Locals remember Mormon prophet as a kind man who stressed service to others

Thursday , January 04, 2018 - 5:00 AM

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — When the news of the death of Thomas S. Monson reached many here in Northern Utah, the overwhelming impression was that he was a man who spent a long life in service to others.

Weber State University history professor Richard Sadler thinks the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — who died just after 10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 2 — had an “astounding” impact on Mormonism and the church.

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“First of all, look how long he served,” Sadler said.

And he isn’t just talking about Monson’s tenure as president of the church — which would have been 10 years next month. He was called to be a bishop at age 22. In 1963, at 36, Monson was called to be a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Then, beginning in 1985, Monson served as a counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency under three consecutive church presidents — Ezra Taft Benson, Howard W. Hunter and Gordon B. Hinckley. He became the 16th president of the church on Feb. 3, 2008, following the death of Hinckley.

Sadler had firsthand experience with Monson’s personal, one-on-one approach to his church callings. Around 1989, after Sadler’s 15-year-old son Joe wrote a letter to the then-counselor, thanking him for a particular conference talk, Monson sent Joe a book and an invitation to stop by church headquarters sometime.

Sadler and Joe did stop by, with Sadler thinking it would just be a quick handshake. But Monson invited them to sit down, and he spent the next hour-and-a-half talking with Joe.

“I think about how many times President Monson went to visit people in nursing homes and hospitals, and now you have this experience where he could have easily taken five minutes with us and said he was busy,” Sadler said. “But for whatever reason, he took an hour-and-a-half. There was a special bond between President Monson and Joe.”

For Blake and Jana Wahlen, local business leaders and members of the church’s public affairs council in Northern Utah, Wednesday morning brought mixed emotions. They learned of Monson’s death just hours before they welcomed their 11th grandchild into the family.

Blake Wahlen said Monson was all about service to others.

“I’ve been seeing the news reports this morning, and in every one of them we’re getting the same message — service,” he said. “President Monson taught us how to serve.”

Jana Wahlen said Monson has been in the leadership of the church for most of her lifetime. And while she never met him, there was a certain familiarity about him.

“You felt he could relate to whatever situation you were in,” she said.

Jana Wahlen said the message she thinks Monson would have church members remember is: “Stop and take time to see the people around you. Don’t be so busy that you’re too busy to be caring.”

“I never met him, but you felt like he understood you somehow,” she said. “We’ll miss that, the real personal understanding from him. He’s blessed our lives in so many ways.”

Nolan Karras, who simply describes himself as “just another Mormon who loved President Monson,” said it’s hard to picture a time when the church’s president wasn’t serving in its leadership.

“I’m an old man, and he was in church leadership all of my adult life — from the time I was 18 until now,” said Karras, the current chairman of the WSU Board of Trustees and former Speaker of the House in the Utah Legislature. “He’s everything everybody said he is. This has been an emotional day for me.”

Karras served an LDS mission to Canada two years after Monson was the mission president there, and says stories of the young, vibrant mission president were still circulating.

The most prominent thing Karras says he’ll remember about Monson is what he added to the mission statement of the church. For a number of years, the LDS church preached about its three-fold mission — to perfect the saints, proclaim the gospel and redeem the dead.

“But President Monson added a fourth mission, to care for the poor and needy,” Karras said. “And that was his legacy.”

Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell appreciates what the Monson-led LDS church has done for his city. He says it has invested heavily in Ogden, including the complete overhaul — inside and outside — of the Ogden Temple, which changed the face of downtown.

“I’m looking out the window at the renovated Ogden Temple and Tabernacle right now,” Caldwell said. “I’d say that for our constituents in Ogden, that temple renovation was an amazing thing.”

The Ogden Temple is one of just a few LDS temples located in a downtown area, according to Caldwell, and he believes it has a subtle effect on the city center.

“It brings comfort and a sense of peace to downtowns that they sometimes need, because they can be a little hectic at times,” he said. “But you drive by in the evening when the temple is lit up, and it’s so peaceful.”

Like the temple, Caldwell says Monson brought peace and comfort to those around him. He called Monson a “tremendous” leader.

“I don’t think anybody could deny that 90 years of selfless service to people is pretty amazing,” Caldwell said.

Gene Sessions, a professor of history at WSU, says Monson’s oratorical skills made an impression. He says Monson was an exceptional public speaker — superb at telling stories, and always entertaining.

Sessions says Monson regularly preached about “not only serving people religiously, but also physically — taking care of their physical needs.” This idea of administering to people both physically and spiritually might be the lasting theme of Monson’s administration, he said.

Of course, Monson’s tenure as president wasn’t without its challenges — among them “the gay thing,” according to Sessions.

“If you wanted to be a gentile, and critical, there were things that happened that weren’t too good,” he said.

Sessions points to the church’s involvement in passing California’s Proposition 8 against same-sex marriage, as well as a policy change that defined same-sex marriage as apostasy and prohibiting children living in such homes from being baptized.

“That’s all on his watch, and some mistakes were made,” Sessions said. “So when guys in my racket (history) get around to talking about it, the gay issue will be at the top. It was such a problem for the church during his time, and the church did both good and bad things.”

But in the end, Sessions says he thinks Monson was as sympathetic to gay rights as he could have been within the structure of the LDS church.

Jerry Stevenson, a state senator currently representing northwestern Davis County, remembers presenting Monson with an honorary degree when the church president spoke at WSU’s 2010 spring commencement. Stevenson had just been appointed to the Utah Legislature that March, and was advised by a Senate colleague to surrender his position as chairman of the university’s board of trustees, since lawmakers control the university’s funding.

Stevenson said he would, but not until after graduation. He went into the Legislature in March of that year, and graduation was in May.

“I said, ‘I will let that go, senator, but I won’t do it until after graduation,’” Stevenson recalls. “He asked me why, and I said, ‘because President Monson is speaking at commencement, and I get to present him with an honorary degree.’ I wasn’t going to miss that.”

“So I was technically in a conflict of interest for a couple of months, because I really wanted to meet President Monson,” he said.

And that meeting turned out to be a memorable one. After presenting Monson with his degree, Stevenson turned back to the audience to introduce the speaker and — to the delight of the assembled graduates — Monson playfully bopped Stevenson on the back of the head with his newly conferred degree.

“I have those pictures of him patting me on my head, and my grandkids just think that’s hilarious,” Stevenson said.

Pam Despain, of Farr West, called Monson “a great, great man.” And she says the tender way he treated his wife was especially inspiring. She’ll greatly miss her prophet.

“You know, when I woke up this morning and heard the news, I thought, ‘The world has lost a kind and gentle man,’” Despain said. “How grateful I am for his example of unconditional love and service, for his humor, and his testimony of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at Facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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