My first personal contact with Elder Thomas S. Monson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, came in Hamilton, New Zealand, on April 25, 1966, as he made an epic swing through the South Pacific interviewing every single missionary and refocusing missionary work. As a young elder, my turn came, and he happened to ask me about writing home. I told him I hadn’t missed a week. He looked surprised and then pleased and said, “God bless you, Elder.” At the same time, he taught us better ways to do missionary work that later increased our success. In missionary rapture, I scrawled in my journal, “I was so happy I almost climbed the curtains.”
When I began my employment at Church News in 1977, I soon learned that staffers often visited the office of the chairman of the board of the Deseret News Publishing Co., this same Elder Monson. We’d drop off an early copy of the paper, pick up a speech or photos or discuss certain articles. He considered us his team, and he expected his team to do well. Sometimes we did, and sometimes we didn’t.
A visit to his office began with a short, or longer, wait, then a gracious invitation to enter his office. Often, he asked for my opinion and reasons for that opinion, and he listened carefully. I felt respected in his office and knew he took personal interest in my welfare.
Over the years, and I suppose his umbrella covered my entire 31-year career, he gave us advice. Some of it was minor: he didn’t like us to use the word “got,” for example. Some of it was personal. He once told me to square up my shoulders so as not to acquire computer slump. Always it made sense.
Once I covered a reunion of the old, now disbanded, Sixth-Seventh Ward where President Monson grew up and later served as bishop. Afterwards, in his office, he began telling stories that had never seen the light of day. Great stories they were, but the light of day they never saw, to prevent someone’s feelings from being hurt. In his ministry, favorite stories he told more than once. I often knew the ending, yet even so his stories drew a tear to my cynical eye.
Nothing fazed him. I didn’t travel often with Elder Monson, but one trip stands out. He flew to Toronto, Ontario, to break ground for a temple in the region where he once served as mission president. Warm greetings to old friends followed the ceremony, and he stood for hours shaking hands. One who approached timidly was a young man of Gothic persuasion, attired in black, sprinkled with chrome, coiffure 4 inches erect like a rainbowed fountain. Elder Monson shook his hand warmly as welcoming a prodigal, and murmured gently, “Gee, I wish I could make my hair do that.”
One thing must be mentioned. He had an uncanny eye for detail. Legend had it that he once picked up a typo off a running press. I asked W. James Mortimer about this, Jim had been his secretary on the Scriptures Committee and then served as our publisher of the Deseret News, and he adamantly denied the legend. The press had been fully stopped when Elder Monson caught the typo, Jim said.
But no one denied this leader’s ability to spot errors. People agonized when their material came before him for his approval. One day, I carried some negatives to his office. On the way, I stopped to post a letter. And then I hit the crosswalk toward his office. On that very crosswalk, I looked down and to my horror saw the stamped envelope I thought I had posted. But no negatives. Cars waited as I turned around on the spot. With throat tightened, I called Postal Service to petition them to send someone quick with a key. They did, but on their time. A couple of hours later, as I watched an amused postal worker methodically open the box, President Monson’s sweet secretary called and wondered what became of the negatives. “Be right over,” we said. My boss, Dell Van Orden, covered for me that day, but then I had to listen to him about it all.
On another visit to the apostle’s office just before Christmas, Elder Monson wished our staff a Merry Christmas. He paused, and fished out a giant box of chocolates and handed it over. “Take these to the Back Shop and wish them Merry Christmas for me,” he said. In the Back Shop, downstairs in the bowels of an inner building where type composition desks checkered the floor, they, Shirl Lake, Cass Child, Gunther Popp and many others, thanked him with their mouths full of chocolates.
Shirl used to say that they could handle the fumes of the Back Shop fine, but the fresh air would get them every time. Later, shortly after his retirement, Shirl died. At his funeral, a tender letter from the First Presidency paid tribute to Shirl’s many years of service, including pasting up Church News galleys.
I knew how Shirl’s family felt, because when my saintly mother completed her mortal journey, our grieving family was overwhelmed when a letter from the First Presidency arrived, paying sweet tribute and kind comfort.
Another time, everyone on the staff received a copy of President Monson's book, Inspiring Experiences That Build Faith, with personal inscriptions in each. Mine reads, “sincerely your friend and brother.”
Great men leave great vacancies. When the business of the day is finished, deadlines met, after the presses roll and papers are delivered, after all the accomplishments of a storied career, his passing leaves us wishing for one last handshake, one more time to say to a giant of a man who paused in his work to help us become better: Thank you, President Monson. Thanks for everything.