Bertha Stone Reeder
Visitors to Woodland, a mountain site near Kamas, Utah, that had been purchased for a girls' camp, had a difficult time appreciating its beauty and its possibilities. Lucy Harris, the YWMIA president in the Pioneer Stake, said, "It didn't look like much at the time, hot and dry." But when Bertha S. Reeder, YWMIA general president and an ardent camping enthusiast, began to describe the potential of the site, Lucy changed her mind and said, "Just hearing her pleasing voice made me visualize what it would be someday." 1
Later, when young girls gathered around the campfires at Woodland on summer evenings, some of them had a difficult time appreciating their own strengths and possibilities. According to another YWMIA leader, when Bertha began speaking to the girls of their potential "in her gracious manner, she aroused in them the desire to live righteously and to be healthy, happy, wholesome children of God." 2
Because of her personal graciousness, her radiant smile, and her firm faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, Bertha Stone Reeder inspired many—her family, missionaries, co-workers, and young women and their leaders—to rise to their potential.
Ancestry and Childhood
Bertha's great-grandparents, William and Mary Cruse Stone, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Newberry, England. Mary's father, a wealthy landowner, owned a home with thirty-six rooms. Although Mary was married and had children at the time of her conversion, her parents disowned her and would have nothing more to do with her. The Stones left England and had traveled as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa, when William and Mary became too ill to go any farther. They permitted their fourteen-year-old daughter, Mary Eliza, to go on to Utah with a family of eight orphaned children whose wagon was driven by a deaf man. Trail life, cooking, washing, and caring for children were a surprise to Mary Eliza, who, because of her upper-class background, had never done any physical labor in her life.
Mary Eliza worked as a maid after she arrived in Utah, then married William Birch Hutchins when she was seventeen. Brigham Young sent the young couple to help colonize Slaterville in Weber County, some forty miles north of Salt Lake City. Mary Eliza and William had eleven children, of whom Bertha's mother, Esther Priscilla, was the fifth. Esther married Frederick Naper Gough Stone March 14, 1888, and they had four daughters and a son. Bertha Julia Stone, the second daughter, was born October 28, 1892, in Ogden, Utah. The first daughter, Olive, who was born in 1889, and the third daughter, Clarissa, born in 1894, both died as infants. The fourth daughter, Blanche, was born in 1896, and the only son, Leslie, was born in 1898.
Bertha's father worked for the streetcar company in Ogden. "When I was a little girl I loved ice cream," she wrote in her diary, "and there was an ice cream parlor at about 15th Street. . . . Dad used to take me on the streetcar and give me money for a dish of ice cream and leave me while he went to the end of his run, then picked me up on the way back." 3
In 1900, when Bertha was eight years old, her father became a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad and the family moved to Promontory, a remote town fifty miles northwest of Ogden. Their home was near the place where the last spike of the transcontinental railroad was driven on May 10, 1869. Only three Latter-day Saint families lived in Promontory, and sacrament meeting was held in the Stones' home. Esther taught Sunday School, which was attended by twenty children of various denominations.
Bertha vividly remembered a lesson her father taught her on tithing. He gave a calf to the three children to raise. The calf, which they named Annie Rooney, followed them around and nuzzled against their legs. When they returned home one day from a visit to their grandmother, the children found that their father had sold their beloved pet to the butcher. Heartbroken, they sat around the table while Fred gave them each a third of the money from the calf. He told them, "Now the Lord gave you Annie Rooney, and you have to give back the Lord the tenth that he asked for." Three quarters of a century later Bertha recalled that experience and commented, "That was the first tithing I ever paid, and I've paid tithing ever since." 4
When Bertha was twelve, the family moved back to Ogden. She was thrilled when her parents bought a new piano that had four pedals and a mandolin and guitar attachment. She loved music and her piano lessons and soon became proficient enough to serve as Sunday School organist. At fourteen, she became the ward organist, playing for Sunday School and sacrament meeting as well as Religion Class and Primary. At sixteen, she was called to serve as the stake Sunday School organist. Then the railroad transferred her father to Sparks, Nevada, where the family lived for a year. Bertha played the organ for the Methodist church in Sparks.
After graduating from high school in Ogden, Bertha attended the Weber Academy and served on the Sunday School stake board. She also taught piano lessons to twenty students. Later, while serving as a ward YLMIA president, she organized an orchestra to play for ward dances.
When Bertha was nineteen, her mother died. Bertha took care of the family for a few months until her father hired a housekeeper, Ellen Smuin, whom he later married.
On August 10, 1912, two months before her twentieth birthday, Bertha was married to Christopher Aadnesen, who was thirteen years her senior. They settled in Ogden and had two children, a daughter, Oertel, born October 4, 1913, and a son, Grant C., born April 10, 1915. Christopher owned a sporting goods store and a drugstore and earned a comfortable living for his family. Both Bertha and Christopher enjoyed camping, hunting, and fishing, often with their children.
Bertha was a good shot and a fine fisherwoman. Oertel remembered the time her mother saw two sage hens go past their campground. She shot the hens with a gun and had them cleaned and cooked over an open fire before the men came back from hunting. They had shot nothing. 5 Grant described an experience when he was fly fishing in the Yellowstone River and his mother not only outcast him, but she also caught two fish to every one he caught. 6
The Aadnesens also enjoyed traveling. One year they took off the day school was out in the spring and toured the Northwest and British Columbia, drove down the coast to Los Angeles, and then stopped in Las Vegas on the way home. They did not return until two weeks after school began in the fall.
Bertha was "Aunt Bertha" to Oertel's and Grant's friends. A warm and loving person, she enjoyed entertaining and was a wonderful cook. "Seldom did we have dinner alone, with just our family," said Oertel. 7 Grant noted that his friends and dates all liked to gather at his house because they felt so welcome. Charles E. Peterson, a friend of Oertel's, wrote of Bertha, "She was so warm and vibrant that her friendliness captivated me. It was always a joy to come to [her] home. I can still taste the chocolate cake and milk and sandwiches that we would have on Sunday evenings." 8
Bertha presented a striking appearance, with her "startlingly black hair," Grant remembered. He characterized his mother as very refined, "a great lady." 9 Helena Larson Allen, who later served as Bertha's executive secretary, said, "Bertha had such an outgoing personality that within a minute or two of meeting someone, she was their friend. She had style—she was good looking and had such a lovely smile." 10
According to Oertel, Bertha taught her children "to like people and to share everything. We had our own lives to live, and we were told to get an education even if we had to scrub floors." 11 She insisted that her children each learn to play a musical instrument. Grant played the violin and Oertel, the piano. Oertel also became an accomplished ballerina and had an opportunity at thirteen to dance with a company in New York City, but Bertha thought she was too young and refused to let her go.
During her early married years, Bertha served as a Sunday School teacher, Relief Society organist, president of the Ogden Eighth Ward YWMIA, and president of the Mount Ogden Stake Primary. She became involved with the Cub Scout program and helped organize it as part of the Primary program. Christopher was not a religious person, though he contributed generously to the Church and did not object to Bertha's activity.
Christopher died on October 21, 1930, as the result of an accident suffered while on a hunting trip. At thirty-six, Bertha had to adjust to widowhood; she was seated in the temple to Christopher after his death. When Grant was called to serve a mission in Germany and Oertel left home to attend Utah State Agricultural College in Logan, Bertha was alone for the first time in her life.
On September 12, 1934, Bertha was married to William Henry Reeder, Jr., a widower with one son, William H. Reeder III. Bertha's husband was a municipal judge in Ogden, and she always called him "Judge," as did his friends and family. Bertha and Judge enjoyed fishing together. They also had a mutual interest in Church history and doctrine and had a library of 1,500 Church books, including first editions of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants in every language in which they had been translated.
In 1939, Bertha was called to the Primary general board, serving under general president May Green Hinckley. Two years later, Judge was called to preside over the New England States Mission, with headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When President David O. McKay of the First Presidency set Bertha apart as a missionary, he gave her a blessing in which he said: "We bless you that you may find happiness in your labors; that as you go forth among the people, strangers as well as members, you will radiate your characteristic cheerfulness and unwavering faith to the end that those who come within the radiation of your personality and your faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be led to investigate the truth." 12 Bertha's six-and-a-half year service was marked by her friendliness and her faith.
Housing in the Boston area was scarce at the time because of World War II, so the missionaries all lived in the seventeen-room mission home, which the Church had recently purchased. The home, on Brattle Street in Cambridge, had belonged to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's niece and was across the street from Longfellow's own home. The day after the Reeders moved in, a woman called on them and asked why the brass door knocker was green. Bertha discovered that not only was the door knocker made of brass, but all the hinges and doorknobs were also brass. She and several missionaries spent a day cleaning the brass with vinegar and salt, and they kept them polished from then on. 13 Another visitor, discovering that the Reeders did not have any pewter in the home, cried in astonishment, "Living in New England and no pewter?" 14
As mission mother, Bertha cooked three meals a day for the missionaries and her husband. They frequently had guests, such as General Authorities and general Relief Society president Belle S. Spafford. Though at times meal preparation was a challenge because of wartime food rationing, their meals were "always superbly delicious," according to one missionary, Kenneth W. Porter. He remembered Bertha as a "prodigious worker" who kept up the large mission home with little outside help and who collected, cleaned, and mended clothing for the welfare program. I have seen her so tired she almost dropped, but she never complained," he said. "This was all in addition to heading the Primary, Relief Society, and YWMIA programs." 15
As leader of the auxiliaries, Bertha spent many hours adapting lesson manuals for the small mission branches. The Cambridge Branch Primary met on Sunday morning at the same time as the priesthood, and from a small group of eight children, membership increased to forty-five. Every Sunday evening the Reeders hosted a fireside at the mission home for the servicemen stationed nearby. As many as seventy people, including nonmembers, attended the firesides, which were taught by George Albert Smith, Jr. Bertha commented, "We converted quite a few people through that Sunday night service." 16
Part of the Reeders' time in the mission field was spent visiting and helping outlying branches of the mission, which extended into the Maritime Provinces of Canada. "We tried to make them all as near like a branch of the Church or a ward as possible because we had to develop leadership," Bertha said. "So we put in a chorister and an organist and organized [each branch] just about like a ward, and tried to have [the members] realize what their responsibilities were. Our hardest job was teaching them the responsibilities and the organization of the Church because they didn't understand it. [The new converts] had been used to going and sitting and listening. Now they had to be leaders. We had to follow it up really closely to develop this leadership." 17 By the conclusion of their mission, the Reeders had every branch functioning under local leadership.
The Reeders returned to Utah in May 1947, in time for the dedication of the "This Is the Place Monument," which Judge had been instrumental in erecting as vice-chairman of the monument committee. While in New England, he had frequently checked on the monument, which was cast in bronze in New York City. Bertha remembers watching the "monument grow from eighteen inches to seventeen feet." 18
In April 1948, eleven months after the Reeders returned home, President George Albert Smith called Bertha to serve as the fifth general president of the YWMIA. Because she had served on the Primary general board, she was surprised to be called to serve in MIA. When she told President Smith that she felt she didn't know enough about the young women's organization, he replied, "Sister Reeder, if I thought you thought you did, we would not have called you." 19 She slept very little for several nights after that meeting, and to keep her mind off the tremendous responsibility that was now hers, she laundered everything in her home.
Bertha was sustained at general conference on April 6, but it wasn't until May that she chose her counselors: Emily Higgs Bennett, first counselor, and LaRue Carr Longden, second counselor. The presidency began their service after June Conference. In the interim, they met with outgoing president Lucy Grant Cannon and her board, thus making the transition smooth. Sixty women were called to serve on Bertha's general board.
Shortly after she became YWMIA president, Bertha and Judge moved to Salt Lake City so she could be closer to Church headquarters. Judge worked in Salt Lake City as legal counsel for Zion's Securities Corporation.
At the time Bertha became president, all girls were enrolled not only in YWMIA, but also in a girls' program that correlated with the Aaronic Priesthood program for the boys and was under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric. The girls' program, which originated in Salt Lake City's Granite Stake in 1940 and was adopted for the whole church in 1946, was carried out in each ward under a chairwoman with two assistants. The aims of the program were to encourage girls to attend church meetings, pay a full tithe, observe the Word of Wisdom, give at least one talk each year, and participate in an annual welfare project. Bertha, who felt that the girls' program conflicted with the YWMIA program, asked the First Presidency if both programs could be coordinated under the YWMIA. Within the first year of her presidency, the new coordinated program was introduced in several stakes, and in 1950 it was adopted for the Church. Each girl who attended 75 percent of sacrament, Sunday School, and YWMIA meetings qualified to receive an Individual Award. An attendance secretary was called to serve in each ward as a member of the YWMIA board. Bertha felt that by recording attendance at all three meetings, not only would participation by young women increase, but also leaders would be better able to know where the members were and to seek out those who were not attending.
The new presidency realigned the age groups, changing the Beehive department from three years to two, for twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls; creating the Mia Maid department for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds; and dividing the Gleaners into Junior Gleaners (in 1959 the name was changed to Laurels) for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, and Gleaners for young women who were eighteen through twenty-four.
In 1949 the combined YWMIA and YMMIA published the first issue of the Leader, a monthly bulletin sent to stake leaders containing messages, articles, and information concerning each department in the MIA programs. The following year the first stake speech festivals were held and the first honorary Golden Gleaner awards were given. Bertha and her counselors changed the name and focus of the former "recreation department," with the new sports committee stressing increased physical activity. Interstake sports competitions began in 1952.
Bertha's love of the outdoors carried over to the YWMIA. "It is our desire that every young woman have a camping experience," she said. 20 She organized a camp committee on the general board and urged all stakes to purchase camp sites. A purist, she believed that camping should be done in sleeping bags and tents, and she disdained "dude camping"—sleeping in lodges or cabins. She visited many camps in the Church and helped stakes organize their camp programs. In an article published in the Improvement Era, she expressed her philosophy:
"Nature does indeed renew those who keep close to her. Nowadays in the speed of our communication, with airplanes, automobiles, radio, and television, we seem to be crowded close upon each other. Even in rural areas, urban ideas have crowded until we have little real communion with nature.
"If I were in my teens, I would take time to come close to nature. I would learn to fish, to swim, to hike, and to find joy in God's great out-of-doors. I would learn to listen to the earth noises—to hear the birds, the crickets, the sighing of the wind in the trees, the lapping of the water against the shore. I would learn to see the differences in trees, in flowers, in grasses. I would realize again more fully the infinite variety in God's creation. I would learn to feel the difference in the seasons and to love each for what it gives to me. I would know that rain and sunshine are both important in God's plan." 21
Each year thousands of ward and stake MIA leaders gathered in Salt Lake City for the annual June Conference to receive instruction and inspiration for the coming year. In addition to instructional sessions, music, drama, dance, and speech festivals showcased the work of the MIA and gave young people opportunities to participate in large productions. The dance festivals, with thousands of participants, were held at the University of Utah stadium in Salt Lake City. The threat of rain could certainly dampen months and months of preparation. Marvin J. Ashton, then a member of the YMMIA general board, said, "Bertha was never bewildered or overpowered or defeated. . . . Some of us used to fret when it would threaten rain for our dance festivals. She didn't; she knew it would come out all right." 22
One year when it began raining the day before the dance festival, the chairman of the dance committee phoned Bertha and asked if the presidency and general board would join with the committee members in a fast. Bertha recalled, "It just poured down, and in the morning we called the fire department and they pumped the water off of the stadium. They dried it out, and we put on our festival that night. President George Albert Smith came up to the fieldhouse; we always had prayer together in the fieldhouse before the program. It was an inspiration to see all those boys and girls kneeling in prayer before they went on the dance floor."23
Music festivals were also popular activities for June Conference, and similar festivals were encouraged for local production. In 1961, ward and stake MIAs were asked to produce the musical Promised Valley by Crawford Gates and Arnold Sundgaard, which had originally been produced in 1947 for the centennial of the pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.
For four years, beginning in August 1954, the MIA general boards held a conference similar to June Conference in southern California so that the MIA leaders there would not have to travel to Utah. President David O. McKay addressed the first of these conferences at the famed Hollywood Bowl.
To counteract society's deteriorating moral climate during the 1950s, the YWMIA and YMMIA published and distributed a series of posters with the theme "Be Honest with Yourself." Such messages as "Great Men Pray," "Virtue Is Its Own Reward," "Fresh Up with Sunday," and "Living Prophets" were depicted. Popular and effective in reaching youth, the posters hung in meetinghouses throughout the Church. They were also reprinted in wallet-sized cards for each of the young men and women.
The duties of the YWMIA general board included supervising the Beehive House, which served until 1959 as a dormitory for eighty-five young women who came to Salt Lake City to work or attend school. The residents nicknamed it the "Behave House." Several times Bertha was called to go to the Beehive House in the middle of the night when a girl had stayed out too late. She later said that her role was "to supervise the girls, see that they went to Church and keep them on the straight and narrow." 24 In addition, the YWMIA was responsible for the operation of the Lion House, which had a cafeteria in the basement for Church employees and meeting rooms on the upper floors for various study groups and classes.
For the most part, the YWMIA was financially self-sustaining, operating on receipts from the sale of manuals, pins, and awards; dues paid by ward members; and twenty-five cents from each Improvement Era subscription. The YWMIA was housed in the former Bishop's Building at 40 North Main Street. When the Relief Society moved into its own building in 1956, the YWMIA expanded its offices in the Bishop's Building.
During her tenure as YWMIA general president, Bertha worked with four YMMIA general superintendents: George Q. Morris, Elbert R. Curtis, Joseph T. Bentley, and G. Carlos Smith. One of their joint duties was serving as associate editors of the Improvement Era. In 1960 the editors inaugurated a section in the magazine for young people, titled "Era of Youth." The editors were Elder Marion D. Hanks and Elaine A. Cannon.
The general officers and boards of the two organizations worked closely together. The boards met each Wednesday evening for a general session, followed by separate committee meetings. Many of the activities committees were comprised of both YW and YM board members, while the age-group committees met separately. One member, W. Jay Eldredge, described the association of the young women's and the young men's boards as "working in concert." 25
One of Bertha's most significant endeavors as YWMIA president was to encourage stake and ward leaders to train their youth for leadership. She frequently suggested, "Use your young people." "I don't feel sorry for tired leaders," she would add, reminding YWMIA workers that they needed to involve the young women in planning and carrying out activities and programs and not do it all themselves. 26
Bertha Reeder was generous in giving credit for success to others. "I can't say enough for the counselors who worked with me and the general board," she remarked. "We worked together thirteen and a half years and we never had a cross word. Never [did] any of the workers ever [feel] like they were criticized; we never felt we had to get after anybody. They all seemed to want to do everything they could do and we just loved each other.
"A president never works alone, and she's only as good as her counselors and the workers she's with. The general president isn't good unless she gets the support of the wards and stakes. We felt we had the support of the wards and stakes because they were allowed to work on their own and a lot of them would come and ask to initiate a program." 27
Those who worked with Bertha responded to the love, the warmth, and the confidence she placed in them. LaRue C. Longden, who served as Bertha's counselor during her entire administration, said, "She loved us and she knew our potential, but we didn't until she called us to work with her. . . . She had the ability to know that God gave us talents but some of us might not have developed them if it were not for her." 28
"Bertha was a beautiful woman," said Marvin J. Ashton. "She had an instant personality; she could go into any stake, convention, or conference any place in the world and in an instant shake hands with people and they were her friends. She had a warm, friendly personality which rang true from the first moment you met her. She had a beautiful sense of humor; she loved to laugh; she loved to smile." 29
Both Helena Larson Allen, Bertha's executive secretary, and Ruth Hardy Funk, a member of Bertha's general board who later served as seventh general president, remembered traveling to visit stakes with Bertha and making numerous stops along the way to see historical sites and the beauties of nature. Although Bertha was an adventurous outdoorswoman and traveler by car, she disliked flying and did not want to fly anywhere without a family member or friend to go with her. Yet she traveled widely as YWMIA president, visiting Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii. She supported the National Council of Women and served as a delegate to council meetings held in Washington, D.C. She was also a member of the Travelers' Aid Society and three literary clubs—the Acacia Club, the Classics Club, and the Children's Hour Club.
Fishing with Judge and her family provided Bertha with needed respite from her responsibilities, particularly after June Conference. She often remarked during the busy conference time, "I know that when this June Conference is over, there will be a trip to a stream where there will be a trout waiting with my name on it."30
Bertha and Judge enjoyed traveling together, and when diabetes hindered his mobility, she arranged for a wheelchair for him so that he could still travel. He died in March 1961, and Bertha was released from her service as general YWMIA president a few months later, on September 30. She had served in this calling for thirteen and one-half years.
On February 14, 1964, Bertha was married to I. L. (Lee) Richards, a man she had known for many years. After a ninety-day world honeymoon tour, they made their home in Ogden. "Lee has been so good to me," she wrote in her diary. "I respect and love him so much." 31
When she was eighty-eight years old, Bertha fell and suffered a massive hematoma on her brain. After Lee's death in June 1981, she resided in a rest home in Pocatello, Idaho, near her daughter, Oertel. She died December 26, 1982, at the age of ninety. Her funeral was held in Ogden.
Bertha Stone Reeder's optimistic personality radiated her love of life, her love of people, and her love of the gospel of Jesus Christ. An adventurous woman, she loved to see the beauties of the world and found joy in the outdoors. Her graciousness and smile endeared her to everyone she met. Her love and confidence helped many people to see greater potential in themselves. Her creed was "the Lord comes first," 32 and she followed that creed in every aspect of her long life.
12. Blessing given to Bertha S. Reeder, December 29, 1941, by President David O. McKay, Salt Lake City, Utah; copy in possession of Oertel A. Hoit.
25. As quoted by Verda Mae Christensen in telephone interview with author, Janet Peterson, January 13, 1992.