Elder Wirthlin’s life began in Salt Lake City, where he was born on June 11, 1917. His mother was Madeline Bitner Wirthlin (half-sister of Ada Bitner Hinckley) and his father, who served as Presiding Bishop for some years, was Joseph L. Wirthlin.
As a boy, Joseph Wirthlin enjoyed sports and went on to play running back for the University of Utah. His abilities earned him the nickname “Speedy” on the field. He once recalled a story about being tackled just inches from the end zone, saying that he remembered thinking he could move the ball and no one would have known.
“I had dreamed of this moment from the time I was a boy. And it was right there within my reach. But then I remembered the words of my mother. ‘Joseph,’ she had often said to me, ‘do what is right, no matter the consequence. Do what is right and things will turn out OK.’
“I wanted so desperately to score that touchdown. But more than being a hero in the eyes of my friends, I wanted to be a hero in the eyes of my mother. And so I left the ball where it was—two inches from the goal line.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a defining experience. Had I moved the ball, I could have been a champion for a moment, but the reward of temporary glory would have carried with it too steep and too lasting a price. It would have engraved upon my conscience a scar that would have stayed with me the remainder of my life. I knew I must do what is right” (“Life’s Lessons Learned,” Ensign, May 2007).
After his junior year of college, he went on a mission to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. He returned just before the outbreak of World War II.
During his adult life, Elder Wirthlin also served as Bishop of the Bonneville Ward and as counselor to Russell M. Nelson in the Bonneville Stake Presidency in Salt Lake City. He was also a businessman and president of a trade association in Utah.
Of his service, President Thomas S. Monson has said, “Elder Wirthlin, your service and leadership . . . will never be forgotten.”
Elder Wirthlin’s wife of 65 years, Elisa Young Rogers, died in August 2006. They are the parents of eight children.