Emma Lou Thayne, renowned Mormon poet, dies at 90

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 03:21 pm

Obituary » The award-winning poet and novelist suffered a brutal accident that eventually brought serenity.

Emma Lou Warner Thayne was wheeled to a computer in her Salt Lake City home on Wednesday morning to work on one last poem — this one for the inauguration of a new president for Salt Lake Community College.

Thayne had never turned down a request to write a poem, not in more than half a century, and she wasn't about to start now. But this time the effort was too great and she reluctantly headed back to bed, exhausted.

The Mormon poet, English teacher, essayist, activist for peace and AIDS awareness, champion of women's and children's rights, and former Deseret News board member died Saturday morning of congestive heart failure, surrounded by family at the house in the St. Mary's neighborhood. She was 90.

Thayne wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems as well as 13 books, including one with her daughter, Becky Markosian, about eating and bipolar disorders and a collection of essays with Mormon historian and feminist Laurel Thatcher Ulrich titled "All God's Critters Got A Place in the Choir."

Thayne also wrote one of Mormonism's most poignant and memorable hymns, "Where Can I Turn for Peace?"

Most recently, Thayne penned a memoir, "The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography," which included a description of her harrowing experience when a tire iron crashed into a car where she was a passenger and broke bones in her face and shattered her jaw. She described a kind of mystical experience that easily blended into her LDS faith.

After her accident, Thayne recovered and gained "a sense of serenity — knowing that all eventualities, like my father said, will work out," she said in a 2011 interview with The Tribune. Further, "there are answers that I don't know anything about, and my role is to discover them."

"I know that there is nothing to fear in death," Thayne said matter-of-factly. "I know that my mother and father will be there to greet me."

Two years ago, Thayne told her husband, Melvin Thayne, and their five daughters that she wanted to be remembered primarily as a mother who loved mountaineering, skiing, tennis (she was women's tennis coach at the University of Utah before the days of Title IX) and friends — which included everyone from her university colleagues to her hair dresser.

She cherished her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thayne said, and "being in touch with her Holy Ghost."

Thayne was on the Deseret News executive board for nearly two decades, serving alongside LDS President Thomas S. Monson, who became a close friend.

"I am saddened at the passing of my friend, Emma Lou Warner Thayne, a multi-talented and caring individual whose outstanding contributions in literature, in education and in other endeavors have done much to enlighten and to inspire," Monson said Saturday in a statement. "She will be greatly missed. I join with countless others in extending my deepest condolences to her dear husband Mel and to her entire family."

Thayne used those connections to Mormon top leaders, said longtime friend and neighbor Marie Cornwall, to keep them informed "about the changing role of women" and other issues.

"Emma Lou often would give them a call and have discussions about the concerns she had," Cornwall said. "She knew so many of them well and felt comfortable talking to them about issues of the day."

The Mormon dynamo was always in motion, working not just on Mormon concerns but active in the community as well."She used her connections to help the 'underdog,' " Cornwall said, "or any average person who needed a voice in the government and religion."

Focus on her "flair for life," Thayne told her family to write in the obituary, and disregard all her awards and honors.

At each new award — whether it was the Gandhi Peace Award, the YWCA Outstanding Achievement, Utah Governor's Mansion Artist Award for literary accomplishments, David O. McKay Humanities Award, the Association for Mormon Letters award for poetry or an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Utah — Thayne would say to her friends, "I have enough. They should give this to someone else."

It was this capacity to connect to others and to make them feel important that most people will remember.

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