The first quarter-century of President Thomas S. Monson's life came with boyhood fun, a little mischief and several foundational lessons that prepared him for a lifetime of service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In a 1986 church magazine article, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve wrote that President Monson grew up without many of life's luxuries, but his "tender heart and compassionate nature" made him aware of those around him who needed special attention.
"Indeed, his childhood experiences seem to have been part of a divinely directed training process which would sensitize Thomas Monson to the plight of the poor for the rest of his life," Elder Holland wrote.
Born on Aug. 21, 1927, to G. Spencer and Gladys Condie Monson, President Monson grew up during the Great Depression surrounded by uncles, aunts and grandparents.
One of the highlights of his youth came each summer when his family stayed at their cabin at Vivian Park in Provo Canyon, which he described as a “boy’s paradise.” It was there that President Monson developed the skills for a lifelong love of fishing.
One summer when he was 8 years old, President Monson learned an important lesson. In his April 2013 conference talk “Obedience Brings Blessings,” he admitted that he and a friend started a fire in Provo Canyon.
The boys wanted to host an evening campfire for all their friends. But the field they selected was covered by dry, prickly June grass. President Monson had an idea.
“All we need to do is set these weeds on fire,” he said. “We’ll just burn a circle in the weeds.”
Although both boys had been warned about the dangers of fire, the young Tommy got some matches and set the grass ablaze. He thought the fire would only burn as far as they wanted before magically extinguishing itself. The boys soon realized it would not, and, with no other options, ran for help.
Over the next several hours, residents fought the blaze and put out the fire before any major damage was done.
“Danny and I learned several difficult but important lessons that day,” President Monson said. “Not the least of which was the importance of obedience.”
President Monson learned another pivotal lesson while attending Primary at age 10. As his class of rowdy children exited one day, young Tommy noticed his teacher was crying. He asked what was wrong. She felt bad because she couldn’t control the class. She asked if young Tommy could help her with keeping the class reverent and he happily agreed to do so.
“What I didn’t know then is that I was one of those responsible for her tears,” President Monson said in a March 2010 church magazine article. “She had effectively enlisted me to aid in achieving reverence in our Primary. And we did.”
Another noteworthy part of President Monson’s youth was his fascination with pigeons, which became a lifelong hobby. According to his biography, “To the Rescue,” by Heidi S. Swinton, his interest in pigeons “took flight” when he and his friends figured out how to catch the birds as they landed on a neighborhood fence.
President Monson later purchased a pair of Birmingham roller pigeons, which he named Rump and Rolly. He also raised rabbits and chickens, earning countless ribbons at county and state fairs over the decades that followed.
President Monson was forced to leave his pigeons behind when he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, shortly before the end of World War II. He eventually returned home to complete his education at the University of Utah.
He married Frances Beverly Monson in the Salt Lake Temple in 1948. Over the next 11 years, three children — Tom, Ann and Clark — were born into the family.
In 1950, the 22-year-old was called to be the bishop of his boyhood 6th-7th Ward, which then included more than 1,000 members, more than 80 widows and the greatest welfare responsibility in the church. Yet "he went about doing good" and few fell through the cracks in the 6th-7th Ward, Swinton wrote. Somehow he shouldered his calling and career without neglecting his young family.
His leadership and service influenced many lives. He energized members, increased attendance and demonstrated a talent for turning welfare needs into opportunities for other members of the ward to serve. He wrote letters to missionaries and military servicemen. He also provided friendship and tender care for the widows, often using his vacation time to personally deliver a gift to each one at Christmas time.
"Indeed, Bishop Monson’s care of the widows stands as the most enduring badge of his service," wrote Francis M. Gibbons in a July 1995 church magazine article.