PROVO — Motto magazine proclaimed this week that the words etched in stone at the entrance to Brigham Young University, "Enter to learn; go forth to serve," make up one of the 10 best college mottos in the United States.

Except BYU doesn't consider it the school motto.

BYU doesn't have an official school motto, spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.

So, what is it? Numerous leaders of the university's owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have called it a motto, if unofficial.

Others have told students during campus visits that it is a slogan, a challenge and a command. A former Cougar and NFL star called it a covenant.

What is perfectly certain is that it is popular.

Schools from California to Connecticut to Canada have taken as their motto "Enter to learn; go forth to serve." Catholic schools and Baptist schools, too. Even the fictional Santa Maria High School in Francisco Jimenez's novel, "Breaking Through."

So has the Bethel Gospel Assembly on 120th Street in New York City, but that's not a school.

Based on popularity, Motto magazine maybe should have moved "Enter to learn" up the list a few spots from No. 10, and given credit not only to BYU but to Delaware State University, Tennessee State University, Keene State College in New Hampshire and Oakland City College in Indiana.

If it expanded the list to include international schools, the magazine would have to acknowledge Berean Baptist College in the Philippines and, in Mumbai, India, the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition.

Get it? Caterers enter the school to learn, go forth to serve?

So, who coined this famous phrase? Who should get the credit for all these similarly carved stones at the front of houses of learning around the world?

No clue. Sifting through 25 pages of Google results provided no answer. Neither did Ask Jeeves.

So, easier question, which school used it first?

Not BYU.

The New York City police academy adopted the slogan in 1925. It was on the cover of the yearbook at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in 1926. It was above the door of Fair Haven Middle School in Connecticut in 1929.

It was the presidential theme for International Rotary President Ken Guernsey in 1947-48, but he's not a school.

BYU political science professor Stewart L. Grow adopted the slogan for the university's Master of Public Administration program in 1965. BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson gratefully applied it to the whole of campus and put up the monument that every spring draws flocks of graduates in caps and gowns.

The phrase has been parodied, of course. "Enter to learn; go forth to earn" is the most repeated.

Motto magazine played on the idea in its press release: "Mitt Romney got his BA from this renowned Mormon university, where he was valedictorian. He learned, then he went forth to make boatloads of money. Now he wants to serve in the White House."

The reason the motto is a worldwide smash is that it is a philosophy that resonates with educators and students.

In 1966, Wilkinson sent Grow a memo: "Once again may I thank you for the slogan, 'Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.' (Wilkinson used a comma; the BYU style guide now calls for a semicolon. Thought you'd want to know.) This is going to be all the more impressive as the years go by."

Wilkinson was right.

LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has urged every student to make it his or her personal motto. (Yes, he said motto.)

"Walk the high road of charity, respect, and love for others and particularly those who are less fortunate," he said on campus in 2003.

Former NFL star Vai Sikahema told students to remember it as a solemn covenant.

"Over the years as I return to Provo," he said, "I always find myself looking at that sign and ... wondering if my life reflects that model."

Speaking for his graduating class in 2006, Andrew Maxfield went even further, referring to what he said was the Lord's investment in the students and perhaps to the tithing of LDS Church members who subsidize BYU's operation to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year.

"By attending BYU we have received something of a divine investiture. What is required of us now is to exhaust ourselves in service. And thanks to our BYU education, we are uniquely equipped to do so."

In his commencement address in 2004, Elder Henry B. Eyring of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve said, "We welcomed you, I hope warmly, when you came in the door to learn, and this is the day we show you the door, with a smile, on your way out to serve."

It was just another way to say what Halifax Grammar School in Nova Scotia has made a part of its mission statement.

"Inito ad discendum, exito ad serviendum."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com