1. President Hinckley is, in fact, a distant relative of mine. His mother, Ada Bitner Hinckley, was the daughter of Brenneman Bitner, who as a young boy left the Amish country of Pennsylvania with his family to gather with the Mormons in Illinois. Brenneman's older half-brother, Amos Milton Musser, was more reluctant to become a Mormon, but went along to Illinois anyway. Amos later joined the Church, went on a mission to India, and had many children and dozens of grandchildren, including Gertrude Musser Richards, my own dear grandmother. By my reckoning, then, President Hinckley and my Grandma Gertrude were second cousins. As far as I know, they met only once, when he came to visit her small home in Pleasant Grove, Utah. He sat on my Grandma's heirloom rocking chair that the family had brought with them from Pennsylvania. while they talked about their common family history. She offered to give him the chair as a gift, but he politely declined.
2. When I was a young teenager, I lived in the small southwestern Colorado town of Cortez, just a few miles away from Mesa Verde National Park. One Sunday, it was announced that President Hinckley (then a counsellor to President Ezra Taft Benson) was planning a vacation in the area and would visit our ward (congregation) the following Sunday. Three other wards were eventually invited to participate as well, so on the appointed day our building was filled beyond capacity. Usually six or eight of the boys my age would distribute the bread and water of the Sacrament (comparable to the Communion or Eucharist in other churches) to the congregation, but on this occasion about a dozen more were recruited from the other wards.
Well, I was on my home turf, and I knew not only the layout of the of the chapel, but also the usual choreography for passing the Sacrament, so I arrived early and parked myself on the seat that I knew would likely be assigned to carry the trays to the people seated on the podium at the front. Shortly before the meeting was to begin, President Hinckley entered the building through the rarely-used side door at the front of the chapel (sometimes nicknamed the "funeral door" because usually the only time it was opened was when a casket was wheeled in for a funeral). My plan worked to perfection, and after the preliminary hymns and prayers, I found myself carrying a silver tray of white bread broken into postage stamp-sized pieces up a few steps and onto the podium. By tradition, the senior church leader in a meeting is the first to receive the Sacrament, so all the other boys waited while I offered the bread to President Hinckley. After he took a piece from my tray, I continued on to the other leaders seated nearby, and then went to offer the Sacrament to others in the congregation who had not yet been reached by the other boys. We distributed the water in the same way, and I again held a tray in front of President Hinckley, filled this time with small plastic cups each holding about a teaspoon of water.
I have to admit that the whole experience was a bit anticlimactic, since there was nothing out of the ordinary in the way he took the Sacrament. I unfortunately have no recollection of anything he said in the later part of the meeting. When the meeting was over I waited to shake his hand, and he gave me a smile and a few kind words that I have also forgotten. It never occurred to me that it really wasn't much of a vacation for him to be sitting in a nondescript Mormon church in rural Colorado, speaking to a congregation of hundreds of nondescript people and then interacting with them personally for at least an hour afterward. I do remember, though, feeling a sense of pride at having passed the Sacrament to President Hinckley, and thinking that I would someday tell my kids about that day. And I have.
3. My family later moved to the equally remote location of Vernal, Utah, where I graduated from high school. In Vernal, our ward met in a stately church building on the corner of 500 West and 100 South. (Utah street names are a bit quirky and may merit a separate post at some point in the future.) Just to the south of that building stood the historic old stake tabernacle, built at the turn of the century. Although the most famous Mormon tabernacle is the one in Salt Lake City, many other Mormon settlements included a tabernacle designed to accommodate several thousand people, as compared to a typical church building which seated a few hundred at most. Over the years, the Vernal tabernacle became obsolete as other venues became available for the church and civic functions it had been used for. The tabernacle fell into disrepair, and there was a good deal of discussion about demolishing it.
The bishop of our ward was Lloyd Winward, and he and his wife Alta led the resistance to any effort to raze the tabernacle. On one or two occasions, my high school friend Stewart Brewer and I borrowed the keys to the tabernacle from Alta and went exploring. We figured out how to access the domed steeple, where we could see the whole valley from between the wooden slats. We also got down into the bowels of the building, which held all sorts of odds and ends from almost a hundred years of history. A few years later, when I was a student at Brigham Young University, my dad called me on a Sunday afternoon and excitedly told me that it had been announced that the tabernacle would be restored and converted into a temple. Although the exterior appearance would be preserved, since Mormon temples are not used for congregational meetings the interior space would be broken up into several floors containing the rooms and offices needed for the special ceremonies of the temple, including marriage ceremonies, vicarious baptism, and symbolic instruction about life, death, and eternity.
This was a dramatic reversal of fortune for a building that had been on death row for a long time, and it was plain that the idea was President Hinckley's brainchild. He was well known for his acute sense of history, his appreciation for meaningful architecture, and his conviction that we take strength and direction from the sacrifices made by our ancestors. I returned to Vernal for the groundbreaking ceremony, which was held outdoors on an unseasonably frosty spring day. When President Hinckley rose to speak, he quipped, "Many are cold, but few are frozen," (a reference to the scriptural phrase "Many are called, but few are chosen") and then pointed out, as he did on more than one occasion, that it would have been more economical to knock the tabernacle down and build a modern temple on the site. I don't think he could have ever brought himself to authorize its destruction, though, any more than he could have ordered Michelangelo's David to be pushed off its pedestal to shatter on the ground. Several years later, after the renovation had been completed, I returned to Vernal again to hear President Hinckley dedicate the temple for its new use. That dedicatory meeting was, for me, a powerfully moving spiritual experience, and one I will never forget. A few months later, I was married to my sweetheart in the Vernal Temple, in a room close to the very location where Stewart Brewer and I had surveyed the dusty pews and crumbling plaster nine years previous. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that, without the influence of President Hinckley, the tabernacle would be rubble in a landfill today.
If you happen to stumble upon this post, and if you have any memories of President Hinckley you'd like to share, please do so, even if months or years have passed since his death.