I became a volunteer at the Utah State Prison about 40 years ago to give something back for all the help I received during a long hospitalization following World War II. I visited inmates on my own for a time and then became an assistant to the prison's LDS chaplain.
When the inmates discovered I was a professional gardener, they asked me to help them fix up the grounds around their cell block. I taught the men and later women inmates to plant and care for flowers and vegetables, and we became friends. One December in the early 1960s, the prisoners asked me to locate a struggling family they could help for the holidays.
I turned to the central Salt Lake ward that had once helped me recover my health. I learned of an abandoned single mother who was working and receiving some aid but who had little extra money to provide Christmas for four young sons. When I visited the family, the oldest boy, a 12-year-old, told me that his mom had said she was sorry they couldn't have much of a Christmas. But he told her not to worry; they could eat cornflakes for Christmas.
I was concerned about how the inmates would fund their ideas. But 40 years ago, prisoners were permitted to work on personal leather, wood and metal projects and sell the souvenirs from a showcase in the visitors entrance of the prison and keep the money.
The two inmates had asked their fellow convicts to help, and together they collected an amazing $1,000. Those two men were determined to provide the family a holiday with all the trimmings, including the Christmas stockings.
In those days, some inmates were allowed passes on rare occasions, so I was permitted to take the prisoners shopping uptown, accompanied by a guard. Wearing unmarked green uniforms, the inmates carried coats over their arms to cover the handcuffs on their wrists as they bought clothes, toys, decorations and food.
A few days before Christmas, I returned to the home with the chaplain, the two prisoners and a guard, our arms loaded with bags and boxes. In an act of compassion, the guard removed the handcuffs for this hour. The family greeted us with smiles and tears. As I walked past the mother standing at the door, she whispered to me, "God has angels in prison, doesn't he?"
The family helped us carry in groceries, hang new Christmas stockings, set out wrapped gifts and decorate the tree. Being the tallest, I held up the smallest boy to put the star at the top of the tree.
Before letting us leave, the 5-year-old pulled us onto our knees in the living room, telling us he wanted to say a prayer. I remember that it was an unorthodox prayer, and we were all crying, as the boy expressed his own thanks and then looked up to his mother for help.
The mother and her boys said their final "thank you's," waved goodbye and closed the front door. Walking to the car, the humbled inmates asked if they could offer their own prayer.
So the five of us again knelt in a circle, this time in the darkened street. Each inmate expressed gratitude for the privilege of truly helping others despite their own circumstances. Then, reverting to his prison background, one inmate threatened me, perhaps only half jokingly, that he'd know who was responsible if any other prisoners learned about them crying that night.
For several years, other prisoners continued the custom of helping a family. But the happiness I saw in the faces of the inmates and the family that Christmas 40 years ago is my favorite memory. I don't think I've been in such a beautiful place in my life. As long as I remember what happened that night, I'll continue to visit the men and women incarcerated at the prison.
Editor's note: Elmer died Nov. 7, 2000, at age 89. He continued his visits to the prison in recent years in a wheelchair aided by friends Garth Remington and Dale Brimley until surgery in September 2000 prevented him from doing so. As recently as Dec. 3, a prisoner incarcerated for more than 30 years talked in worship service about Elmer's dogged weekly visits for about six months before the inmate would even respond and talk to him.
About the author...
Ann Hobson is a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband, Daryl, have three grown children and two grandchildren.
The Hobsons started volunteering at the prison and later received a calling from their church to serve there. They attend church at the prison every Sunday. She says this is a challenging as well as uplifting experience.
Elmer Knowles told her this story after she met him at the prison. She said Knowles dedicated his life to these prisoners, and she wanted to share his story.