In his zeal to make a mass-dedication of new buildings a “fine chapter” of BYU history, Ernest L. Wilkinson unwittingly created a missed encounter between two Smith family cousins who were on difficult terms despite both loving the “Grandmother Smith” Lucy Mack Smith Hall was named after.
BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson planned for May 26, 1954 to be, in his words, “a very fine chapter to be added to the history of the Institution.” For years BYU had been growing, and there were twenty-two undedicated buildings. To celebrate, BYU hosted a special dedication on May 26. Speakers gave remarks for each building, and David McKay—president of BYU’s sponsor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)—offered a prayer dedicating all twenty-two.
Two days later, Wilkinson received an unexpected letter from Israel A. Smith, president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). In the twentieth century, both the LDS and RLDS Churches claimed to be the sole successor to the nineteenth-century church founded by Joseph Smith. The churches’ relationship vacillated between warmly sharing heritage and icily distrusting one another because they differently interpreted that heritage.
Israel wrote that it was “an honor to be invited” to the dedication of one of BYU’s Heritage Halls dormitories: Lucy Mack Smith Hall, named after Joseph Smith’s mother, also great-grandmother of Israel. Wilkinson had asked his secretary to “send invitations to all known relatives of the women… having Heritage Halls named after them” but apparently had not expected her to invite Israel even though he was, after all, Lucy’s descendant.
Israel did not attend, though. He offered “good wishes for [Wilkinson’s] personal success” but also brought up the LDS Church’s unfortunate history with Lucy. Nearly a century prior, LDS president Brigham Young excoriated a family history Lucy wrote about Joseph. Israel still felt stung by that undeserved rebuke against his ancestor. Still, while the letter seemed intended to ruffle Wilkinson’s feathers, Israel was otherwise polite.
Given Israel’s relatively mild message, Wilkinson’s response may have been an overreaction. On June 14, he forwarded Israel’s letter to the Joseph Fielding Smith, an LDS apostle who was also a great-grandson of Lucy, and asked for Joseph Fielding’s “approval” of a reply to Israel in which he tried to defend Young’s objections to Lucy’s history. Strangely, Joseph Fielding apparently read “bitterness,” as he wrote, into Israel’s letter and claimed Israel “could not answer a letter like a gentleman” even though Israel’s letter was polite. Perhaps Joseph Fielding felt galled by Israel’s implication that he disrespected their common ancestor, whom Joseph Fielding affectionately called “Grandmother Smith.”
Israel and Joseph did not write directly to each other, and since Israel did not attend, the missed encounter became a kind of muddled tragedy. The Smiths were cousins, after all—family—and both had good reason to celebrate a tribute to their ancestor. Rivalry, unfortunately, kept them from understanding one another and coming together. Warmer feelings had to wait for a future generation.
Lucy Mack Smith Hall went on to be a rather ordinary dormitory, though the hall’s residents did win the 1962–1963 year’s homecoming housing sweepstakes. Like the other Heritage Halls, it was demolished in 2015 to make way for a new Heritage Halls complex with building numbers instead of names.