Prophets who lived in the Hotel Utah

Published: Thursday, June 9 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A hurried Mitt Romney stuck his bag into the elevator door as it was closing late one night at the Hotel Utah. The doors reopened to reveal LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Camilla.

Embarrassed, Romney introduced himself, and the prophet said, "You look like a Romney."

"Thank you, I guess," Romney said.

"What do you mean, I guess?" President Kimball said.

"Well, we Romneys have such huge jaws."

With a straight face, President Kimball said, "Camilla is a Romney."

Following an awkward pause, and seeing Mitt's uneasiness, President Kimball laughed.

Romney, a future U.S. presidential candidate, along with numerous others, occasionally encountered presidents of the church at the Hotel Utah. Presidents Kimball, David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson lived within the elegant walls of the hotel for a time.

The historic Hotel Utah, now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, is one of the most recognizable buildings in Salt Lake City, and it celebrates its 100th anniversary this month.

In 1967 when President McKay was 94, he and his wife, Emma Ray, moved to a spacious apartment in the southeast corner of the eighth floor overlooking South Temple to the south and the church gardens to the east. He moved there to be closer to Temple Square. He died in 1970.

In the mid- to late-1970s, President Kimball and his wife, Camilla, lived in a suite on the 10th floor overlooking the church office and administration building. He died in 1985.

President Benson only lived in the Hotel Utah a short time in the late 1980s before moving to the Eagle Gate apartments.

Several people can recall random and memorable moments when they met the prophets who lived in the Hotel Utah. Here are some of those unique stories.

President David O. McKay

President McKay hosted kings and presidents, as well as business, educational and ecclesiastical leaders on his floor. He also received frequent visits from his grandchildren.

Grandson John McKay said the grandchildren often visited their grandpa in the Hotel Utah. Near the staircase on President McKay's floor was an ice machine that produced large ice cubes, which were a treat at the time. When the kids weren't sucking on the cubes, they climbed up to the 10th floor to drop the mini ice bombs through the banister. They watched with fascination as the cubes dropped 10 stories to the floor below. When the cubes hit the floor, the noise reverberated up the stairwell. No casualties were ever reported.

In those days, it wasn't uncommon for people to ride the elevator with the prophet. An elevator operator remembers when a man and his young son got on the elevator and met President McKay. Eager to impress his son, the man said, "James, this is President David O. McKay, our beloved prophet. This may be your last chance to meet him. He's an old man."

President McKay grinned and said, "Don't be alarmed at my future, son. Very few men die at the age of 96."

Miriam Carter recalls playing in a Hotel Utah hallway with her brother when the elevator opened and out walked President McKay. He walked to the children to say hello and shake their hands. He visited with them for a moment and as he turned to go, their mother informed him that her son had just turned 12 and was going to receive the Aaronic Priesthood. President McKay took the young man's hand, shook it again and said, "Let me be the first to welcome you into the priesthood of God."

Susan Easton Black, a BYU professor, author and lecturer of LDS Church history, has published an account of meeting President McKay in the Hotel Utah when she was a freshman at BYU.

Black and a friend were visiting Temple Square and had some time to kill. Her friend commented that President McKay lived in the famous hotel, and the curious girls decided to find his room. They interrogated employees and knocked doors until an innocent chambermaid revealed the secret information. Giddy, the girls located his room door. Black was designated to knock. If President McKay answered, they were selling early orders for Girl Scout cookies.

As Black knocked, her friend disappeared down the hall. Then she saw the door open. Black froze like a deer in headlights.

"Before me stood the prophet," Black wrote of the experience. "He looked surprised but didn't say anything. Neither did I. I couldn't. I felt like I had the key to the celestial kingdom but did not belong. I was not worthy to be in his presence. I started to cry and then sob."

Tenderly, President McKay invited the two girls into his room to visit.

"Our discussion remains personal," Black wrote, "but the resulting impact of that meeting was to change my inner direction dramatically."

Marne Newton's mother worked at the Hotel Utah and one day was assigned to take parking tolls in the ticket booth. At one point a limousine pulled through and the driver instructed her to lift the gate.

As soon as you pay the 10 cents, Newton said.

The driver became impatient and informed her his passenger didn't have to pay.

Newton said she didn't care if his passenger was the prophet, "10 cents," she said, holding out her hand.

Both heads turned at the sound of a window rolling down. President McKay told Newton she was a wonderful employee as he handed her a dime. She took the dime and said, "Thank you." What a nice man, she thought. It wasn't until the limousine departed that Newton realized the prophet had just paid her.

President McKay also conducted official church business in the hotel from time to time. In a February 1990 address at BYU, Elder Marvin J. Ashton described how he was summoned to the hotel apartment of President McKay for a special appointment.

"As I sat with him in the privacy of his study, his body was frail, his voice was soft, and words did not come easily," Elder Ashton said. "After sitting in uncomfortable silence waiting for him to compose himself enough to advise me as to the purpose of the appointment and visit, he finally said in a still voice of perfect mildness, 'I want you to help me.' That was my invitation. That was my call to be a general authority. That was one of my unforgettable quiet experiences with President David O. McKay."

President Spencer W. Kimball

In the mid- to late-1970s, when death threats were made toward President Kimball, church security urged the Kimballs to stay in an apartment on the top floor of the Hotel Utah. A police escort helped the couple from their home to an apartment at the hotel.

Entrance into their room for anyone else required four knocks and the password "Cumorah." President Kimball didn't mind being closer to work, but Sister Kimball had a hard time leaving her home and garden. In April 1978, she wrote in her journal, "The apartment is beautiful but I feel like I am in prison."

There were happier times for the Kimballs at the grand hotel.

In late 1977, they hosted a fancy reunion for more than 50 guests in the hotel's Empire Room. On New Year's Day 1979, Sister Kimball cooked a prize-winning, 29-pound turkey for more than 30 family members. President Kimball's 85th birthday included a program at the Tabernacle followed by a banquet for 2,000 people in the Hotel Utah. Norman Vincent Peale, a motivational speaker, spoke and entertainers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans performed.

President Kimball was not shy about opening his door to unexpected visitors. One day, D. Arthur Haycock, the president's secretary, escorted James Ketcher and his family to meet the prophet. President Kimball opened the door in his robe and said, "I've been waiting for you."

Ketcher, a 6-foot-2 professional baseball player, lifted the shorter President Kimball off his feet in an emotional embrace. Meeting the prophet had been a lifelong dream.

When the visit was over, President Kimball, still in his robe, said, "Oh, do you have to go?" As if nothing would please him more than to have them stay.

In his final years as his health declined, his counselor Gordon B. Hinckley carried the load for the First Presidency and visited President Kimball often to discuss church business.

President Ezra Taft Benson

Insight into President Benson's short stay in the Hotel Utah is limited. He moved out before the hotel was remodeled.

While he was still there, a November 1987 article in the Ensign magazine reports that President Benson and his wife, Flora, danced at the Constitutional Bicentennial Ball at the Hotel Utah on Sept. 18, 1987.

His counselors, President Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson, and their wives led a promenade that included other general authorities and their wives. Songs and dances from the colonial period entertained those in attendance.

"Few occasions in life hold as much significance as this momentous anniversary and provide greater reason for celebration," President Benson said on that patriotic occasion.

Sources: "Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball," (2005, Edward L. Kimball); "The Hotel: Salt Lake's Classy Lady, The Hotel Utah, 1911-1986," (1986, Leonard J. Arrington and Heidi S. Swinton); "Expression of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Scholars," (1996, Susan Easton Black), HotelUtah100.com

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