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In our opinion: 'To be what you would want me to be'

To appreciate the longevity of President Thomas S. Monson’s leadership and influence as first an apostle and later the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one can go back to the starting point of his service as an LDS general authority — Oct. 4, 1963.

That date is six weeks after Martin Luther King said “I Have a Dream” and seven weeks before John F. Kennedy's assassination. Back then, a loaf of bread cost 22 cents and a gallon of gas 29 cents, ZIP codes and touch-tone telephones were the latest innovations, and Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke ruled prime-time television while radio airwaves gave way to Beatlemania.

As for the LDS Church at the time, membership was topping 2 million, the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii was set to be dedicated, and church storage vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon were just finished. And the October 1963 general conference came just three weeks after the Sept. 18 passing of President Henry D. Moyle, first counselor to then-President David O. McKay, resulting in a vacancy in the First Presidency and likely in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

At the opening conference session that Friday morning, President McKay read the list for sustaining church leaders, including the new First Presidency counselors — Presidents Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner — and the quorum’s newest member, Thomas S. Monson.

A Mormon bishop at age 22, a stake president’s counselor at 27, president of the church’s Canadian Mission at 31 and then serving as general manager of Deseret News Press, then-Elder Monson — now 36 and the youngest apostle named in more than a half-century — was invited to speak during that same morning session.

As part of his remarks, he recalled a woman — “a little sister, a French-Canadian sister” whose life had been changed by the missionaries there — bidding farewell to him and his wife in Quebec at the conclusion of his mission presidency there. “She said: ‘President Monson, I may never see the prophet. But President, far better, now that I am a member of this church, I can obey the prophet.'”

He continued: “My sincere prayer today, President McKay, is that I might always obey you and these, my brethren. I pledge my life, all that I may have. I will strive to the utmost of my ability to be what you would want me to be.”

Little did that “little sister” know that she was bidding farewell to a man who would not only soon become an apostle in the Mormon faith but the 16th president of the LDS Church, from Feb. 3, 2008, until his passing on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.

President Monson served as an LDS Church general authority for more than 54 years. He served in the church’s First Presidency for more than three decades, first as a counselor to Presidents Ezra Taft Benson, Howard W. Hunter and Gordon B. Hinckley from Nov. 10, 1985, and nearly 10 years as church president.

In fact, his length of service in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve is more than all but four men in the history of the LDS Church. And those four were also church presidents — Presidents McKay (63 years, 9 months), Heber J. Grant (62 years, 7 months), Joseph Fielding Smith (62 years, 3 months), and Wilford Woodruff (59 years, 5 months).

In a 2008 Ensign magazine article published soon after President Monson became church president, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland wrote: “In short, President Monson is a true disciple of that ‘Jesus of Nazareth … who went about doing good’ (Acts 10:38), a scripture President Monson often quotes. His responsibilities include a volume of administrative decision-making and paperwork that would be staggering to most men. But that volume has never made him lose his focus on those whom his exemplar would serve. His life has been one extended sequence of reaching out to the one, of encouraging the disadvantaged, of remembering those whom it is easy to forget.”

In the same article, Elder Holland compiled some of the credits and compliments offered Thomas S. Monson by his LDS leadership contemporaries:

  • “President (Spencer W.) Kimball referred to him as ‘truly a “do it” man’ — one ‘who acts promptly and resolutely.’
  • “Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Twelve once called him ‘a genius in church government.’
  • “Speaking of his great loyalty to others, then-Elder James E. Faust, later to serve with him in the First Presidency, commented, ‘That mind of his doesn’t forget anything, but neither does his heart — especially people.’
  • “Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve said of Thomas Monson that his administrative and executive abilities came from ‘something inherent and innate. He doesn’t need 20 years with an issue to grasp its significance and retain its meaning. He has devoured the contents of most matters while everybody else is still trying to get the wrapper off.’
  • “President Boyd K. Packer, who sat at President Monson’s side for all their years together in the Quorum of the Twelve, has said, ‘If I needed someone to steer a sensitive matter carefully through the councils of the church, Thomas S. Monson is the man I would pick for the task.’”