As news of President Hinckley’s passing began to circulate Sunday night, 200 students on the BYU campus spontaneously gathered and began to sing hymns, notes of appreciation and sorrow began flooding the Internet, Utah governor Jon Huntsman ordered flags to put at half-mast, and Latter-day Saints knew that they had lost a giant.
The word spread through text messaging among many high school students in Utah to wear their Sunday best to school on Monday as a symbol of their respect.
With President Hinckley at the helm, we eagerly awaited each General Conference session to see what new announcement would be made. The Nauvoo Temple announcement took our breath away, but there was always a surprise, a stride forward as the Church not only enjoyed unprecedented growth, but also leaped ahead in every area.
Even in the last year, when President Hinckley for the first time began to show a few signs of frailty, something came over him as he arose to address the Church, and he spoke with power and conviction, the full force of his spirit overcoming his age.
We, who have come so much to rely on his goodness and vision, watched that bit of frailty with concern, as it was so new, but when he spoke we could relax, hearing the power and counsel, the essential Gordon B. Hinckley, and pretend that he could continue to defy time.
We wanted him to, because we would never be ready to let him go.
He was never without a quip, a warmth and wittiness, that was sometimes a bit self-abnegating. When, during temple dedications, he came out for the coverstone ceremony to put the mortar in the joints, he often laughed, “We’ve had a lot of experience at this, but I never get any better.”
As he aged, his doctor finally told him that he had to carry a cane. Obediently he did. Often, he just carried it — using it to wave or as a pointer and last General Conference gave us a light moment when he used it to dub Elder Eyring as a new member of the First Presidency.
Mitt Romney told reporters on Monday that he was planning to be at the prophet’s funeral and mentioned that on the eve of launching his presidential campaign, he visited with President Hinckley — who told him a presidential run “would be a great experience if you won and a great experience if you lost.”
President Hinckley managed to be great and inspiring, and human and personal at the same time. We followed him with camera and pen all over the world to temple dedications, to member meetings, and into the White House when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his 94th birthday, which gave us an upfront and personal view.
We counted every encounter to be a privilege, and learned to observe even small things about him.
When President Hinckley is moved to tears, he coughs or clears his throat to quell the emotion. The day of the Nauvoo Temple dedication in 2002 was bright and hot, and President Hinckley, with his love and understanding of history, had set the hour of the dedication for the exact hour and day when Joseph and Hyrum had been martyred at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. The Spirit was so remarkable during the dedication that President Hinckley had to stop frequently to cough. He had said earlier that this was Joseph’s temple and said that he expected unseen presences to join us that day. We surely felt them and heard them as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “Come, Come Ye Saints.”
After the dedication, on a surge of joy all of us burst out of the west door of the temple as the last light of day touched the façade. Then on that peak, we turned to see someone who had pulled back the curtains in the top window of the temple. It was President Hinckley, who waved to us all — a transcendent moment.
On one trip he rededicated the temple in Freiberg, Germany, on a Saturday morning, traveled to Paris that night for a meeting, dedicated a temple on Sunday in The Hague, Netherlands, flew to Ukraine on Monday, and was in Moscow on Tuesday in preparation for a member meeting on Wednesday.
We had been in Freiberg and then drove furiously to The Hague, then caught a plane in time to catch his first steps in Moscow, the first president of the Church in this dispensation to come to Russia. Having seen us in Freiberg and The Hague, he asked, “What are you doing here?” “We’re following you,” Scot said. “How are you doing that?” he asked.
“It isn’t easy,” Scot had to admit. “It’s hard to keep up with you.”
Russia is vast, covering 12 time zones. For that member meeting in Russia, more than 2,000 Saints found their way to Moscow to hear the Prophet. They took all night trains to come to the conference with their children sleeping on their laps. They carried bread and fruit in sacks to eat. They took days off work. They saved up for their transportation costs and slept on hard benches.
When President Hinckley got to the stand, he turned and invited Marjorie to join him. “This is my babushka,” he said. “We’re both getting old. She’s the mother of five children, a grandmother of 25 grandchildren, a great grandmother of 35 great grandchildren, and the end is not yet. Well, I just want you to take a look at this dear, elderly lady to whom I’ve been married for 65 years. We’ve had a good marriage, and we hope that it will go on.”
In a country where marriage and family had waned, he was modeling for the Saints, customizing his message so that they would understand. And Sister Hinckley was laughing.
President Hinckley told the Saints there, “Be not faithless, but believing.” Believe in God the Eternal Father. Believe in Jesus Christ.
A Man of Experience, A Man of Wisdom
In 1995, in his first year as the President of the Church, he was interviewed by Mike Wallace, known as a reporter who liked to slice and dice his subjects. President Hinckley, a master in communications, was bold to take the reporter on, and later admitted that interviews with the media “were always a worrisome undertaking because one never knows what will be asked. These reporters are men and women of great capacity and ask questions that come at you like a javelin. It is not exactly an enjoyable experience, but it represents an opportunity to tell the world something of our story. As Paul said to Festus and Agrippa, ‘This thing was not done in a corner’” (Acts 26:26).
President Hinckley’s bold willingness to take almost anything on for the gospel and his boundless, infectious optimism, far from being confined to a corner, expanded to fill the whole earth — where he dedicated or rededicated 95 temples from Finland to Brazil to Nigeria to Hong Kong.
When Wallace said with a note of disdain, “There are those who say, ‘This is a gerontocracy … this is a church run by old men.” President Hinckley, responded, “Isn’t it wonderful — to have a man of maturity at the head? A man who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine?”
He knew firsthand the advantages of long, steady learning in the art of leadership.
When President Hinckley became the prophet in 1995, he had been seasoned by nearly sixty years of service in the Church. Coming home from his mission, he had hoped to attend Columbia’s acclaimed journalism school, but all that changed when he stopped by the Church office building to carry a plea from his mission leader for an information program to lift the missionary efforts.
That resulted in assignments that would find him leading public communications for the Church for 20 years, and then, beginning in 1951, he managed the entire missionary program of the Church. From the time he was called to be a General Authority on April 6, 1958, he became a fixture in our lives.
He would never get that journalism degree from Columbia, but was prepared by his natural skills to be interviewed by major national media including CNN’s Larry King, Time, U.S. News and World Report, and The New York Times.
Scot remembers as he grew up during every General Conference, his father would lean over and whisper, “That Gordon B. Hinckley is right on.”
Like a Clydesdale, he had this endless capacity for work, and it isn’t surprising that some of his first conference talks as prophet emphasized work: “This Work is Concerned with People,” “This is the Work of the Master,” “We Have a Work to Do.”
Those who were going to stand for something had not only to have integrity, but the capacity to roll up their sleeves and work.
In July of 1981, Gordon B. Hinckley was called to be a counselor in the First Presidency. President Spencer W. Kimball, President N. Eldon Tanner and President Marion G. Romney were all ailing with problems incident to age, and so much of the burden of leading the Church fell to him. Then in 1982, he became second counselor to President Kimball, then first counselor to both Presidents Ezra Taft Benson and Howard W. Hunter, carrying a heavy load in every instance. He had already served in the First Presidency being the go-to man for 14 years when he became President of the Church.
Wasn’t it wonderful — a sage man of experience, of wisdom, bringing decades of seasoning to the work.
President Hinckley was a builder. We attended a meeting in the Kirtland Temple with him, hosted by the Community of Christ, where he was invited to ask any question he wanted. Every question was about the care of the building. How was it faring structurally? Were there termites? How was the heating system, how were the beams?
He sketched out the plan for the new smaller temples on a piece of paper when he was leaving Colonia Juarez, Mexico. On a sleepless night, he awoke to sketch out the Hong Kong Temple that would arise straight up from an existing structure.
So he built — temples that dot the earth and the Conference Center. He restored Church history sites and shored up the Tabernacle. More important, he built families and people. He gave us something to remember and hold on to.
A lover of history, he connected us to our past with a temple in Palmyra that had the only clear glass window of such a holy structure anyplace in the Church. This one had to have a clear view of the Sacred Grove.
Under his leadership, hundreds of Latter-day Saints relived the pioneer gathering in 1997, walking across the plains with oxen and wagons. Yet at the same time, he always pointed us to the future.
The Nauvoo Temple dedication gave us a brush with our history, but it was attended by 3.5 million Church members in a satellite hookup that pointed toward tomorrow.
He was a man for all seasons, and we loved him, a leader like few we’ve ever seen.
The Prophet is Coming
When we arrived in Ghana in January 2004 for the temple dedication, the Latter-day Saints there were all in a flutter. This was the season of the Harmattan winds — the dry, African winds that blow sand from the Sahara, tainting the sky red and covering the buildings with a heavy dust. But that day all were thrilled because they had had an unexpected rain that had washed the earth and the temple clean. “It is because the prophet is coming,” they said with trusting faith. We believed them.
The day of the dedication, they gathered in an undulating line leading toward the temple, dressed in their splash of African color, looking particularly beautiful. Behind them lay hard lives, a city with no sewage treatment plant, litter-lined streets and unemployment. But it was what lay before them that mattered — the temple that would forever change their lives and tell them that whatever kingdom they had belonged to before — now they were part of the kingdom of God.
President and Sister Hinckley were there. He had built this temple, this jewel in the midst of the city, against great opposition, with laborers who had never worked on such a building before, against all the snags and corruption. He had inspired the vision and the perseverance that brought it about.
Maurine stood in line that day for the dedication by Ghanaian pioneer William Billy Johnson, who said, “I cannot stop my tears.”
When the prophet came to Ghana, he brought the temple with him.
God Be With You
We’ve also seen the prophet leave from many meetings. The pattern is much the same. In Moscow, for instance, the members had all brought white handkerchiefs to wave at the prophet. When it came time for him to leave, knowing he would never visit them again, they pulled out their handkerchiefs and thronged his path and hung over balconies singing, “God be with you ‘til we meet again.”
One woman followed President Hinckley to his car and with tears streaming down her face said in broken English, “We luff you, President Hinckley. We luff you.”
We’ll always remember what he told the press just outside of the White House after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom about where the Church is going. He said, “I see an unbounded future. This work will spread across the earth. When you look at what’s happened thus far, you just have to realize that as we keep going it will grow exponentially and wherever it goes it will touch for good the lives of people across this whole broad world.”
It was an echo of his sentiments when he first became the prophet. “I do now know why in His grand scheme one such as I would find a place. But having this mantle to come upon me I rededicate whatever I have of strength or time or talent or life to the work of my Master in the service of my brethren and sisters.
“This Church does not belong to its President. Its head is the Lord Jesus Christ, whose name each of us has taken upon ourselves. We are all in this great endeavor together. We are here to assist our Father in His work and His glory, ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man’” (Moses 1:39).
He said, “The time has come for us to stand a little taller, to lift our eyes and stretch our minds to a greater comprehension and understanding of the grand millennial mission of this The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the season to be strong. It is time to move forward without hesitation.”
And so we will, with the memory of President Hinckley’s drive, vision and twinkle to warm us. If we had a handkerchief we’d wave it. “God be with you, President Hinckley, ‘til we meet again.”