From the News

Lessons from Death Row

What is the difference between a violent murderer on death row and me, or any other law-abiding citizen for that matter?

Some of the characteristics most murderers have in common include dysfunctional families, absent dads, being loners with few social connections, and suffering from childhood abuse.

While those traits tug at my sympathies, they never excuse or fully explain brutal crimes that take innocent lives.  But a recent glimpse into the mind and soul of a notorious killer in Utah makes me wonder if just a few acts of simple kindness might have sent him on a different path that would have led to something better than a life in prison and a death by firing squad.

Doug Robinson, a reporter at the Deseret News, wrote an excellent, thought-provoking story about a LDS Bishop who became a counselor and friend to Ronnie Lee Gardner, a murderer on death row in the Utah State Prison.

Gardner spent 30 of his 49 years of life in prison, and was one of Utah’s most infamous criminals – cold, violent, angry, and seemingly without a conscience or a shred of remorse.

During a robbery attempt in a bar when he was 24 years old, he forced a man to open the till, and ended up pushing the muzzle of his gun into the man’s face and pulling the trigger.  Later, during a court appearance, a friend slipped him a gun, and he shot and killed an attorney in the courtroom.

He nearly stabbed another inmate to death while in prison, and was so volatile the guards put him in a different area of the prison, separated from the other death row inmates.  Even the prisoners wanted nothing to do with him.

About 16 years before his June 18, 2010 execution, Gardner reached out to Dan Bradshaw, a Salt Lake City banker, assigned by the LDS Church to serve as a bishop at the prison.

Bradshaw, like most people in Utah, knew about Gardner and said he deserved the death penalty.  It surprised him when he got a message that Gardner wanted to visit with him. Why would a man on death row want to talk to a Mormon bishop?

They met in a tiny room separated by bulletproof glass.  Bradshaw described him as “not particularly friendly.”

Over time, they discussed their families and backgrounds and even Gardner’s newfound interest in his victims and their families. They visited twice a month and sometimes weekly.

They discovered they had similar backgrounds.  Both had difficult childhoods with alcoholic fathers who struggled to take care of their families.  Both came from large families and grew up in the same area of Salt Lake City.  Both had committed petty crimes as boys, and both had family roots in the LDS Church.  They were also both interested in ranching.

Even after Bradshaw’s assignment as prison bishop ended, he maintained a relationship with Gardner.

Bradshaw said, “We talked about how similar our lives were when we were younger.”

When Bradshaw was a boy, he got caught stealing, and he said he was moving in the same direction that Ronnie was heading when he was that age.

But there was one critical difference:

“Ronnie and I decided the difference was that I developed some good friends …who never gave up on me and had a real positive influence.  Even when I was out doing things I shouldn’t do, they would come by and get me to come to church with them the next morning.  And my grandparents were very good to me.”

Ronnie told Bradshaw, “I never had any of that…”

Ronnie’s father physically abused him, and he never felt wanted.

During their conversations, Ronnie expressed regret and remorse for the things he had done.  The bishop read him scriptures about the atonement, repentance and forgiveness.

“Man, that’s powerful stuff,” Ronnie said, and he asked the bishop to read it again.

Later he told Bradshaw he spent many hours trying to recall all his sins and repenting to God silently and vocally.

As his execution drew closer, Ronnie worried about the men selected as members of the firing squad, and said he hoped they would not suffer any emotional problems because of their assignments.

In their last visit together, Ronnie asked Bradshaw to reach his hands through the prison bars and lay them on his head to bless him.   Bradshaw blessed him with peace and comfort, and when he removed his hands, Ronnie grabbed them and said, “Thank you Dan.  Thank you for the patience and love you have shown me over all these years.”

This story keeps rolling through my head because the only difference between Ronnie and this Mormon bishop was that someone reached out to the bishop when he was a child.  Someone cared about him.

He had good friends.

I have a friend who worked in the prison with the death row inmates. He often played checkers or chess with them.  He said it was hard to detect the difference between them and him because they seemed so normal during those times of moving game pieces around.

The atrocious crimes Ronnie committed are not easily swept away, and the pain he caused so many people endures, but what might have happened to this man if one person had been kind to him?  Maybe he would have turned out the same.  Maybe it wouldn’t have changed him.  But what if it had?

If just one human being had reached out to him with respect, genuine acceptance, and compassion, would his life have turned out differently?

Could he have been the Mormon bishop helping prisoners on death row instead of the inmate waiting to face a firing squad?

Yesterday, I saw a woman unloading her cart at Target.  She had a large rattan storage chest she needed to get out of the cart and into her trunk.  I stopped and said, “Do you need help?”

She glared at me and snapped, “What did you say?”

I think she thought I said something rude.

“Can I help you?” I said again. “It looks like you might have a hard time getting that furniture into your car.”

Her face softened when she realized I was offering help.

“I’ve got it,” she said.  “It’s not as heavy and awkward as it looks, but thanks anyway.”

I walked away wondering if I saw someone like a Ronnie Gardner in the parking lot trying to unload a cart, if I would have been as kind to him. Based on his hardened look, I probably wouldn’t have even considered it.

After making a very regrettable mistake, a friend once said to me, “People probably think I’m a waste of flesh.”

“A waste of flesh?  I don’t want you to ever say that again!  Of course people don’t think that of you.”

The truth is maybe there are people who looked at my friend during those desperate times and judged him that harshly, adding to his own feelings of worthlessness.

We never know the burdens people are carrying.  We never know the silent struggles of their souls.  This Ronnie Lee Gardner story reminded me of that truth, and of  the power of  kindness.

It reminds me to try to love the tender human being behind the rough exterior or the bad behavior, the one yearning for a little morsel of warmth and compassion in life.

Who knows the power of just being kind to someone?

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Part 2:


Give Me Some Attitude

A couple of weeks ago I taught a lesson to teenage girls about improving their attitudes at home.


When I told them the topic of the lesson, I saw them subtly but noticeably fold in the middle, giving me the teenage attitude slump that said, “This is the last thing I want to discuss.”


Then I rephrased the topic and called it,“10 Ways to Control Your Parents or at Least Melt Their Hearts.” Then, they became curious.


Girls and attitudes must go together just like girls and boys.

There’s just something inherently sassy about a teenage girl.


My goal was to break through their flimsily constructed veneers, and charge into their teenage territory where all their insecurities live.


Without even knowing it, I think teenage girls put out the attitude vibe to make them look and feel strong.  If they sport a little sass, they keep people at bay, protecting their ever-changing vulnerable and always-developing souls.  It’s like their way of saying, “I’ve got this.  I don’t need my mom or dad trying to tell me how to do things.  I’m a teenager. I’ve totally got this.”


The problem is they don’t really have it, and they know it.  They just can’t take the risk of outing themselves to their parents.  That would ruin everything.  They would feel powerless and childlike.


So in my lesson I came up with some attitude-busters to give them alternatives to the normal teenage way of interacting with their parents.


During the lesson, the adults mentioned that these ideas are excellent for all relationships.  So I decided to share them on my blog.


So here they are:


  1. Shock your parents by preparing to share something about your day or your activities.  You know they’re going to ask.  Instead of rolling your eyes, being offended, and harrumphing around angrily, just be ready for the question, and tell them something – anything.  It will get them off your back and they’ll feel like good parents who are succeeding at being involved in their kids’ lives.
  2. Listen politely when they try to tell you something.  Just look at them, make eye contact for a few seconds, and act interested, like you appreciate what they’re saying.  Pretend that what they’re saying actually interests you. They will suddenly think you are amazingly mature, and without even realizing it, they’ll trust you more, which means they might give you a little more freedom.
  3. Apologize.  If you get home late, forget to call, don’t clean your room, or whatever the offense, just say you’re sorry.  Don’t make excuses, get defensive, blame someone else or get angry.  Simply apologize.  (Practice your tone of voice on this one because it makes all the difference!) This one tip will help you more than you can believe.  It may mean so much to them, they might want to take you to Chipotle for dinner.
  4. Obey the little rules.  Trust me on this one.  If you obey the little rules like your curfew, they may ease up on you when you want a bigger thing, like permission to go to the midnight premiere of a favorite movie.
  5. Send them reeling with this one simple question, “So, Mom and Dad, how as your day?”  Give them a minute to get their bearings and follow-up with another question about them. This will score you big points.
  6. Practice eye contact with a genuinely pleasant facial expression.  You only have to do this for a few seconds for it to have a big impact.
  7. If you know they are going to ask you to do something, do it before you’re asked.  If you know your mom is going to ask you to set the table, just do it.  This will end a lot of what you perceive as nagging.
  8. When it’s your turn to pray in your family, pray for each family member by name.  Pray for their specific needs.  This will give them such a love chill they will want to do something nice for you.
  9. Write them a note.  Put it on their pillow.  Just tell them thanks for something they’ve done for you or simply say, “I love you.”

10. Be patient.  Talk slower and quieter.  When you feel yourself talking fast or getting agitated, take a breath, slow down, and lower your voice.  Oh, and help them read the small print on labels and use the DVD player.  It will help their shrinking egos.


The next week when I saw one of the girls, she said, “It works!  I tried some of those pointers, and they really work.” So, who knows?  They might just work for non-teenagers too.




Things you don’t say…

My oldest daughter just turned 21 years old.

She is home for the summer working to bulk up her bank account after draining it with a semester abroad in London with side trips all around Europe. (Oh, to casually say, “When I lived in Europe…”)

I’ve noticed a new maturity about her since she came home.  Some are small things like how she makes her bed, whips up masterpiece desserts in the kitchen, and actually seems to enjoy being a mentor for her younger sister.

There are the big things too like how she is planning for an independent future.  She resists the idea of graduate school but knows she selected a major (human development) that essentially requires more education to use it in the working world. Her future is coming at her too fast and she doesn’t feel ready for it.  In fact, at 21, she feels old.

I remember being at that transition stage of my life and 21 really did seem old.

She casually mentioned recently that she doesn’t have her life all planned out like I did when I was her age.  Ah, sorry to break it to you honey, but I certainly did not have my life planned out when I was 21 years old.

In fact, I distinctly remember believing that if I could just make three major life decisions, the rest of life would be just a smooth walk down my well-planned life path.

As I pondered my life when I was a student roaming around the campus of Utah State University, I thought the three most important decisions in life were what to do for a living, where to live, and who to marry.

While those might be major decisions, I was extremely naïve about them being my only big life decisions.  It shocked me when the decisions just kept coming and the path never smoothed out.  Instead, my path had sharp corners where I couldn’t see what waited on the other side.  There were steep hills, dark areas, and lots of surprises.

I explained to her that when we look back, things seem planned out because the awkward transitions from one phase to another don’t really show up on resumes and in conversations about our past. The murky parts get skipped most of the time.

So now that she is contemplating life and where she’ll go, I wonder whether I’ve taught her enough.  (I clearly misled her about my life following a well-thought out blueprint.)

She knows how to do laundry, make dinner, and manage money.  She knows how to create and sustain friendships, fill up a tank of gas, and get the oil in her car changed regularly.  She even knows how to host a great party, make small talk with strangers, and boy, can she pull an outfit together.

She knows the importance of faith, and how to draw on the powers of heaven for direction and comfort.

There are so many other things I want to teach her.  Unfortunately, they are the kinds of things that cause eye rolls, and groans.

There are definitely things I don’t say because they don’t easily fit into conversations. In fact, they would mostly be categorized as lectures.

Here is the lecture I’ve wanted to deliver lately:

Don’t ever doubt your beauty or your power.  You will have instances every day that will make you doubt both. Your beauty is yours. Don’t look at Kate Middleton and want to be like her.  Just be your kind of beautiful.  And don’t doubt what you can do because you see others who do things better. This is probably the biggest mistake women make.  We compare ourselves to everyone around us and it zaps us of our self-worth and power.  If you start believing others are better, smarter, prettier, etc., you start to withhold your contributions from the world, thinking they are too small, too insignificant to share.  This thinking is flawed.  You are magnificent in every way, and you must make your mark on the world with all the confidence you can muster.  God created you to make a difference, to stand out, to believe in yourself.  Don’t hold back.  Give the world your best every day and send the self-doubts packing every time they rise up their destructive little heads.

 I know that you and your friends follow blogs with beautiful brides and GQ husbands who live in Pottery Barn homes with clean, well-dressed children. Naturally, you want to be like them, look like them, and have the kind of marriages that you imagine they have. Remember they put all the pretty, glossy stuff online.  They leave the gritty stuff out.  So don’t buy into the perfect life idea.  There are no perfect lives, even if blogs make it look like it. Oh, there are great, happy lives, (I have one) and you will have one too if you set your mind on it, and always choose to be happy.  But, create your vibrant life in your own way, and remember you’re reading only the bright and lovely things of their lives.

No matter what happens in your life, remember this:  NEVER want something or someone so much that you compromise for less than you deserve. 

 Now, it will be hard to find the right man because not just any ordinary guy will do.

 You have so much to offer and that means your Mr. Right must have a lot to offer you. 

 You can have fun with different guys and enjoy their company but don’t even think about marrying a man who isn’t worthy of you.

(I could tell you whether he’s worthy but you’re not going to want that when you’re cross-eyed in love.)

So I want to tell you my marriage advice now, hoping that it will burn into your heart, and become part of your love radar.

This is what I want for you:

  • A man who has fought just as hard as you have to do what’s right; a guy that never retreated, gave up or took the easy way out. I want you to marry a man who shares your beliefs and values, and has a past to prove it.
  • A man who values education as the only way to have a happy, productive, enlightened life as a successful, contributing member of society.
  • A man who loves God just like you do and puts His will first always.
  • A man who loves his family, honors his parents, and respects and honors women, and cherishes children.
  • A man who wants a strong woman for a wife, a woman who will lead the family with confidence and courage, a woman who will speak her mind and exert her independence in healthy, productive ways; a man who will support your dreams in every way and never hold you back from achieving your own success.
  • A man who can laugh at the silly foibles of life and take mistakes in stride.
  • A man without a temper.
  • A communicator, someone who will talk about everything with you and listen to you with his heart to really know who you are, what you want, and what you’re trying to say.
  • A hard worker, someone who never sits back and expects success to come to him without serious, hard work and continued learning and education.
  • A big, tender heart; a sense of humor, and a man who will be a great addition to our family.
  • Someone that you can stand next to at the trailhead of your lives, and see a beautiful vista open up in your future — a big panoramic view of opportunities, fun, family, love, and everything you’ve ever wanted.  I want your heart to feel full, but light, and happy. 
  • I want you feel like he will make you a better person because he believes in you, sees your divine nature, and wants to nurture you to be every good thing you can possibly be.
  • I want you to feel safe with him in every way — emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically.
  • I want you to feel confident that he will always hold your hand, walk down the same path with you and, never stray and go off on his own path.  
  • I want you to love how he sees you because you will see yourself through his eyes for the rest of your life.  Make sure you LOVE how he makes you feel about yourself because you won’t believe how his love and vision of you will get you through some very tough times. There will be times when you need to rely on his vision of you because it is better than the one you have for yourself, and it will elevate you, enlighten you, and make you return to loving yourself. Just trust me on this one.

I know this is lofty list, and you probably shouldn’t show it to a date because he will think you have a psychotic and overprotective mother, but it’s what’s in my heart.  It’s probably in every mother’s heart.  We are wired to want the best lives for our kids.  The person you marry will have the greatest influence on your happiness in your future.

I will love the man you love.  But, I won’t be able to stand happily at your wedding if your dreamy, handsome husband doesn’t also make you feel like a million bucks every single time you look into his eyes.

I want to look at him and know that he will never break your heart, never be less than you deserve.  I want you to have the assurance that he is a man of deep, solid substance.

I guess in the end, I want you to marry someone exactly like your dad.  He meets all these qualifications and more.

If you hold out for someone like that, I’ll never have a day of worry in my life about your happiness.

I’ll confidently smile at you on your wedding day knowing you chose a man who will make you happy.

Your happiness will be his mission in life, his reason for living, and I will thank God from the deepest part of my soul for giving you the very best, a man like your dad, the kind of man you deserve.

(This goes for you too Annie!)

Personal, Religion

Things Have a Way of Working Out

I remember the day I heard former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley say, “ Things have a way of working out.”

President Hinckley. I still miss him and his impeccable wisdom.

It reminded me of my favorite quote, “Everything will be okay in the end.  If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Isn’t that the essence of faith?

I recently spent a week in Utah with my family and had proof that President Hinckley was right.

My proof was undeniable, irrefutable, gorgeous, and soul satisfying.

Sometimes we get stuck in life’s dark tunnels and have to grope our way around until we find a tiny, hopeful sliver of light.

But eventually, the sun bursts out in all its magnificence and almost mockingly seems to say, “See, I told you so!”

First proof:

Almost 25 years ago, after only about 18-months of being married to her high school sweetheart, my sister’s marriage abruptly ended. She discovered her husband wasn’t the man she man she thought she married.

She boldly forgave him for breaking their marriage vows, and told him she wanted the marriage to work. He said he wasn’t ready for the responsibility of marriage.  And since one person cannot make a marriage succeed, they separated.

He had been part of our family for years so we were all heartbroken.

Just after they decided to separate, she found out she was pregnant…

With twins.

She hoped he would step up and take on the responsibility of a being a husband and a father.

He didn’t.

So she moved in with our parents, and took on the new life and title of “single mother.”

She lived at home until she could afford to move out on her own.

She enrolled in college, took on every kind of part-time job imaginable to pay rent, buy groceries, diapers, and formula for two growing babies.  (I remember when she buckled them in their car seats, and took them with her to deliver Chinese food at lunchtime.)

She graduated from college, and eventually ended up working for the State of Utah as a case worker, helping women just like her.

For all those years, she dreamed of owning her own home.  Every time I visited her, we drove through neighborhoods trying to find a home she could afford. But with the costs of raising two kids alone, owning a home was impossible.

But, on my last trip home, I sat in her beautiful home, one that is better in every way than any of the homes she thought she could afford.

It is in a neighborhood and a town she loves, and it fits her lifestyle perfectly.

Even better than owning her own home, she has two responsible, wonderful grown children that she raised to be respectable, loveable, happy, amazing adults. (One of them is serving a LDS mission in Uruguay.  The other completed a mission in Africa and is now working, and going to college.)

As a single mom, she spent more than her share of time in the dark-tunnel part of life, eking out a living, and balancing motherhood with a full-time job.

As I sat in her living room a few weeks ago, I felt like she is proof that President Hinckley was right.

Things have a way of working out.


(I saw this video and sent it to her as my tribute to her as my hero and super woman.)

Second Proof (Shared with my brother’s permission.)

The next bit of proof came on that same trip when I visited my younger brother at my mom’s house.

He was mowing her lawn.  He turned off the mower, and said, “Guess what I did today? I bought a cell phone.”

I gave him a high-five and said, “That is amazing!”

And, “amazing” hardly captures the miracle that phone symbolizes.

About three years ago, after years of drug abuse, he became homeless — literally without a place to sleep, shower, or make a meal.  With no alternative, my distraught mom told him if he became sober and never used again, he could live with her until he could rebuild his life.

With no other options, he agreed to her terms, and moved in with only the clothes on his back.

Having a cell phone means he’s inching his way back to being a man who actually owns something.

Three years ago I was certain he would die under a culvert or end up in jail.

In June of 2011, he called me on his cell phone.  He is alive, healthy, and starting to accumulate things again. He is a happy, contributing member of our family. He has goals, dreams, and plans again.

Things have a way of working out.

I have beautiful, deeply reassuring proof all around me – proof that sits at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in the form of a perfect red brick home, and proof symbolized by a simple cell phone.

Everything will be okay in the end.  If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.  And if you can just hang on long enough, I promise you’ll have proof.

Memoir, Personal, Uncategorized

Hard Hearted Hannah

Growing up, my mom called me Hard Hearted Hannah because I rarely cried.

I still don’t cry very often, at least tears of sadness.

I cry at happy things. I get choking sobs stuck in my chest and then in my throat over the silliest things.

Proud mom moments bring them on regularly.

When Annie was about eight years old,

I remember watching her race down the soccer field toward the goal

with her blonde pony tail flying in the wind behind her.

(Her coach used to say, “Take it for a ride, right down the side” because that was her specialty.)

As I watched her glide down the field dribbling the ball,

I thought about the pure magic of the moment —

me with a healthy, active daughter playing soccer,

me sitting next to my best friend of a husband on a beautiful grassy field in Virginia

surrounded by a committed group of parents all cheering on their kids,

and suddenly I cried.

My life was just so good, I couldn’t help it.

When Sara was in high school,

I picked her and her friends up one evening after a varsity cheerleading conditioning workout before try outs.

One of her friends complained about the vigorous and stressful exercises.

She hated the pressure and questioned whether it was worth it.

My cute little determined daughter said,

“Well, I’m not opposed to working hard for this because it’s something I really want.”

I almost had to pull the car over to the side of the road and weep I was so proud.

I’m sure she doesn’t even remember saying those words

but they hit me forcefully

because they communicated to me that she knew the importance

of going after something she really wanted.

It was a proud moment,

and those are the kind that produce the tears sometimes.

Today in church we sang America The Beautiful.

We got to the third verse and sang:

O beautiful for heroes proved 
In liberating strife

Who more than self their country loved…

That was all I could get out before my voice turned into an embarrassing squeak.

I looked up and saw our friend Rich sitting on the stand.  Rich served two tours of duty in Iraq.

He is a hero to me and so his wife, Keri.

I remember when he left

and how we prayed for him and his family so diligently

for all the months he was away.

 I often wonder what his life was like in that war-torn place

and what he endured that we never even knew about.

Today, I thought of the many other men in Iraq or Afghanistan

who have served in this long war

and those darn happy tears just poured out of me again.

Proud American tears.

I may have my Hard Hearted Hannah moments,

but good things melt my hard heart and my tears flow freely.

It’s not all bad to be a happy crier.

Today  my heart might burst with gratitude

for being an American,

living in the beautiful, patriotic, Washington, D.C. area,

and enjoying freedom.


Now that deserves a proud and happy tear or two.

Happy Fourth of July!