PROVO — He may need a cane, a hearing aid and a pacemaker, but at 97, the sense of humor of the oldest man to serve as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shows no signs of aging.
President Gordon B. Hinckley cracked prepared jokes and scored laughs with witty ad-libs during a short, tender, televised birthday party Saturday at Brigham Young University as he and a son opened an enormous birthday present purchased by 70,000 of his closest friends.
President Hinckley spoke — "Now," he joked when he mentioned the hearing aid and pacemaker, "as I creep into old age ..." — and Elder Richard G. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Seventy gave the prayer dedicating the new Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center to "the (BYU) alumni who have gone over the world and brought honor to this church."
"To the thousands of BY grads around the world," President Hinckley later added, "this will be their port of call when they return to their alma mater, their dear mother, to visit the campus that nurtured them."
The three-story, $35 million building was paid for entirely by more than 70,000 donors.
"I extend my sincere thanks," President Hinckley said. "I'm deeply grateful for your generosity."
BYU President Cecil Samuelson thanked President Hinckley for what, next April, would be 50 years of service as a General Authority of the LDS Church.
"As you have changed the skyline of the church around the world," Samuelson said, "so has this building changed the skyline of this campus."
The Hinckley Center was designed as a new "front gate" to the campus, just up the winding hill from the landmark BYU sign that reads, "Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve."
President Hinckley donated one of his hammers — branded with the initials G.H. like all of his many, well-used tools, he said — for a time capsule placed in a cornerstone of the building. When he held the little hammer aloft, it drew a tender "awwww" from many of the women in the crowd of about 500 in the building's main hall.
Another 400 gathered in other rooms and on the patio of the new building. More than 1,000 more watched in the Joseph Smith Building and the Varsity Theater. The ceremony was broadcast on television and radio around the world.
President Hinckley asked Samuelson if he would be here in 50 years when the time capsule will be opened.
"That's up to you," Samuelson said, joking with his boss.
"I don't think we're going to make it," President Hinckley said with a laugh.
His two counselors also spoke. Together, President Hinckley, President James E. Faust and President Thomas S. Monson have been the church's First Presidency for a dozen years.
"These past 12 years have been a tremendous blessing to serve with him and Thomas S. Monson and see quite literally the Lord working through a prophet," President Faust said.
"President Hinckley's life is a gift," President Monson added, "not only to the church but to the entire world."
"If I'd known so many nice things would have been said," President Hinckley said, "I would have had a party like this 10 years ago."
President Hinckley has been the chairman of BYU's board of trustees for the same 12 years and proudly mentioned the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair in Social Work and Social Sciences, named in honor of his late wife.
Still, President Hinckley said, his father Bryant S. Hinckley was more deserving than he of having a BYU building named after him.
Bryant Hinckley studied under Karl G. Maeser, the university's first president, and later served as president of the BYU Alumni Association's Emeritus Club.
President Hinckley grew even more animated when he and Samuelson stood to place the last items in the time capsule. Before he placed a pair of his cuff links in the stainless steel box, he laughed and said, "I don't know how I'm going to get along without 'em."
After everything was inside, he noticed some socket wrenches still on the table and turned to Samuelson and said, "What are the wrenches for?"
Samuelson told him he was needed to help fasten the lid on the time capsule.
"Good," President Hinckley said happily. "I'm good at it.... These are no strangers to me."
Afterward, he playfully led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday to You" by waving his signature cane.