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A firsthand perspective: Reflecting on the life and legacy of Frances Monson

“Search far and wide, high and low, but it’s doubtful you’ll find anyone less willing to talk about herself than Frances J. Monson.”

That lead sentence on an article I wrote for the May 2, 1998, issue of the Church News came into my mind when I heard that Sister Monson, wife of President Thomas S. Monson, had passed away early Friday morning. I doubt that any working journalist today has known Sister Monson longer than I have so I knew I would be asked to write something about her.

I met Sister Monson nearly 40 years ago. Over the years, I saw her in many parts of the world as she accompanied President Monson on his church assignments. We visited together in airports between commercial airline flights, often sat at the same table in restaurants and frequently passed each other in the comings and goings of church events.

I did my first one-on-one interview with her in 1975 as I wrote a series of articles about the wives the members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

She was warm and friendly, kind and considerate — but she was hard to interview. Quite simply, she didn’t want to talk about herself. She remained that way throughout the years of our association.

She was a very private woman. She was kind, gentle and compassionate.

Latter-day Saints throughout the world know about President Monson’s many compassionate acts of service. They’ve heard or read about his visits to hospital bedsides, care centers and private homes. What they might not realize is that Sister Monson was by his side during many of those visits and, on occasion, pointed out to him people they should go see.

In 1998, she and President Monson received the Continuum of Caring Humanitarian Award from Friends of St. Joseph’s Villa, a care center in Salt Lake City. I think she was a bit uncomfortable about being put in the limelight, but she graciously agreed to deliver a speech at the award ceremony. She was a giver who never wanted credit.

“I perhaps would have been content to perform my service in life by raising our children, participating in the Relief Society, and helping others as my time and energy permitted,” she said upon accepting the award. “But because of the church callings my husband has had throughout our married life, I have, with him, witnessed more pain, more suffering, more need among God’s children than otherwise would have been the case. If I have been able in some small way to help alleviate such suffering, such need, I am most grateful.”

She quoted a famous psychiatrist who gave a lecture on mental health and answered questions from the audience. Someone asked, “What would you advise a person to do if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?”

Sister Monson said, “Most people would have expected him to reply, ‘Consult a psychiatrist.’ To their astonishment, he replied, ‘Lock up your house, go across the railway tracks, find someone in need and do something to help that person.’ ”

That is how Sister Monson lived her life. She found people in need and helped them.

She liked this poem by Emily Dickinson:

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain.

If I can cease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.”

Sister Monson did not live in vain.

“When the Savior was here upon the earth, he taught, he blessed, he served,” she said when upon being honored by Friends of St. Joseph’s Villa. “Now that he no longer walks among us as a mortal man, it is left to us to do his work, to minister to the needs of others. He has no hands but ours.”

Sister Frances Johnson Monson extended her hands readily and willingly.

Gerry Avant is editor of Church News