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About Utah: Leading the choir suits this Mac very well

SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the places Mac Christensen ever dreamed of winding up, being president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sure wasn't one of them.

Back in 1952, as part of a class of 33 in the now defunct Snow High School in Ephraim, he was the one student the music teacher asked to please lip sync the song at graduation.

"I'm tone deaf," shrugs Mac.

He was thus as shocked as that music teacher would have been when the late Gordon B. Hinckley, then president of the LDS Church, called him into his office 10 years ago and asked him to replace Wendell L. Smoot as the Tabernacle Choir's president.

"But I can't sing," said Mac.

"Oh, we don't want you to sing," President Hinckley quickly rejoined.

They wanted the man who has suited up more Mormon missionaries than the mothers of the Stripling Warriors for his managerial and business skills.

Before he became president of the well-known choir, Christensen was well-known himself — as the actual "Mr. Mac" of "Mr. Mac," the men's clothing store chain that has long specialized in outfitting missionaries in white shirts, suits, socks and ties.

Looking back on it, Mac didn't see "Mr. Mac" coming either.

He was just a country boy looking for a way to put himself through another year at Snow College when he came to Salt Lake from Ephraim in the summer of 1953.

Kennecott had offered him a job as a laborer at its copper mine. But by the time he got to Salt Lake, a union strike shut down Kennecott.

An aunt took Mac to ZCMI, the hundred-year department store that, like Snow High, has since found its way into the history books. ZCMI hired Mac as part-time help for Father's Day.

It was all the start he needed. When the woman taking care of the ties asked for the summer off, he lobbied himself into her job. He worked the ties till Christmas. After that he was promoted to salesman, then to a buyer, and soon he found himself in charge of the entire men's and boy's division.

He never got back to Snow.

At ZCMI he met the leading manufacturers, he studied the top salesmen, he learned how to treat customers.

"They paid me, but I should have been paying them," Mac reflects. "I could have never received an education like I got there."

Ten years later, armed with his ZCMI degree, Mac and his wife, Joan, sold their house and with the resulting $20,000 bankroll, they opened a store called "Mac's Clothes Closet" in downtown Bountiful.

In 1968, with the business mushrooming, Mac bought a clothes store in an Idaho Falls mall called "Mr. Mac" from a man named Macintosh.

He decided a name change was in order.

Asked to guess how many missionaries Mr. Mac has sent to the four corners of the Earth, Mac is genuinely stumped for a number. He's never kept track.

Finally he answers, "All the good ones."

Technically, Mr. Mac isn't suiting up any missionaries anymore. In 1997, when he and Joan accepted a mission call to serve as directors of the Washington, D.C., LDS Temple visitors center, Mac started a process that eventually resulted in the sale of all nine Mr. Mac stores to his four sons — Scott, Stan, Spencer and Stuart — and son-in-law Steve Wynn.

The original Mr. Mac is now a figurehead — and the chain's occasional pitchman on TV.

It was after he and Joan returned to Utah in 1999 that the call came from President Hinckley about joining the Tabernacle Choir.

"This is the best calling in the church," says Mac. "I get to be around geniuses."

"I've stayed out of the music end," he stresses, but he has nonetheless made his mark. The choir's popularity is as high as ever, and after Mac helped the choir acquire its own record label in 2003, revenues are definitely up.

"Instead of 10 cents for every CD, we do a lot better," says the businessman-president.

Not that it affects Christensen's personal bottom line. There are only 12 paid positions associated with the choir, and president isn't one of them.

"I receive no pay," says Mac before looking toward the ceiling and adding, "Well, hopefully, maybe later on."

At 76, he unabashedly praises his dream job that constantly stresses the good things in life. He's seen his share of the other side — the nadir came in 1985 when his oldest son, Steve, was murdered by convicted forger and killer Mark Hofmann after Steve became involved with Hofmann in purchasing what were purported as historic LDS documents.

"I don't think he ever had a bad thought," Mac says of Steve.

In the 25 years since the incident, he has used his son's goodness as an example of how to live and how to forgive.

Of Hofmann, who is ensconced at the state prison, he says, "I've forgiven him. I wouldn't ask them to let him out, but I've forgiven him. That's what you have to do. You have to forgive and just help people."

Sometimes that means joining the choir. And sometimes that means not joining the choir.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. E-mail: