Like Guinness Without Guilt
Paul Skousen’s record about records isn’t for everyone, but anyone interested in all things LDS will be drawn to it.
The Skousen Book of Mormon World Records and Other Amazing Firsts, Facts & Feats is a veritable potpourri of the inspirational and irrelevant, the enduring and endearing, and the oddest of odds and ends in all of Mormondom. More than a decade in the making, the 480-page book is on shelves now at LDS bookstores and has become a guilty pleasure – like watching an unedited tape of “Titanic” or faking an illness on Super Bowl Sunday – for many of the faithful.
“It’s like Lay’s potato chips. No one can have just one,” says Provo’s Sharon Wilson, who bought five copies for Christmas gifts. “I thought the book was silly at first, but it is so fascinating.”
Try this entry: The only dinosaur named after an LDS apostle? It’s the “Torvosaurus tanneri,” the 148-million-year-old critter dinosaur hunter Jim Jensen named in 1981 after N. Eldon Tanner, an apostle and member of the LDS Church’s governing First Presidency.
Then there’s the “Most Secret Trash.” It’s Oliver North’s Iran-Contra shreddings that Skousen – a former CIA spy – shanghaied in the mid-1980s from the White House situation room, where North came after the shredder in his office broke.
Or how about the king of rock ‘n’ roll – Elvis – bearing his testimony about the King – Jesus Christ – to an LDS seminary class? It’s in the book. So is a tidbit about the first Mormon general authority ever hijacked on an airplane. It happened in 1972 to Elder William H. Bennett, an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve. He was headed to Los Angeles when the Western Airlines 737 was commandeered to Cuba. Military officers boarded the plane in Havana, and the passengers were freed.
All told, there are 1,600 entries in the book. Few of them depict actual world records; most are personal bests or “amazing achievements” by Latter-day Saints.
Skousen, 50, says the first question every reader asks him is why.
“A person would have to be insane and have serious obsessive-compulsive behavior issues to want to do something like this – which I guess I have,” says Skousen, who lives in South Jordan and oversees the education publication Studies Weekly.
Skousen’s mania for LDS superlatives didn’t happen overnight. His epiphany happened at his desk in the late ’80s, when he was the Utah editor of the now-defunctLatter Day Sentinel Newspaper and readers began submitting esoteric story ideas.
“The ideas were not hard news, but they were interesting,” Skousen recalls. “One of them was about a man who just completed his 1 millionth name for proxy baptisms in the temple. That guy had been dunked a million times.”
Other gems included Phillip Kunz and his son, Jay, setting a world record in 1967 for the highest kite flight – 5.5 miles high. Skousen stashed that and other submissions in a drawer.
“One day I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder how many other Mormons have set records.’ So I started doing research,” he says.
No one knows better just how dedicated his research was than his wife, Kathy, and their 10 children – the widow Skousen and my orphan children, he calls them – during the ensuing 16 years. Evenings, weekends and lunch hours were spent poring over the archives at the LDS Church, The Church News, and the Brigham Young University Library, among other places.
“And sometimes during a boring high councilman talk,” he quips, “well, sometimes I had a notepad with me.”
Kathy says her husband was just as single-minded at home.
“He’d often come home from work, put on some music and his headphones in his office and type until 2 a.m.,” she laughs. “He called me the widow Skousen because I had to take over . . . doing the bills and running the house.”
Oh, the places that Skousen would go. He went to any length to find Mormon mosts, firsts and facts. And, most times, he found what he was looking for. For instance, there’s an entry about 96-year-old Marvin Ezra Cook, whose illness in 1987 broke his 85-year string of consecutive monthly home teaching visits.
More bang for readers’ bucks is found in the morsel about Melvin Cook, father of perennial candidate Merrill Cook and the developer of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosion. It happened in 1969, when Melvin Cook loaded a 45,000-pound military bomb with his patented powerful slurry explosives. A B-52 released the bomb at 52,000 feet. It dropped 7,000 feet before detonating in midair.
“People who saw the flash thought the U.S. had violated the nuclear treaty banning the testing of nukes in the atmosphere,” Skousen says.
The Skousens’ favorite, though, is Richard Jones’ 2000 trans-Atlantic crossing in the “Brother of Jared,” a sleek, yellow boat named after a Book of Mormon prophet. The 4,579-mile solo triptook 133 days and earned the then-57-year-old Sandy man accolades for being the oldest person ever to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s a metaphor of life on Earth,” Skousen waxes religious. “We start out being told there’s this distant shore that we cannot see. We spend our whole life not facing it. We can’t see it because you don’t see where you are going when you row. All you have is a compass, some maps and the promises of a bunch of people that if you keep rowing hard, there’s something good at the other end. And Jones accomplished that great goal on that kind of faith. . . . That’s just like our lives. You got to keep rowing.”
Skousen is still mapping out his future. His book has sold more than 6,000 copies since its August release and is in its second printing. He plans to pen a sequel or two.
For now, he is enjoying the success of his inaugural effort.
Even his father, Cleon Skousen, who has written a number of more scholarly works, is impressed.
“It’s great,” the 92-year-old says. “It only has one problem: You can’t put it down.”
Not meaning to sound like a broken record where records are concerned, the younger Skousen says there are plenty of morerecords to be broken. He even offers aspiring record holders a few suggestions on his Web site, http://www. mormonworldrecords.com.
“I’d like to see the largest pillow fight take place in the Marriott Center. I would like to see the most cartons of milk chugged at one time. I’d like to see the most green Jell-O consumed at a sporting event. My big pitch is to coin a new question in the church: ‘Are you a Mormon World Record?’ That’s what I want to be on the lips of everybody when something wonderful happens that may be inspirational to the rest of us.”
Dec. 8, 2004