Sherry Young raised five highly educated and successful children (including Hall of Fame football quarterback Steve Young). Now she’s reveling her own opportunities to have her own newspaper column and look back on a life full of lessons. Among other words of wisdom, Sherry reflects on the hard work of marriage, the importance of friends and the realities of parenting a famous child.
Tell me about your early years and how those shaped you.
I was born in 1939, a difficult time because of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. My father managed to find enough work to keep us going, but my mother tells of sometimes sharing a can of soup for dinner and being grateful for it. In 1943 my Dad joined the Navy, so we moved to Farmington, Utah to live with my grandparents while he served on a destroyer. When my dad returned we bought a small home down the street from my grandparents and lived there until I was sixteen, when my dad got a great opportunity to work for the White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Moving down to New Mexico was a huge change for our family. Leaving all our cousins and friends was difficult since we were Davis County residents forever, from way back when they came into the Salt Lake Valley. I hope it doesn’t sound wrong, but we called it, “going to live with the cowboys and the Indians.” I thought my life had ended, but in reality it was just beginning because the experience enlarged my world. Living in the “mission field” proved interesting, but wonderful. My dad was in the bishopric so until we finally got a ward building, I would help him go clean out the debris from the Elks Lodge so we could hold church there. It was also during that period that I learned to love the Hispanic people. Most importantly, our time in New Mexico got me ready to live in Connecticut all those years later. I think it would have been more difficult had I always lived in Utah, rather than knowing that you can build another life and life does go on.
You’ve worked in education and are now a writer. What is your educational background?
I started at Brigham Young University in the fall of 1957. Like most girls of my era, I studied human development and family relationships. I had an emphasis in clothing and design because I was always really interested in sewing. It’s funny because back then you had to go to a lab and burn fabric to know what was in it. Nowadays, that would be so obsolete. In fact, sewing is almost obsolete, I think, unless you’re a quilter. While at BYU, I met my football player husband, LeGrande (Grit) Young and we decided he would attend law school and I would work, so I didn’t finish my senior year of college. Instead I got a well-paying job as a secretary at Kennecott Research Center on the University of Utah campus. When we found I was expecting our first son, Steve, I quit working and went to school for another semester. I thought I would eventually go back and finish, but never did.
Was it a difficult decision to quit your studies so your husband could go to law school instead?
The mindset was that a girl didn’t necessarily need an education in the same way a man did, which is a fallacy, especially now, because you never know when you’ll need to lean on that. It just seemed like the thing to do because we certainly didn’t have parents who could help us and because I wanted to be a mother. If I could do it again I’d study ancient Spanish literature or something.
What took your family to Connecticut and how was that transition for you personally?
After graduating from law school, Grit got a job with the Anaconda Company as house counsel and we lived in a little house in the Cottonwood area of Salt Lake City. We moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, a few years later in 1970 after my husband became a labor attorney. Living in the East was a daunting experience, especially in a town like Greenwich. We didn’t live in the chi chi backcountry, but to live anywhere in Greenwich was an expensive proposition. The women tended to be very bright, well educated, take-charge, and quite aggressive, both with childrearing and their expectations in life. Because a lot of them didn’t know very many LDS people, I was their token example, and I was struggling just to keep my head above water, let alone be an example. No one treated me like I was this little hick from Utah, but that’s how I felt. I eventually overcame my own feelings of inadequacy.
It was a hard period because that was the time of the big labor conflicts of the early 1970s, so my husband was traveling much of the time and I was lonely and overwhelmed. I had four little children eight years and under, everything was so new, and the church was 25 miles away in Scarsdale, NY. There was one period where Grit went to Washington and the President locked him up until they settled the strikes, so he didn’t come home for almost a month. I look back and am grateful I made it through with good neighbors, good friends, and the Church. There weren’t very many Church members in Greenwich, so I really relied on my neighbors. My experience living in New Mexico was a boon to me at that time—I’d learned to reach out beyond the Mormon experience, to make friends, and accept people for who they are and to enjoy them. My neighbor across the street became a lifelong friend and actually later moved to Salt Lake City, which is ironic.
I loved my life, my husband, and my children, but those first five years were difficult ones until I could raise my head out of the cookie crumbs and diapers. I saw that I had a good mind of my own and that I actually handled myself very well, that people thought of me as a friend. It also helped when Grit was changed from the labor counsel to house counsel. There was still travel but not like it had been.
How did you find fulfillment during those strenuous years of young motherhood?
I think you have to just kick back, gear yourself down, and do the best you can. I baked a lot of cookies. It is a time when you can totally devote yourself to your house and to your family. We would do things together a lot because my husband was traveling so much. I’ve always loved music and my kids will tell you we played a lot of music and listened to stories on old records. You just have to fill each day with the best joy you can, and for me that was keeping the kids happy and busy.
I’m the kind of person that if you get my nose in a book I forget everything around me, so I really didn’t do a lot of reading at that time. I always felt like it wouldn’t last forever and tried to keep the perspective of being the best parent I could be. Church was also a huge commitment with meetings during the week. We went into Scarsdale twice on Sunday, on Tuesday for Relief Society, and on Wednesday for Primary. It would take us at least a half hour to get there, depending on the day. We got a red station wagon a couple of years in and we’d just load it up. Sometimes we’d pick up investigators or other people’s kids and have wall-to-wall people in a nine-passenger wagon. It was so much easier because we didn’t have car seats, or seatbelts even, so the kids just bounced back and forth. Finally, in 1978, we went into the New Canaan Ward, which was closer.
What advice would you give to women going through a similar stage of life?
You’ve heard all of this. It goes quickly, so put your head into it and do the best that you can do because it’s such a halcyon time of learning about who you are and who your children are, and they will look back at those times with love. Of course, you can’t just have fuzzy eyeballs and just focus on them all the time; you should develop your own self and those opportunities should be taken to a point. But if you have been trying to do more than you should and take opportunities for yourself more than you serve your children, I think you’re going to be sorry someday because you never get that chance again. When you’re in it you often can’t see beyond and sometimes think, “I need to get out of here, it’s just so hard!” But when you have a child you’ve made a commitment – a commitment to love their father, a commitment to love them, and to be the best mom you can be.
Don’t always be so focused on what you think you want, that you can’t change and be something else. The opportunities are there. By joining book clubs, by volunteering, by doing all kinds of things you just might find out there’s something you do well that you hadn’t any idea you could do.
You have a family full of children who are highly educated and accomplished professionally. How did you encourage your children to succeed while they were growing up?
Steve is a Hall of Fame football quarterback and analyst for ESPN; Mike, Tom, and Jim are doctors; and Melissa worked as the director of creative services for NuSkin until leaving to become a full-time mom. They weren’t raised in a slacker environment in any way, shape, or form. My husband expected a lot of the kids. I was the cookie baker, the knee patcher, and the hugger. We also lived in an environment in Connecticut where education was the end all, be all, and the competition at the high school really made you want to be better, so I think it had a lot to do with where we were. They were all athletes, which gets you over that hump of being afraid to fail.
Athletics has played a big part in your family’s lives. Was it heavily emphasized, since your husband was a college football player, or did it just come naturally to your kids?
All of our children have been outstanding athletes. I suppose the genes connected well somehow. Although Steven has received the most accolades, the others have had their own kudos enough to be happy with what they accomplished. While I think athletics came naturally, it wasn’t like they had to play football. The boys all played three sports, were all-State football players and played football at BYU. Our daughter ran track and was a high school all-American swimmer. Jimmy was a little different and did lacrosse instead of baseball. They liked athletics and it pleased their dad because he always thought it was great training. He spent a lot of his nurturing time throwing the ball to the boys and laughingly will tell people that he’s got one arm longer than the other from doing that.
Would you classify yourself as athletic?
Not really, but I started playing tennis when I was 30 and still play to this day. I began when Tom was young and just worked it in. I was unfulfilled athletically until that time, and it was a wonderful eye-opener to see how much fun doing something like that could be. Some friends and I decided we were going to learn and Greenwich had a great community center where we took lessons. I got to be pretty good when I was expecting Jim and had to give it up for a little bit, but I loved it so much that I went back to it fairly quickly. It is my favorite thing to do other than read or be with grandchildren.
It sounds like your kids are good friends. How did you foster good relationships among your children?
They were good enemies and good friends. They love each other, but believe me, they’re competitive and had their goes at it. We also tried to have Family Night. I’m not sure we did it as often as we should, but we did it. As they got older they gained respect for one another and then they needed each other. The boys all played for BYU so they helped their sibling get where they needed to go, and that created a nurturing process. The three boys being doctors also creates a friendship. Jim is going to be a dermatologist, Mike is an ER doc, and Tom is an anesthesiologist. In fact, sometimes Steve will be standing there and they’ll get doing their doctor stuff, and he’ll say, “What am I, chopped liver?”
How did you deal with you and your family being in the spotlight, having a child who is a public figure?
My advice to anybody who thinks that their kid is going to be in the NFL or professional basketball or anything is to be careful what you wish for. Your parenting can only go so far. For instance, what advice do you give a young man who is in the NFL making 50 times more money than you ever thought you would and has all that attention? If he doesn’t make the right decisions, then you’re in big trouble. So it’s not always the end all and be all to have someone like that. But we have been so grateful that Steve made good choices and that he was the person that could do that. Steve stayed close to the other kids so they always felt he was a sibling that cared about them, and they’ve had a lot of fun opportunities afforded them that wouldn’t normally have been available. So then you’re willing to put up with more. Because Steve is a good person, it was mostly good and we’ve had a fun ride. A lot of it is you guard your mouth. You’re careful about what you say because you certainly don’t want to cause problems for them or embarrass them. I got in trouble once after he got a concussion and a guy from the Tribune I knew really well called me and I made a comment.
We’re kind of old shoes now, so it doesn’t go to our head very much. But when Jimmy was a little boy, it actually frightened me. My friend and I both watched him like a hawk because you didn’t know when some crazy person would get a wild idea. So there are good things and bad things with it. We just had a guy come to our house to interview us. We thought that was all over, but they set up cameras and asked us all the questions again. But I am Steve’s mother, so that’s part of me. You get a lot of attention because of it and we like to know that people like us for us, and not because we’re his parents. Your close friends are your close friends, and of course there are those people who will be standing and talking to you and if someone says, “Oh, did you know that they’re Steve Young’s parents?” all of a sudden they’re a lot more interested in us. It’s always amusing to see the light in their eyes go on.
At what point did you gain your own testimony and how did that experience affect your outlook or approach to life?
Sometimes you can go through life as an LDS person borrowing other people’s testimonies. I was active in the Church and had never really cared enough to question that on my own. But after we moved to Greenwich, I was called to be the Young Women’s president and I felt if I was to lead the young women I had to know for myself if the Church was true. I told my husband, “I’m not really sure I have a testimony; I’ve never really thought about it a lot, it was just there.” He replied, “You’ve got to ask.” It was then that I really started to ponder and pray diligently for assurance. Normally I move quickly and never sit still, and I still remember one particular morning after I’d been praying, I started going about my busy day rushing here and there. As I was walking through the living room by the bookcase it was as if someone put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Stop.” It was then I had an overwhelming feeling that the Church was indeed true and I would find much joy in serving the young women.
It’s so important to stay strong in the Church, serve, do the basics, read your scriptures. It does make a change in your life and if you’re close to the Spirit when you do reach a choice or cross in the road, you will definitely be guided. I know that sounds trite, but it is so true because it’s that having that Spirit with you that will alert you to problems and dangers and will help you overcome hurdles that you never really thought that you could.
What were some of your most rewarding experiences serving in the Church?
When our older kids became teenagers, my husband and I taught seminary and we took turns going in to Scarsdale every morning. It was great because you really study and grow and it’s fun to be with your kids. I was also called to be the Young Women’s president about the same time Steve went to Young Men’s and I often look back at how grateful I was because I hadn’t really worked with teenagers a lot up until then. When you know what other teenagers are like, you’re a little more sympathetic with your own. Without being nosy, you have to try to find out what’s going on in their lives so that you can help. If I’d been in Primary forever, I probably wouldn’t have been such an understanding mom.
After Grit retired we taught Institute. The best was Old Testament, and the two of us studied and studied. He’d just retired, so we studied every day and learned so much, although I’ve probably forgotten it all. But it was just such a wonderful blessing. If we’d been somewhere else other than Connecticut, they wouldn’t have had us be the Institute teachers, being untrained as we were. Many times like that you’re given the opportunity to serve in a capacity that really stretches you a lot.
How did you decide what to pursue once your children were older – either in school or out of the house?
My youngest son, Jim, was eight years old when everyone else left the house. He was a walking, talking toy to my other children and my husband and I were a little concerned about him not having siblings at home since the rest were all out west. So I just went where he went, one step behind him. The Greenwich Public School system allowed me to be a substitute teacher, and I found out that it was very rewarding and fun to be involved with the kids. I was the permanent substitute in his junior high school, and when he went to high school I did it for a while before I was asked to run a learning center part-time. Freshmen who needed assistance and supervising came in and we helped them do their English and social studies homework. I loved working in education, working with the teachers, schlepping books.
My husband kept saying, “Why don’t you just go back to school so you can be a real teacher?” And I said, “Because I don’t want to grade papers!” Had I been a younger woman, I would have needed to do that to support my family. At that stage of my life, it was nice just to have it be part of my life and not my total life. I could have gone back, but I guess my lazy nature forbade me. During that time I also served on the board of Pathways, which is the mental health organization in Greenwich, and I wrote for the Greenwich Time. I had time in the learning center to write a lot of my articles.
I actually kept going to the learning center for several years after Jimmy left, but then you start having children who need you for babies and different things, and so we were traveling a lot. Your life changes.
How did you begin your career as a newspaper columnist?
By just going with the opportunities that came to me. I certainly didn’t grow up thinking I would be a journalist or write articles. I took a lot of journalism and English courses at BYU; I always loved English literature and English classes. I was one of the crazy, silly kids who loved to diagram a sentence and I really don’t like to misspell words.
In the 80s, during the Reagan era, I was called as the Church’s representative to promote Family Month in Greenwich, which I did for several years. By then I had a lot of friends and knew people because of my kids, so I got people to write articles and do spots on the local radio station. After that the editor of the op-ed page asked me to be on the board of contributors and I started writing articles. It was hit and miss for a while, and then it got to be once a month.
In 2005 we sold our home in Greenwich and moved to Provo, Utah to be nearer to our family. When we moved I knew I couldn’t write for the Greenwich paper anymore because they wanted a local voice. So one day I had a light go on and sent some articles to Lee Benson of the Deseret News. He used to write for the sports page and I knew him quite well, and he forwarded my work on to the editor. Within a few hours I had another job. I was thrilled and have written a personal interest column twice a month for the Deseret News since October of 2005.
Is it difficult to come up with topics to write about?
I’m constantly looking for ideas, which makes you more interested in life and in people and in things about the world. My husband is a newspaper reader, so he’s always passing me articles that he thinks might help. I find inspiration all over the place. If I have a great idea, I can sit down and write and it just comes, and I can have it finished in a half hour with a few touchups. But if you have writer’s block, with that blank page staring back at you, sometimes it’s just desperation. “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get that in!” So I just sit down and start and make it go. My favorite subject is my grandchildren, but I try not to overdo that, talking about yourself. I try to make it varied.
How long do you plan to continue writing for the Deseret News?
Oh, as long as they’ll let me, I guess. You know, I am 71 years old; I’ll be 72 this year. I suspect there will be a time when maybe they’ll want a younger voice, but so far it’s been great.
How do you maintain close relationships with your children, now that they’re adults?
Well it hasn’t been hard because mostly they need you to come and babysit. What a privilege it is to be given the responsibility of taking care of those children from time to time. As we get older, it gets more difficult to keep up with really young children. But it’s the way you get to know them, just like raising your own children. It’s nice to be able to go help out for a few days or a week, and your children can go off with a mind free of worry because you’re there. It doesn’t mean that something might not happen, because accidents happen, but certainly with grandparents there it’s going to be less likely and they’re going to be in the next best hands.
What are the blessings and the challenges of each different phase of life?
Service is always key to whatever you do in your life. That doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to anything, but it certainly is how you get over yourself and learn what other people are made of. And those opportunities change with the period of life you’re in. For example, I cooked and baked a lot when my children were young, but I hardly cook at all anymore. I mean, what a waste of time now, but not when you’re raising a family.
My mothering was probably easier than some people’s because I had focused kids and I am grateful because our children were healthy. So I was lucky. If you have children with special needs, that totally changes your life and I have great admiration for women who deal with those challenges. I worked in the school system with children who were in special education and those kids worked harder than A students. By spending that time with our kids when they were little, by the time they got to high school and they were doing all these wonderful things with their athletics, it was so fun to just go watch them and participate. Then as they went on to college we were able to do that all over again.
How have you and your husband maintained a strong relationship over the years?
There’s a time when you exist through your children, and then once they leave, you have to get past that. A good marriage is a lot of hard work. Sometimes you really don’t like that person very well, sometimes you get irritated or you change in different ways, and I think it’s important to keep working at being together on things, to keep working on finding something in that person that you admire and like and keep a friendship going, or it would be easy to just exist side by side. You have to be good friends or you’ll never make it.
When you’re raising your family and your husband is going to work every day, you don’t really know him the way you get to know him when he’s there 24-7. We’ve found strengths and weaknesses that we didn’t know the other had. You always work together as parents, but when he went to work and I stayed home, it was a very typical lifestyle with the man as the head of the house and the woman taking care of the house. That was our age. Now I see my kids and they share a lot more. My boys help out in the home and my daughter’s husband helps a lot. There aren’t such divisional lines from mine and my husband’s age. There were lines of demarcation when you entered that other arena, and now there are none. So now he vacuums and cleans and does all the stuff and helps. You work together on things, which is really very nice. Now that he’s retired we golf and play tennis together. He doesn’t read like I do; he does crosswords. We like each other, so we get along just fine.
How can women best support each other during their various phases of life?
By not judging, but accepting and just being a friend. What would we do without our friends? It’s the most wonderful thing to have a good friend who will love you no matter what. One of my dearest friends to this day is an Englishwoman whose backyard joined ours in Greenwich. She moved there just before we both had our youngest children, and we raised those boys together. She’s very different than I am, a very take-charge person, very English with this clipped verbal ability. I will take charge, but I’m also pretty easygoing too, and she was a great help while I was raising Jimmy. We’d take turns babysitting and we both say we would have never made it through that last child alone. Without someone to assist you, with no family around, she was key to survival.
Where do you find the greatest satisfaction?
Looking back and knowing I did my best. There were times when I could have been a much better mother, a much better wife, but I did improve and learn. I feel that I have maxed out a lot of my possibilities and I’m pleased with that. For me and my abilities, I’ve done okay and I’m glad I like myself.
At A Glance
Location: Mesa, Arizona and Provo, UT
Marital status: Married
Children: 5 children – Steve, Mike, Melissa, Tom and Jim
Occupation: Columnist for the Deseret News
Schools Attended: Bountiful High School UT, Las Cruces High School NM, Brigham Young University, University of Utah
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “This Is The Christ”
Interview by Nollie Haws. Photos provided by Shamberlin Young.