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Early Years

part 1 of 8 How did John L. Sorenson become the person he is? Tall, thin, and gray- haired, he is a courtly gentlemen, a model of kindness and consideration. As bishop of a student ward at Brigham Young University, he patiently guided young married couples, recalling in the process his own years as a virtual “professional student.” Friends testify of his unfailing helpfulness. Many collegues, especially his junior ones, have benefited from his unasked dispatch to them of clippings or articles that he thought might aid their projects or spur a new line of effort from them. Yet one is always aware of his mind, and some who do not know the whole man encounter only this. An extraordinary mind it is, formed and disciplined by an uncommonly dynamic and fecund combination of native intelligence and varied experience. Its formation has included lengthy formal education and the vigourous exercise of academic skills, as well as stimulating interaction with other good minds. Yet, as we shall see, John Sorenson’s intellectual development has not been limited to the classroom or academic study. Drawing from an extensive oral history and from a personal friendship of more than thirty years, I will summarize a dozen periods of notable growth in John’s life. What we discover is the result of a layering process by which a succession of rich experiences combined to produce a man of remarkable ability. At a certain early stage, John was perhaps not strikingly different from any number of other young males, but before long no one else had exactly his combination of background and expertise. As his life has continued and deepened, personal and work experiences have forged the unique, extraordinary person we honor in this volume.

Childhood and Youth

Born in 1924 to poor parents in the small northern community of Smithfield, John L. Sorenson wols seem to have been a poor prospect for advancing very far in life. The youngest of six children, he remembers his parents as always being elderly and in poor health. Even before the Great Depression of the 1930s, they could do little more than keep food on the table and clothing on their children. The family depended heavily on the classic pioneer resources of a large garden, fruit trees, a cow, a pig, and chickens. Survival rather than bright expectations characterized the family’s hopes. Yet John’s membories are positive. For one thing, his family was close- knit: the parents were always there for their children, and older siblings away from home provided a reinforcing network while John was growing up. The accomplishments of the preceding five children against heavy odds had garnered them some sense of pride in family. To be a Sorenson was to hold some promise and also to feel some responsibility to society. In addition, the community offered security and calm. Residents could walk in safety anywhere they needed to go, and few felt the need to lock their doors. "Smithfield was a three-ward town," John recalls, noting that such a designation not only communicated the size of a community but also implied the dominance of Mormonism in the fabric of community life. Much of life in Smithfield revolved around the ward. One beloved bishop presided over the ward during most of John's childhood and youth, a time when John enjoyed attending the children's Primary class and, later, Sunday School. Ordained a deacon at age twelve, he faithfully fulfilled his priesthood responsibilities. As president of his deacons and teachers quo- rums and as secretary in the priests quorum, he proved reliable. With rare exceptions he attended all his meetings in a day when regular church attendance among Latter-day Saints was far from the norm. John found the church to be a source of security. "For me church did take," he remarks, "and I took to it." In school John was consistently an excellent student, an accomplishment he attributes to the pattern established by his older siblings and to excellent teachers. "Smithfield was a town where the schools and education were held in particularly high esteem," he remembers. His report cards throughout his primary and secondary schooling would show essentially nothing but A grades. In contrast to his academic success, John remembers feeling socially rather marginal. Sensitive to the poverty of his family, he. avoided involvement with children from wealthier homes. He liked neighborhood sports, especially hoop-on-the-barn basketball, but never excelled in them. Having skipped the second grade, John was always a year younger than his classmates, a fact that probably exacerbated his sense of distance from many of them. Yet the teachers certainly knew of young John Sorenson. Gecause the classwork was relatively easy for him, he spent a good deal of time helping those who struggled to learn. Many students must have come to know him as a valued friend or pleasant and capable acquaintance, for he was elected student body president of his junior high school. In high school his social life expanded: he was business manager of the yearbook, and he participated in debate and wrote for the school paper. He was also active in seminary, where he had "outstanding teachers." "I hope I avoided snobbery," he says, revealing a continuing concern with something he considers to be a reprehensible social sin. Even though church, school, and home chores filled his days, John always made time to read. The local library, which was constructed with the help of hinds from Andrew Carnegie, provided treasured books and magazines such as Boys Life and National Geographic. When the Deseret News published a series of profiles entitled "Know Your World," John clipped and filed them. This early interest in the wider world helped establish a basis for his later interest in cultures and geography.

Utah State Agricultural College

At age seventeen, having graduated from North Cache High School, John entered Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan. A brother and two sisters of his had already graduated from there. With the campus located only seven miles from Smithfield, John could pursue a higher education while living at home. "It was a foregone conclusion that I would attend college," he says. "There was simply no other prospect." His older brothers, Curtis and Randall, had become electrical engineers, and John followed their example. Taking courses heavy in mathematics and physics, he also prospered in general education courses such as anatomy, writing, drafting, and metal shop. Because the school was a land-grant college, all male students participated in ROTC. During his first quarter at Logan came the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II. Some form of military service was inevitable for him, for despite his sickly childhood, he was now in generally good health. (Until middle age, though, his six-foot frame almost never carried more than 135 pounds.) Because John and his friends in the sciences would complete a year of classes before they became eligible for the draft, they set about to turn their education to their advantage in the military. John and his hometown buddy Grant Athay (who eventually became a rather famous astrophysicist) signed up to be trained as meteorologists in the Army Air Corps. They became reservists awaiting call-up, and this enabled them to complete a total of five quarters in college before they were drafted.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton