LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley read "1776" and "John Adams" cover to cover, but he only skimmed another best-seller by historian David McCullough, the 1,000-page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman.

"At my age of 97," President Hinckley joked Wednesday with McCullough, "I cannot afford to read anything that long."

McCullough joined additional luminaries and nearly 1,400 others crammed elbow-to-elbow into a downtown hotel ballroom to honor President Hinckley with the Municipal Citizen of the Century Award for his decades of work building bridges in Utah's communities.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns presented the award on the first day of a three-day conference marking the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1907.

The 150-minute celebration included a stirring, unannounced three-song performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a history lecture by McCullough and a bridge-building prayer by the Most Rev. John Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

"Bless particularly President Gordon B. Hinckley," Bishop Wester prayed. "We give you profound thanks, loving God, for the inspiration he is to all of us as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We thank you for his leadership, not only of the church but throughout Utah and beyond. Fill him with deep peace, continued good health and the satisfaction that comes from being your servant and, indeed, your holy prophet."

President Hinckley has been praised locally and nationally for ecumenical outreach and encouraging tolerance. The Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce honored President Hinckley with a "Giant in Our City" award in 2003, when Jon Huntsman Sr. said President Hinckley had done more to shape Salt Lake City than anyone but Brigham Young.

Provo Mayor Lewis Billings read a proclamation praising President Hinckley's humility, understanding, optimism and concern for others.

"President Hinckley has indeed made life better for all Utahns," Billings said.

The proclamation was full of formal language, with words like "whereas" and "wherefore." President Hinckley earned big laughs when it was his turn to speak and he said, "Whereas, be it resolved, we've been here too long."

The surprise visit by 180 members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir delighted the convention of community leaders. The choir earned a standing ovation after singing "Praise to the Lord," "Danny Boy" (a favorite of President Hinckley's) and "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"That music is such a summons to all of us," McCullough said. "I've never heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir before except on the radio or television. To be here today has been as moving an experience as I've had in a long time."

Delivering the luncheon's keynote address, McCullough fretted that more and more Americans are historically illiterate and no longer write, or can think, the way John Adams and Abigail Adams did.

"To write well is to think clearly. To write very well is to think very clearly," McCullough said. "And we don't do much thinking on paper any more."

McCullough urged increased emphasis on history, wherein he said lie lessons of humanity. "History is about consequences, the consequences of actions. It's about faith, about human nature."

He added, "We are up against a force today that believes in enforced ignorance. We do not."

The historian, known also as the narrator for the movie "Seabiscuit" and Ken Burns' series "The Civil War," said Americans should not shy from difficult times and quoted a letter written by Abigail Adams to her 12-year-old son John Quincy Adams before he sailed to Europe with his father. The mother told the son, "The habits of a vigorous mind are born in contending with difficulties."

"How often today," McCullough said, "do we hear people say, 'Now, are you comfortable with that?' She is saying exactly the opposite of that. 'Comfort, schmomfort.' 'Great necessities call out great virtues.' If you want words of inspiration to print on a banner that would explain how it could be that we could have achieved what we did in that founding time against such odds, there it is, 'Great necessities call out great virtues.'"

"All of us," President Hinckley said, "everyone in America, ought occasionally to read something that reminds us of the terrible cost of that which we enjoy, the peace we enjoy, the prosperity that is ours, born of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to worship as we please. These are all priceless guarantees of our Constitution.

"It is out of a sense of gratitude for these blessings that I am deeply thankful for the Municipal Citizen of the Century honor you have conferred today. Your league is a century old, and I am shortly behind it. I do not know that that's a special honor, but I think I would like to be around until I, too, reach the century mark."

Over the past 100 years, Utah has grown from 82 incorporated municipalities to 243, and from a population of 375,000 to nearly 2.5 million.

Addressing as "dear friends" the gathering of mayors, town council and city council members and city planners, as well as Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Speaker of the House Greg Curtis and Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, President Hinckley expressed gratitude for their work and called them to action.

"Yours is not just a position of privilege but one of great responsibility," he said. "We look to you for service."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com