Monday, January 28, 2008

First Post: A Farewell

I've been meaning to start this blog for quite a while (I actually reserved the name several months ago), but I've kept putting it off until today. As I was driving to work this morning, I was listening to the news on WDET. At about 9:03 a.m. Carl Kassel reported that Gordon B. Hinckley had passed away at the age of 97 in Salt Lake City on Sunday evening, January 27, 2008. He had served for nearly thirteen years as the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a role somewhat comparable to that of the Pope in Catholicism. As a Mormon, I considered him a spiritual leader and referred to him by his customary title: "President Hinckley." But for me, and for many other Mormons, that title fails to convey the sense of intimacy and endearment we felt toward him. He was deeply loved by his followers for his direct speaking style, for his warmth of personality, and (maybe most of all) for his unflagging sense of humor. Before I go to bed tonight, I want to record a few memories of the ways he influenced my life.

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.


Potato Girl said...

Hello dearest darling. I'm so excited that you have launched your blog. You are one of my very favorite people, and an excellent writer, and I look forward to reading many more posts. I have some good memories of President Hinckley, but I think I'll post them on my own blog. Love you!

john f. said...

Cool vignettes -- thanks for sharing them. I look forward to much more on your blog.

The Rackleys said...

Way to go Dan. After months of Eric's hounding, I finally started posting on our blog. It is quite intimidating, considering that anyone can read it. I am still working with that . . .

Janie said...

I loved reading your memories of President Hinckley. I never got to meet him and feel kind of lame after hearing all your experiences with him. He was a great man and a great leader with a great sense of humor and will be dearly missed.

Welcome to the blogging world!! And just for the record I know your not a mute I hear you speak all the time :)

Kristin said...

Hi Dan,
Thanks for writing this post. I have been thinking a lot about President Hinckley the last couple days. I think about what a sacrifice it has been for my family to have my parents serve a mission for three years, and I can only imagine the sacrifices he and his family have made to serve the Lord. I am grateful for those sacrifices though because he has certainly influenced my life.
I remember when he came to speak to us at the MTC. When he walked into the room I felt a sweet peace that confirmed to me his role as a prophet on earth.
I'm just so happy that he gets to see his beautiful wife again. They inspire me.
Thanks again for the thoughts.

LL said...

My favorite quip was at a general conference back in the old tabernacle days. It was unseasonably hot, and really quite uncomfortable. He was conducting the meeting and stood up and said, "If you think you're hot now, imagine how you'll feel if you don't repent." Cracked me up. :-)
I also remember watching him at the dedication of the Timp temple. Before the meeting started he looked so frail and old, and then it was time to start and he stood up and his countenance just completely transformed and he looked so strong, invigorated.

Thanks for sharing!

Jody Richards said...

Hey Dan. Great blog. I learned in an email from Jenny Bylund Hill that you started it. (She used the "many are cold..." line, properly citing your blog.) Good idea about posting President Hickley memories.
I really enjoyed reading your experiences. I don't think I knew the story about Grandma Richards. Pretty cool. I do remember being envious that you and Stewart Brewer got to go exploring. I also remember when Pres. Hinckley came to Cortez. I was pretty young but remember being a little disappointed that it wasn't Pres. Monson instead. I think that was because I could understand Pres. Monson's talks better when I was a child. Now, however, making the switch from Hinckley to Monson will probably be quite a transition for me. I'll just share a couple of my own memories. First has to do with music. In the fall of my first year at Ricks, Elder Bednar was officially made the president of Ricks College. The symphony was asked to play for the procession of all the dignitaries at the beginning of the inauguration ceremony. One of the benefits of playing the cello is sitting on the edge of the orchestra; in that position, I realized the prophet would be walking past me at a distance of only about 2 or 3 feet. It was all I could do to not abandon my music and just look up at him as he past. I thought that was a singular experience playing for the prophet, but it was also a hint of things to come. As a cellist in the Orchestra at Temple Square, I again benefited from the outside position of the cello section. He was a regular at choir/orchestra events. He'd always enter the hall from our side and sit on the front row in the center section, slightly toward us and in my direct line of vision. So from time to time (when we weren't actually playing, of course), I could watch him watch us. He was an attentive audience member and obviously enjoyed things of beauty. And again, whenever he'd come on stage (not too often) to greet the guest artist or thank the performers, he walked within a bow stroke.
The second thing is a memory from General Conference. In October 1999, Dad was the bishop of the Vernal 3rd ward and had conference tickets. I was at BYU then, so we went to Temple Square and waited to get into the Sunday afternoon session. We were seated in the north balcony. The congregation instinctively stood for the closing hymn, "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet". I remember standing there singing, looking over the balcony at the prophet and being filled with the fire of the Holy Ghost confirming this truth. That was the last session ever held in the Tabernacle. The next April, I also got to go to a session in the first conference held in the new Conference Center (thanks to Melinda and her friends from Boston), which in and of itself is a tribute to his vision.
(Sorry this is kind of long. I don't have my own blog.)

marizasmom said...

Wahoo! It's so great that you have a blog.

My only memories of President Hinckley are ones shared by many. I loved his sense of humor and humility and that he conveyed a sense of his candor and personability to millions. He had such a great sense of history and literature and was still so accessible.

The only personal thing I had was a strong witness that he was indeed a prophet of God. I was particularly touched by this as I watched the Nauvoo temple dedication. Your experiences are strikingly personal and unique. I loved reading them.

Joyce and Bill said...

Dan, It's great to discover your blog. I tried your quote test and sure enough I could score 100% by feeding the quotes into google... but I guess that's not what you had in mind... pretty amazing though. I decided, after your comments, not to try the geography game tonight... but I'm sure I can't resist it for long. Aggg. :-)thanks! I do love everyone's blogs... I wager they are as addictive as the geogame. Thanks for sharing.