored Gospel and its powerful message of hope and salvation as well as a deep and abiding love for plants. This from a woman who did not finish the ninth grade, but who had a remarkable sense of what was important to her family and particularly to her second son. She saw in me a deep inclination towards faith and a love of living things, and she had a remarkable capacity for nurturing both my faith and my love of science at the earliest and perhaps most vulnerable points.
In spite of the fact that our family was largely inactive in the church for more than ten years, my mother often made sure that I knew how she felt about three things. First, the Book of Mormon. She had a testimony of the Book of Mormon and wanted me to know that.
She also loved David O. McKay, so she regularly referred to President McKay. In fact, I can remember very distinctly her saying, ‘You know what? It’s my feeling that the next prophet will be President Brown.’ And at that time, I said, ‘Mother, I really don’t think so.’ She said, ‘How would you possibly know that?’ I said, ‘Because he’s not in the right position in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.’ She was quite disappointed that she wasn’t able to pick out the next prophet.
The third thing that she loved were full-time missionaries, and she had two wishes for me. I won’t tell you what the first is; it’s much too embarrassing. But the second wish was that I should serve a full-time mission. At age eleven, after almost ten years of inactivity, my mother called the mission home in our hometown and asked them to send the missionaries to teach her son. They did and I was baptized at age eleven in August of 1961.
First Grade: “Larry, you are really dumb”
My second first-grade teacher—I don’t remember her name, and perhaps it’s because the experience was so awful—gave me an experience that altered me for many, many years academically speaking. I can still remember we had gone out to recess, and when we came back in, we dutifully filed in to our seats because this teacher was stern and very demanding. We were all, at least me—I can’t speak for the other students in the class—but I was absolutely terrified of this woman.
We sat down in our seats, and she said, ‘Now I’m going to have someone count to 100.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness sakes alive. I hope she doesn’t call on me, because I can’t get any further than eleven.’ Part of my problem was that due to an illness—I had had some surgery when I was four and had not been able to attend kindergarten—I couldn’t read, I couldn’t say my ABCs, I couldn’t count except to ten or eleven.
Sure enough, all the kids kind of ducked their heads, and I remember very distinctly thinking, ‘Larry, she’s going to call on you.’ I thought, ‘No, she can’t. I can’t do this.’ Sure enough, she said, ‘Larry St. Clair, stand up beside your desk. Count to 100.’ So I stood up dutifully and I did ‘One…two…’ I thought, ‘Maybe I can drag this out for two hours. Who knows?’ But getting to ten I knew was going to be a real challenge, and taking two hours to do it was unreasonable.
So, anyway, as I approached eleven and the length got longer and longer in between each number, the little girl behind me sensed that I had a need, so she whispered, ‘Twelve,’ and I got twelve, and I got thirteen, and I got fourteen. And then the teacher wised up, and she simply moved slightly to one side to where she could look at me and the little girl behind me. And the little girl behind me thought, ‘Larry, I was willing to help, but I am not willing to die for you.’
So I stood there, and I stood there, and I stood there. I just felt absolutely overwhelmed with the pressure. And then the teacher came down, and she stood right in front of me, and she shook her finger in my face and said, ‘Larry St. Clair, you are dumb.’ I can remember a cloud descended over my brain. I felt it; it was tangible. I thought, ‘I’ve worried about this. I thought that perhaps I might be dumb; and now it’s been confirmed by a teacher, and it must be true.’
It was four years before that cloud started to uncover my brain. I can remember many times sitting with my mother and my father and trying to do an assignment in a reading workbook or trying to solve a math problem–and that cloud would come down, and I would know clearly that I was not capable of doing that.
Fifth Grade: “Larry, you are really smart”
An interesting thing happened in the fifth grade. I do remember Miss Dash, and I remember that she was a remarkable, loving, supportive teacher. I started to learn how to read, and I started to learn how to be a student. Again I had a singular experience.
One day Miss Dash was working with us in the dictionary, and she had passed out to each of us a dictionary. The game was she would call out a word and we would look it up in the dictionary as quick as we could, and when we had found it we raised our hands. I can remember two words in a row I simply opened the dictionary and it was at the word. I thought, ‘Heaven forbid. I actually found the word in the dictionary.’ I said, ‘Miss Dash, I found it. It’s here,’ and she’d come look. She said, ‘That’s great.’ And then the next one I did the same thing.
She came at that point in time and stood beside me, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Larry, you are really very smart.’ I thought to myself, ‘Could it be? Could it be that the first grade teacher was wrong and Miss Dash is right?’ I can remember in my resilient heart, my heart told me, ‘Miss Dash has got it right.'
Eleventh Grade: Mrs. Miller’s influence
I had started out in Virginia in Algebra 2 in the eleventh grade, and I remember very distinctly when we moved to Oklahoma my father planned our move based upon Thanksgiving holiday so we wouldn’t miss any school. I remember the teacher in Virginia had made an assignment in our Algebra 2 book and it was on page 100. I remembered it very well. As we traveled to Oklahoma, I diligently completed the assignment, assuming that I would turn it in on Monday in Oklahoma to my new Algebra 2 teacher.
I walked into Algebra 2, Mrs. Miller’s class in Oklahoma, sat down, new student in the school—didn’t have a clue what was going on but knew that I had my assignment for Algebra 2 completed. Mrs. Miller said, ‘Open your books to page 232.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, that doesn’t sound good at all.’ So I turned to the girl beside me, and I said, ‘Say that again. What page number did she say?’ She said, ‘232.’ I thought, ‘My goodness. It was Thanksgiving break. What have these people been doing during the break that they’re 132 pages ahead of me?’ I didn’t understand or hear a thing for the rest of the class period.
I walked up to Mrs. Miller at the end of the class, and I said, ‘Mrs. Miller, I’m new in the school, new in the class, and I just came from Virginia where our assignment in this same book was on page 100, and today you’ve been working on page 232.’ Now, I’ll be honest with you. I thought she would probably say to me, ‘Why don’t you go downstairs and drop this class and add typing.’ That’s not what she said. She said, ‘Larry, how much guts do you have?’ I can remember very distinctly thinking, ‘Most of it’s on the floor in the back of the room there,’ but she wouldn’t let me go. She said, ‘Will you come early in the morning?’ ‘I will.’ ‘Will you come in the afternoon after school?’ ‘I will.’ And she said, ‘Then you get started. We’ll catch you up before Christmas holiday.’
So every morning I would come in early, and Mrs. Miller would help me. Every afternoon I would stay late and she would help me. So for the whole rest of that term we worked morning and afternoon to get me caught up. I can remember times going up to her desk and asking the same question six or seven times. Never once did she scold me. Never once did she question my right to ask her yet again the same question. She loved us all, and she inspired us all. At the end of that term, with her good graces, she gave me a D. I continued to work. At the end of my junior year, Miss Miller passed out our score card for that year, and she had given me an A. She made it very clear. ‘Larry, you earned this A.’ I thought to myself, ‘No, Mrs. Miller, you and I together earned that A.'
Mission: “I will be completely committed”
One day I was particularly discouraged. I’d been reading my New Testament and the mail came. One of the missionaries said the mail was down in the office, so I went down and there was a letter from my father there. That was the first sign that something was wrong. My dad never wrote to me, and if my dad had written to me, there was something drastically wrong.
I opened the letter up and my dad’s letter was very short. He said, ‘Dear Larry, your mother’s in the hospital. She’s quite sick. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ll let you know as much as I can when I find something out. Love, Dad.’ That was the end of the letter. They were in Germany, I was in Hawaii. This was 1969. I had no idea how to place a phone call to Germany from Hawaii, so I knew the only thing I could do was wait for the next letter.
I went back to my room, and I can remember I knelt down by my bed and I said, ‘I am really unhappy, and I’m particularly disappointed in You for, number one, calling me to Japan. And now my mother’s sick. What kind of deal is this? Here I am trying to be a missionary, trying to learn this awful language, and you’re going to do this to me too?’
I was very angry and very upset. I sat back up on the bed, and I opened Matthew back up again. I had stopped at verse thirty-seven in chapter ten. This is what verses thirty-seven to thirty-nine said: ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.’ I realized I was confident that Matthew had written that for Elder St. Clair.
I knelt back down by the bed, and in tears I said, ‘I am so sorry. I have missed the whole point. I have failed to understand that You are the first priority in my life, but I promise You from now on there will be no question—that I will be completely committed, and I will be an honorable and faithful servant in Japan or wherever You need me.'
Undergraduate: “You want to get a graduate degree, right?”
When I came home from the mission, I met a fellow by the name of Sam Rushforth. He was a faculty member in the botany department at the time. He was teaching a plant kingdom course. It was over in the Marb Building, one of the large lecture halls. There were 250 students in the class. Somehow or the other Sam Rushforth figured out that I was in that class, and he singled me out.
I can remember at the end of the semester, and it was just halfway through my junior year, Sam pulled me aside and he said, ‘What are your plans?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve decided I want to teach high school biology.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t,’ and I said, ‘I don’t?’ He said, ‘No, you don’t want to teach high school biology. You want to get a graduate degree, right?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know that I can do that.’ He said, ‘You can do that.’ So I spent the rest of my undergraduate experience and my first time as a graduate student for a master’s degree working with Sam Rushforth. I never would have done that on my own if Sam had not expressed confidence that I could do that.
Professor: Commitment to the one
I had another experience teaching Biology 100. I used to take and prepare a roll when I was teaching in sections of 250, and I would circulate it through the class and have them mark the roll. I’d tell them flat out, ‘You miss three days, I’m going to give you a call.’
In this one class one year, I remember very distinctly I got behind in tracking the roll and seeing who was not there. Then I noticed in some communication I had that a student had committed suicide, and I found out what his name was. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I think he’s in my class.’ So I went back to the roll, and I thumbed through and there was BW’s name. He had missed four days in a row, and I had missed the opportunity to call BW and tell him I missed him and that I cared about him and that I was anxious to help him. I found out later on that BW had a lot of issues, but I can tell you that gave me a renewed commitment to the one, to the individual student, to make sure that I did everything in my power to make a difference for them.
Priorities: Husband, father, teacher
There are a couple things I’ve learned about setting priorities and honoring those priorities. My major professor at the University of Colorado for several years came over and spent some time with us here at BYU. He was retired at that point.
One day in the lab he pulled me aside, and he said, ‘Larry, I have something I need to tell you. You have the capacity to be a world-class lichenologist.’ (Now, I’m telling you, there aren’t very many of us. It wouldn’t have been a tough stretch anyway.) He said, ‘You have the capacity to be a world-class lichenologist, but I’m going to tell you you never will be.’
I thought, ‘Where is Sam going with this?’ (Sam Shushan from the University of Colorado.) And then he said, ‘But let me tell you why. You spend way too much time with your family, you spend way too much time with your church, and you spend way too much time with Biology 100 students.’ He said, ‘But I think you’re doing the right thing.’
I can tell you this day that I don’t ever care to be known as a world-class lichenologist. I love lichens. I love doing research with them. I’ve published things and I’ve done all of that–but I can tell you I would much rather be known as a world-class dad, a world-class husband, and a world-class teacher of Biology 100 students at BYU.