Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Against the Odds: The Life of George Albert Smith," by Mary Jane Woodger and published by Covenant Communications.
Though George Albert Smith entered the First Presidency in his eighth decade, he was insistent that his age not be a handicap. One of his favorite sayings was, “I would rather be 78 years young than 50 years old.”
In his efforts to maintain a youthful energy while serving as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Smith kept a rigid dietary routine. He typically ate a light breakfast, consisting generally of prunes and a dish of steamed wheat with cream. One time when he saw his secretary, Arthur Haycock, eating cold, shredded-wheat cereal, President Smith said, “You might as well cut the end off the broom or gather the shavings off the carpenter’s floor as eat that. Why don’t you have some of mine?” When his secretary did, he found that “the more he chewed, the bigger the wheat grew until he nearly choked.”
President Smith was devoted to his regimen, and everywhere he went he took a jar of wheat; the size of the jar depended on how long he was going to be gone. Sometimes the wheat even spilled over to dinner; at restaurants, Haycock often told the server, “We’re having roast beef, and he’s having boiled wheat.”
President Smith’s favorite dinner was a piece of bread with molasses and butter. While eating this dinner, he tried to have the three ingredients come out even, and there was always a little celebration when he succeeded. He was never able to eat much at one sitting, and when others teased him about his small meal portions, he teased back.
After reading his morning newspaper, President Smith had someone drive him to the office, usually his secretary or his son-in-law, Robert Murray Stewart. Along the way, someone else nearly always got an invitation to ride with him, whether it was a student on the way to school, a person going to work or someone waiting for a bus. President Smith and his driver often had to go many miles out of their way in order to drop off the extra passengers.
President Smith usually arrived at his office by 9 a.m. The morning was typically “taken up with visitors, meetings, correspondence and more visitors. Meetings with the Brethren . . . in the presiding councils of the Church and of the various auxiliary organizations and institutions of the Church consume(d) a great deal of President Smith’s time,” according to his secretary.
Whenever possible, President Smith liked to go home for lunch, where he usually ate a soft-boiled egg, milk, homemade bread and bottled fruit. He would then rest for an hour or two before returning to the office. The commute took so much time that President Smith had “a room made available to him in the Hotel Utah adjacent to the Church Administration Building, so he could slip over there for a little snooze without taking too much time from his crowded schedule.”
Many of President Smith’s evenings were devoted to meetings, public dinners and other functions, but he liked nothing better than a quiet evening at home. Although living with grandchildren could be trying at times, the grandchildren were happy to have their grandfather in the household, and his teenage grandchildren often felt he was more prepared to listen to them than their own parents were.
Younger grandchildren enjoyed sitting on President Smith’s knee, listening to pioneer stories while stroking his goatee. They also visited their grandfather at his office downtown, where he gave each of them a shiny dime from a drawer he kept full of coins to share with young visitors.
When President Smith spent time relaxing at his home on Yale Avenue, he liked to recline in a large-base rocking chair that his wife Lucy had given him. He often said, “If heaven is anywhere near to being as nice as Yale Avenue, I’ll be happy there,” which shows the great love he had for that home as he began to advance in years.
President Smith’s daughter Emily herself carried a substantial burden, and in September 1947 she suffered a heart attack, although she recovered soon thereafter.
When possible, President Smith enjoyed being outdoors and seeing the neighborhood. Once in awhile he’d walk around his yard with a cane. Greeting his neighbors, he’d show his interest in them by asking, “How are you today? How are things going?”
One winter day, President Smith met a neighbor on one of his walks who was out shoveling snow without a coat or gloves; he looked cold. President Smith gave him his overcoat without a second thought.
His ordination as prophet “did not alter the habits of kindness he had practiced all his adult life. He continued to make unsolicited, surprise calls on the sick or despondent, to speak at funerals, and to be an advocate for the underprivileged and the minorities.” Even with all his other duties, he dedicated his time to serving others by comforting those in distress, performing temple marriages and visiting widows, relatives and friends.
Mary Jane Woodger is a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and is the author of "Against the Odds: The Life of George Albert Smith."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company