Diligently Seeking Learning
President Brad L. Mortensen PhD President of Weber State University
November 01, 2022
"May each of you be blessed in your diligent seeking, your educational and spiritual pursuits of learning, and be inspired by the examples and sacrifices of those who have gone before to make possible the opportunities that you have today."
Diligently Seeking Learning
Good morning, it’s a pleasure to be here with you in the Assembly Hall and to have the chance to speak with all of you. I commend all of you for pursuing your education and taking time out from your academic studies to nourish your souls.
Several years before it became BYU-Idaho, I attended, practiced on the football team, graduated from, and worked for a year at Ricks College. During those experiences, I had the chance to attend many Tuesday devotionals.
Also, for many years at Ricks College, my father-in-law Ken Howell worked as the Public Relations Director, and part of his job duties were to host the devotional speakers as they came to campus. I’m very blessed to be accompanied by Ken’s beautiful daughter, my wife Camille, today, who was regaled on many levels about stories from what happened at the devotionals throughout her childhood. So, being able to speak at a devotional is truly something that is a special experience for us.
Through my time as a student, staff member, and son-in-law, please know I have a deeply personal understanding of what a devotional means at one of the higher education institutions owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, when President Kusch asked me if I would be interested in speaking to you, I was deeply honored and couldn’t say no. I humbly recognize it is a privilege and responsibility to share a few thoughts with you today.
One thing that you all may or may not know is that what is now Weber State University started out in a very similar way to BYU-Idaho, which was first known as Bannock Stake Academy before being changed to Ricks Academy in 1902 when its founder Thomas E. Ricks passed away. Even Brigham Young University was first known as Brigham Young Academy.
On January 7, 1889, Weber Stake - yes, I said Stake - Academy held its first classes. The preceding September, Lewis Warren Shurtliff, President of the Weber Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints organized an eight-person Weber Stake Board of Education. The board made rough arrangements to rent the Second Ward Meetinghouse in Downtown Ogden for $300 per year and provided $1,000 for desks, school supplies, and facility upgrades. Within four months, the Weber Stake Academy opened its doors to 98 students.
From the beginning the Academy was to be open to male and female students as well as to all nationalities and religious denominations. With tuition charges for each 10-week term set for $3-$6 “so that education would be so inexpensive, ‘it will be within the reach of the humblest in the land” (Sadler, 1988, p. 6), enrollment grew rapidly to 184 students by January 1890, filling every available seat in the renovated old meetinghouse.
To accommodate the growth, efforts commenced to move the academy to the larger Ogden Tabernacle. Classes opened there on April 8, 1890. But within two weeks, Board Chair Shurtliff informed the Principal, Louis Moench, that legal considerations would only allow the tabernacle to be used for religious rather than academic purposes. The academy closed on May 2, 1890, until a dedicated Weber Stake Academy Building could be constructed.
Charles Middleton, a member of the Weber Stake Board of Education, recorded the board’s unanimous resolution later that year in his journal:
“[W]e do pledge ourselves, our words, our honor and our property to the building committee of the Weber Stake Academy in raising means by loan or otherwise to complete [the] building at the earliest possible date.”
Staying true to their pledge, each member of the board and his wife signed on to mortgage their homes and properties.
Through these efforts, on November 23, 1891, 18 months after is closure, the Weber Stake Academy once again opened its doors, this time to 200 students in the mostly completed first floor of what would become the two-story Moench Building on Jefferson Avenue.
Despite name changes in 1908, 1918, 1922, 1963, and 1991, the attributes of this educational institution we now know as Weber State University for the last 133 years -- the attributes we call our mission core themes of access, learning, and community -- continue with us:
● Being open, welcoming, and affordable with access for students of all backgrounds
● Assembling dedicated educators to offer the best learning
● Reciprocating a stewardship for the community that invested so much to have an academy, a college, and eventually a university
On the occasion of one of those five name changes, becoming Weber College in 1922, in early October of that year the student body president, the president of the college, and the chair of the Board of Trustees organized a hike.
This was not just any hike. The Acorn, which served as the yearbook for the early days of the school, recorded that Weber College, “being ever restless with desire to rise, burst the bands of low-land seclusion and with one mighty unity of purpose established herself on that magnificent peak, Mount Ogden.”
The hike included 375 students - practically the entire student body, faculty and administrators, traversing the long and rugged path on the west side of Mount Ogden from the 27th street trailhead, up Taylor’s Canyon, to Malan’s Peak, Malan’s Basin, and then up the face to the saddle before the final ascending climb to the summit.
And did I mention they carried a 300-pound, steel flagpole, along with the cement and water to permanently erect that flag pole at the top of the mountain the whole way so they could fly the Purple and White Weber College banner and also the United States flag?
They sang the National Anthem, and as Weber College was still owned and operated at that time by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, remarks and a dedicatory prayer for the flag pole on top of Mount Ogden were offered by the Chair of the Board of Trustees. This event is recorded in the Acorn of being “one which will live long in the memory of those who heard it.”
The mountain top celebration was capped by a rousing rendition of the school song, Purple and White.
Let me diverge from the story of this hike to tell you a little bit more about the people leading this mountain topping expedition.
The chair of the Weber College Board of Trustees who offered that never to be forgotten dedicatory prayer was a gentleman named David O. McKay, who had recently been called as an Apostle. Then Elder McKay attended Weber Academy and served as one of its early faculty and principals. He was instrumental in expanding the instruction, operations, and facilities for the growth of the institution.
The president of the college was a man named Aaron Tracy. He had been a faculty member before becoming president, just earlier that year, and was well known for his concern of students. Years after the hike, during the depths of the great depression, Aaron Tracy made national news by accepting produce, eggs, and livestock instead of cash for tuition payments, and then paying the faculty with those goods.
The student body president… his story’s a little longer. He grew up on a small farm in western Weber County. While he was still a professor, Aaron Tracy had helped get his start at Weber College. A little over a year before the Mt. Ogden hike in the summer of 1921, this young man returned from a mission to the Eastern States, where he had met some cousins who worked for the JC Penney Company in New York City. This experience inspired him to go into business, which would require a college education.
However, the young man had stopped out of school in the 8th grade to tend sheep during the winter on the Nevada desert, meaning he lacked the academic preparation and credentials for college. Furthermore, upon returning from his mission the family farm had just gone bankrupt, and he was told he’d have to make it on his own.
This young man turned to Aaron Tracy, who had not yet become president of Weber. Tracy helped him navigate the process to enroll in college with his eighth grade education and found the young man several jobs on campus so he could pay tuition.
In addition to becoming student-body president and leading the Mt. Ogden hike in his second year at the school, he graduated, went on to receive a bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah, married his wife, and the very next day they drove to Washington, D.C., in a Model T Ford to open a nine-stool A&W root beer stand so he could start his business.
You see, he remembered from his mission how hot and humid it was in during the summer in Washington D.C., and he figured he could sell a lot of root beer.
The root beer stand expanded into a successful chain of “Hot Shoppe” restaurants, which then got into the catering business, and then delved further into the hospitality industry by opening what would become thousands of hotels around the world.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the name of this eighth grade educated young man from the bankrupt farm in west Weber County is J. Willard Marriott, founder of Marriott International, one of the world’s largest hospitality companies.
When J. Willard Marriott’s son Richard spoke to a gathering of Weber State University faculty and staff on the 100th anniversary last year of his father being assisted by Aaron Tracy to get into college, Richard told us his family would have still been trying to herd sheep in the desert had it not been for Aaron Tracy meeting his father where he was, challenging and guiding him to achieve his goals academically and in life.
So, returning to our mountaintop scene, why did these three individuals lead an expedition with hundreds of others to ascend the mountain to raise the school flag from a flag pole they carried, sing the school song, and have a dedicatory prayer upon becoming a college?
They did it as an outward symbol of why they believed education was an important endeavor.
They did it to honor the sacrifice of that previous generation of Saints who had mortgaged their homes to build a facility for the Weber Stake Academy to continue its operations.
They did it to blaze a path for future generations to be inspired to embark on and successfully complete their own educational journeys.
Since 1987, almost every year the students of Weber State have reenacted the original Mt. Ogden hike. This year for the 100th anniversary we had 300 students, alumni, faculty, and staff once again ascend the mountain, only this time we carried our purple and white and U.S. flags on poles made of PVC pipe, which is slightly lighter than steel.
We also carried this. You see, this is the only remaining piece of the original flagpole. It was torn down by the U.S. Forest Service in 1967 as an “unauthorized protuberance”. But I keep this in my office as an inspiring example of that first hike and what the organizers hoped to achieve. I remember that this is part of the pole that Elder McKay dedicated as a symbol for the importance of education.
My life has been blessed by the pursuit of education.
And I feel blessed to every day to work to help students be one step closer to achieving their own academic and life goals, and every day I strive to do the things to help more students be able to do that easier.
My singular goal for my time as president at Weber State is for it to be said that I have been a listening, learning president, and that Weber State has been a learning university -- not just a university that imparts learning, but a university that itself is learning:
● learning to better serve a diverse array of students from every background,
● learning to better serve and enrich our community, and
● learning to have a positive impact in today’s ever-changing and too-often-divided world.
And please know that I feel a commitment to continuing Aaron Tracy’s legacy of helping students like J. Willard Marriott, one by one, achieve their educational desires. So if I can ever be of assistance to any of you, do not hesitate to reach out and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on social media.
I have a testimony, brothers and sisters, friends, that your pursuit of education and your support of providing educational opportunities here at Ensign College aligns with our Heavenly Father’s plan.
In addition to that, this concept of striving to ascend our mountains of learning applies not only to our academic and professional pursuits, but our spiritual pursuits as well.
In 1 Nephi 10:19, Nephi taught, “For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.”
I heard an example of this a week ago Sunday, when Elder Ronald A. Rasband spoke to a packed house at the Weber Institute. Before his remarks, his wife Sister Melanie Rasband shared the she did not marry an apostle, but she has seen him learn and grow, diligently seeking as Nephi taught, in becoming one.
The revelation recorded in the 93rd section of the Doctrine & Covenants teaches that our Savior Jesus Christ “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness;”
May each of you be blessed in your diligent seeking, your educational and spiritual pursuits of learning, and be inspired by the examples and sacrifices of those who have gone before to make possible the opportunities that you have today.
I leave this with you along with my testimony of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, that God lives and answers our prayers, that His Son is our Savior and Redeemer, and He restored His Church in the Latter Days by bringing forward the Book of Mormon through the Prophet Joseph Smith, that this Church is led today by a Prophet in President Russell M. Nelson, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.