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President Thomas S. Monson: 'No one in our time has been called so young to do so much'

SALT LAKE CITY — President Thomas S. Monson, 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a pillar of strength in its leading councils for well over a half-century and friend to the world, has died. He passed away on Tuesday night at 10:01 p.m. at his home. He was 90.

Few in the history of the church have served longer, with more energy and have witnessed such growth. Called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1963 when he was 36 years old, he dedicated two-thirds of his life to full-time Church service. President Monson stood shoulder to shoulder with men whose tenure reached back nearly to the very origins of the church, as well as with the most recently called general authorities. Of the 15 presidents of the LDS Church who preceded him, he served alongside seven of them as an apostle and was a counselor in the First Presidency to three of them.

In all, his time as an apostle, member of the First Presidency and president of the church covered more than 54 years. In church history, only four men — David O. McKay, Heber J. Grant, Joseph Fielding Smith and Wilford Woodruff — have served longer. President Monson was the youngest apostle called to the Quorum of the Twelve since 1910, and even as he advanced in seniority he remained the youngest member of the quorum for 21 years, until Elder Dallin H. Oaks, five years his junior, joined the quorum in 1984.

Prior to becoming a full-time church authority, President Monson was called as bishop of the Sixth-Seventh Ward in Salt Lake City at the age of 22, as a counselor in the presidency of the Temple View Stake at 27 and as a mission president at age 31, when he was assigned to the Canadian Mission with headquarters in Toronto.

“No one in our time has been called so young to do so much,” once observed President James E. Faust.

He was 58 when he first became a member of the First Presidency, in 1985, the youngest to be called as a counselor since Anthon H. Lund at the age of 57 in 1901. For 23 years, he served as a counselor in the First Presidency, to President Ezra Taft Benson from 1985 to 1994, to President Howard W. Hunter from 1994 to 1995, and to President Gordon B. Hinckley from 1995 to 2008. In February of 2008, after the death of President Hinckley, President Monson was ordained and sustained as president of the church.

Church membership was 2.1 million when he became an apostle in 1963 and nearly 16 million at the time of his passing.

To generations of Mormons, there was no distinction between “Thomas S. Monson” and “the church.” His service was unending, his presence ubiquitous.

President Monson spoke at every general conference from 1963 into 2017 — 108 conferences in all. His storytelling ability was legendary, his talks relying heavily on experiences gained from traveling millions of miles over a span of more than six decades ministering to church membership on every continent. As an apostle, he supervised at various times missions in the South Pacific, Mexico, Central America and Europe, as well as the United States. As president, he traveled the breadth and length of the church, dedicating temples (he personally dedicated 21) and blessing the members. The number of stakes he helped organize or reorganize around the world, the number of meetings he attended, the number of talks he gave, the number of hands he shook, the number of lives he touched are incalculable.

Among the most memorable, and miraculous, of his labors was his ability to maneuver behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany during the Soviet era, where the East German Saints, isolated since the end of World War II, had gone decades with virtually no contact with church headquarters.

At the height of the Cold War, he first crossed through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and entered East Germany in 1968. For the next 21 years, until the wall fell in 1989, despite the close scrutiny and wariness of government officials, President Monson managed to regularly cross into the country. He forged friendships where it was felt friendships could not be forged, while strengthening church membership, preserving records, gaining approval for missionaries to enter the country and paving the way for a temple to be built in Freiberg.

A story told in “To the Rescue,” President Monson’s biography written by Heidi S. Swinton, says volumes about his energy and commitment to the LDS faithful living behind the Berlin Wall.

Concerned that members did not have the church’s General Handbook of Instructions because it was forbidden to import the book into East Germany, President Monson, at the urging of fellow apostle Spencer W. Kimball, decided to memorize the handbook. As recounted in “To the Rescue,” Elder Kimball said: “I have an idea, Brother Monson. Why don’t you, since you have worked with the handbook, memorize it; and then we’ll put you across the border!”

Accepting the challenge, President Monson got to work — using a gift of memory Ezra Taft Benson once called “almost unequaled among men” — and then, after crossing the border, quickly alerted one of the church leaders, “Give me a typewriter and a ream of paper and let me work.”

He was already 30 pages into his transcribing when he looked around the room and spotted, there on a shelf, a copy the General Handbook of Instructions. And it was in German.

Satisfied the object of his efforts was already in the country, President Monson smiled and stopped typing. He never discovered exactly how the handbook got smuggled into East Germany, but his efforts that day would live on as an enduring example of his unwavering dedication to the work and willingness to do whatever it took.

“I have learned from my experience that man’s extremity is but God’s opportunity,” President Monson said of his experiences in East Germany. “I am a living witness of how the hand of the Lord has been made manifest in watching over the members of the church in what once were Communist-ruled countries.”

During his many years as a general authority, he served on virtually every significant committee in the church — the Melchizedek Priesthood Committee, the Leadership Training Committee, the Scriptures Publication Committee, the Priesthood Executive Council, the Teacher Development Program and many, many others. He was present for every significant development in church history over the past half-century. He was in the Salt Lake Temple in 1978 when President Spencer W. Kimball announced to the Quorum of the Twelve that he had received the revelation to grant the priesthood to all worthy males. He was instrumental in helping add cross-references and study aids to the four standard works of scripture in 1981. He helped pen The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which was released when he was a member of the First Presidency in 1995.

But it was his service to the needy, to the unfortunate, to “the one,” that most distinguished his ministry. As a child he watched his mother feed and care for homeless transients who passed through downtown Salt Lake City during the Great Depression. He continued that family legacy throughout his life. As a bishop, he befriended 84 widows who lived in his large ward, visiting them regularly and giving each one a gift at Christmastime. He remembered them long after he was released as their bishop and wound up speaking at every one of their funerals. When he traveled as a general authority, he made a habit of packing extra suits in his luggage, giving them away to those in need. His longtime secretary, Lynne Cannegieter, estimated he gave away more than 400 suits during his lifetime.

“More than any man I know, President Monson has done all he could for the widow and the fatherless, the poor and the oppressed,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in 2014.

Said Elder Richard G. Scott: “He has this incredible capacity to communicate love. Whether it’s a tiny child waiting in the doorway or an adult suffering the last stages of an illness, he has this incredible ability to make that person feel like he is a personal friend.”

He made friends wherever he went and counted friendships as his greatest blessings. One of his favorite sayings was “New friends are silver, but the old are gold.”

Others included: “Decisions determine destiny.” “You do not find the happy life — you make it.” “Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.” And “Do not pray for tasks equal to your abilities, but pray for abilities equal to your tasks.”

Among his most cherished blessings, he often said, was “that feeling which the Lord provides when you know that he, the Lord, has answered the prayer of another person through you.”

Born in Salt Lake City on Aug. 21, 1927, to Spencer and Gladys Monson, Thomas S. Monson, the second of six siblings, was raised in an apartment duplex at 311 W. 500 South. The area where he grew up is full now of hotels, gas stations and freeway ramps, but it was known then as Condie’s Corner, named for his mother’s family, the Condies — Scottish immigrants who were among the first wave of Mormon pioneers to settle in Utah, in 1850.

His father’s forebears came to Utah in the late 1800s from Sweden and England, also drawn by the LDS faith. His mother was a homemaker, his father a printer. In August 1945, when Tom was 10 days from his 18th birthday, just after the atomic bombs had been dropped and with the wartime draft still in effect, his father accompanied him to the recruiting station in Salt Lake City so he could enlist. He chose the U.S. Navy Reserve, signing on for a term of “until the war ends plus six months.” The Japanese signed surrender papers the next month, and by the following summer, in 1946, he was back from basic training in San Diego in time for the start of classes at the University of Utah. Two and a half accelerated years later he graduated with honors from the School of Business, and in the fall of 1948 he married Frances Johnson, a fellow Ute he met at a school dance.

He did not serve a full-time mission as a young man, hardly a harbinger of what was to come. The call as bishop of the Sixth-Seventh Ward came when Tom and Frances had barely been married a year, and two years before their first son, Thomas Lee Monson, was born in 1951. Their daughter, Ann, came along in 1954, when President Monson was serving in the stake presidency, and their third and final child, Clark, was born in Canada in 1959 when his father was serving as mission president there.

After college he worked in the newspaper business, first as an ad salesman for the Deseret News, and, later, as a printer, like his father. He was general manager of Deseret News Press and launching a promising career as a printing executive when he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1963.

His wife of 64 years preceded him in death in 2013. His posterity includes his three children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.