I think that of all the things I have learned about Marjorie Hinckley, this is what I like the best: That one of her favorite sounds is the sound of the screen door slamming. To her, that door sounds like summer, like children playing, like family. It tells you much about her.
Times have changed, of course. She is 91, and there is no screen door and no children under foot. She and her husband Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in an apartment in downtown Salt Lake City, which is a strange place to end up for two people who raised their family in what was then the country and love nothing more than working in the yard and the sunshine. They don't get out much these days, partly because of age and partly because they are virtual prisoners of his fame. So it is just the two of them at home, with frequent visits from their five children, 25 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren.
She is a simple, practical woman with simple wants for a good husband, a good family and a good book, and a love of God and church work. He saw her pleasantness and her basic goodness early on. (He saw Marjorie Pay for the first time more than 80 years ago when they were children attending the same ward.) In turn, as a teen she told her mother that young Gordon Hinckley was going places in life. They will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary at the end of the month.
All those years together have only heightened their devotion to each other. A couple of years ago, when somebody asked President Hinckley what he would wish for his wife, he said, "That we might live together for as long as the Lord wills and that when the time comes for us to move on, that we might go together or very close together, without one lingering a long time after the other. We've lived together for a long time. I hope we'll continue to move on together."
Recently, while standing at the pulpit together in a church area conference, President Hinckley discussed the years they had been together and began to weep.
"Has it been that bad?" said Marjorie.
Which is typical. Among the many traits she shares with her husband, humor is one of them, and it has served their marriage well over the years.
I met the Hinckleys for an interview in the Church Administration Building, which was no small feat. It is easier to contact Elvis than arrange an interview with the Hinckleys, because of his demanding schedule and because of her discomfort with interviews. As always, one of her daughters was by her side for the interview in this case, Kathy Barnes, their oldest child. As the interview approached, President Hinckley reminded Kathy, "You're going to be there for your mother, aren't you?"
Marjorie was patient and humorous throughout the interview, turning frequently to Kathy for help, but her answers were brief, with almost no elaboration. At one point, recognizing her discomfort, I jokingly asked her how she liked the interview so far.
"Well, I'm not having any fun at all," she said brightly.
When I told her she acted as if she were in a dentist's chair, she said, "I am."
"You can't wait to get out of here, can you?"
"I can't," she said. "I like you, but I can't wait." Even in her moment of discomfiture, she tried to make me feel better by saying it wasn't personal.
As the interview progressed, I began to feel more and more like I was Ed McMahon to their Johnny Carson. I was their straight man, setting them up for one-liners, some spontaneous, some old ones they had used previously. They are funny and playful together and they play off one another, not to mention their interviewer.
When President Hinckley noted that he remembered Marjorie as a little girl, she mumbled to him, "I was really cute. Tell him that."
"Oh, yeah, she was a cute little girl," he said without missing a beat.
When she recalled that she borrowed her mother's dress for their first date, he feigned ignorance. "You what!?"
When she commented that her parents liked young Gordon Hinckley right away and that her grandmother thought he was wonderful, he said skeptically, "Oh yeah?!"
When she was reminded of the long months that her husband used to be away from home on church business, leaving her to tend their household and five children, she said, "Then he'd come home and think he was in charge."
Their feet have slowed, but not their wit. In the preface of Marjorie's biography, "Glimpses," Sheri Dew recalls a meeting in which President Hinckley began to address a group of missionaries by announcing, "I am going to exercise my prerogative and call on Sister Hinckley to talk with you. This is something for which I will pay a dear price, but so be it." Never at a loss for words, Marjorie stepped to the microphone and said, "I like this man a lot, but I like him sometimes a lot more than others."
In another meeting, President Hinckley again began his talk by saying, "Sister Hinckley and I have been all over the world speaking to missionaries, and I don't know anyone who does a better job at this than she does. So I think I'd like for her to speak for a few minutes." Marjorie leaned into the microphone and said, "I'll tell you exactly why I'm speaking. President Hinckley hasn't decided yet what he wants to say and he's stalling."
In my brief interview with Marjorie Hinckley, this was my impression: Maybe she is 91 years old, stands 5-foot nothing at best, has gray hair and is as sweet as the Relief Society president's Jell-O, but she is a strong personality. She is independent, knows what she wants and she can take care of herself. Ask her if it was difficult during her husband's long absences early in their marriage, she says matter of factly, "No, I liked to be in charge." She also added, "Then he'd come home and start running things, and I'd say, 'Wait a minute; I'm in charge here.' "
"She's really tough and independent," says Virginia Pearce, another of the couple's three daughters. "But it's not a selfish independence. She was always willing to make herself available to Dad. She's been remarkably adaptive. And she thinks my dad is remarkable in a non-adulation way. She knows him inside and out and doesn't think he's perfect. They're a great team. They're very funny together. The humor has been a lifesaver. It has allowed Dad not to take himself too seriously."
During the 1998 Governor's Marriage Enrichment Conference, Marjorie told an audience, "I am very grateful for a husband who always lets me do my own thing. . . . He never insists that I do anything his way, or any way for that matter. From the very beginning he gave me space and let me fly. What a man!"
(President Hinckley recently said, "If there's anything that irritates me it's these men who try to run their wives' lives and tell them everything they ought to do and so on and so on.")
There were times, of course, when they had differences of opinion and she put her foot down and prevailed. He was always, for instance, remodeling their house when the kids were home, turning the garage into a bedroom or part of the kitchen into a bedroom and so forth. "He always had the house ripped up," says Virginia. "He'd work on it at night. Sometimes it was one too many projects and she would say you're not going to do this. She stuck to her ground. When he could see she was going to stand her ground, he'd just laugh or leave the room and let it go. So there was never any tension."
Other General Authorities of the LDS Church have been heard to say, "She is every bit his equal intellectually, spiritually and socially."
But they are different. As Virginia notes, "They have complementary qualities, which makes them a good team."
The way Virginia describes it, her father is "focused, disciplined, overloaded. And she just had this remarkable ability not to push life. It made home a refuge for him. He'd come home and she didn't have a huge list for him."
And that warmth and charisma that President Hinckley is famous for?
Virginia thinks her mother brought that out of her father.
"She has a confidence and warmth, and he was basically shy and reserved," says Virginia. "I think she helped him develop that ability to reach out to people. It wasn't that it wasn't there. He was just very shy growing up. He's talked about that, that he was not a gregarious person."
President Hinckley also tends to be in a hurry while his wife has always taken things slower, even when she was a young woman. He walks as fast as he can go while Marjorie moseys along. "Hurry up, Marge," he'll say.
"Oh, slow down," she'll say pleasantly. She doesn't get upset, but she doesn't walk faster either or push life, as Virginia might call it. Once, when she was asked what she considered to be a good birthday present, she said, "Just to be alive, to be able to put my shoes on and go."
Marjorie describes life with her husband these days this way: "We just get up in the morning, put on our shoes and go to work." He goes to work every morning, at the age of 92, coming home for lunch and dinner with his wife. She has frequent visitors her siblings visit every Wednesday, and the kids and grandkids stop in frequently. She has lunch with the wives of other church leaders. Most of her longtime friends have either passed away or can't get out. Ask her what she does each day, she says, "That's not a problem. I'm just busy all day."
Says Kathy, "What you see is what you get. There is nothing behind closed doors that is any different than their public persona. It's really a gift. They just know who they are, and they are comfortable with who they are."
President Hinckley and his wife don't watch TV, except the news, but they read newspapers, books and scriptures. Ask President Hinckley what they do to relax, he says, "Go to bed."
They meet with their extended family three generations of them once a month at one of their children's homes for what the LDS Church calls Family Home Evening, but it's not as formal as it sounds. Mostly it is just a time to be together, to enjoy each other's company, talking, visiting, eating and chasing great-grandkids around the house. There are no sermons.
"We just have a delightful time together and discuss one or two things and so on," says President Hinckley. "But everybody enjoys everybody else, and that's a wonderful thing in this day."
The couple escapes each week to what he calls their "hideaway," which is actually the old homestead where they raised their family. He likes to spend the night there and relax, which in his case means home and yard projects. He loves tools and he loves carpentry. He once installed a home furnace himself, and he built the family house with his own hands, the plumbing, the wiring, the carpentry, everything, with the help of a friend. Last year he built a bookcase.
Ask Marjorie what her husband does at the house these days and she says, with her typical brand of humor, "Well, he just hangs his tools up and admires them."
It is probably not much of an exaggeration. In another concession to age, he has given up using some of the tools. "These are power tools, and I'm frightened of them," he explains. "They're dangerous if you don't have your wits about you. But I have some very good tools."
He does still get out in the yard and work. He hands his security guard a shovel and puts him to work, too, while Marjorie busies herself in the house and yard.
"He loves to be out in the yard planting trees," says Kathy. "This is his one spot of earth that he can relax (in). They enjoy it very much. They can relax and rest and do some physical work. That feels good to them. The neighbors all know, and they leave him alone. It's secluded by a lot of trees. She goes out in the yard sometimes and just sit in the sun and enjoys the weather."
The Hinckley children, wary and weary of fame and attention, lament the limits that fame has placed on their parents' life together since he became president of the church in 1995. She can go out, but doesn't much. He can't go out at all.
"It's very sad," says Kathy. "It's a form of isolation that people don't recognize. He can never just wander in a store. It's just a shame because you know he would love to walk through a hardware store."
He's never even been able to step inside a Wal-Mart, although he tried once during a visit to St. George and never got past the front door. He was mobbed.
He likes to scan the pages of the newspaper, looking for things on sale, hardware items usually. When he sees something he needs, he has to send a family member to get it for him. Recently, when he needed a part to repair the washer in his apartment yes, he's still a do-it-yourselfer he couldn't describe the part to his security guard, so he ventured out in public himself to get it. He showed up unannounced at a small parts shop in Sugar House, got the part and fixed the washer himself.
"That was fun for him," says Virginia.
President Hinckley is still a young man in an old man's body. He still gets ideas in the middle of the night, and the next day he'll say, "I was up in the night. I've got this idea. I've been thinking about this. It might work."
"Dad is one of the brightest people I've known," says Kathy. "He has an alertness of the world around him. He's always learning. One of the huge sadnesses for him is that there is not enough time to learn. He'll say, 'Oh, I would love to read. There is so much I want to learn and I just don't have the time.' He would love to read a whole book. He has to skim."
President Hinckley is active and lives life on the go, albeit with a cane. For her part, Marjorie once confided to Virginia that she could no longer do what her husband can do, that she could no longer keep him up with him.
"You're normal, mother," said Virginia. "He's not."
Since the children grew up, the Hinckleys have traveled together frequently, accompanied usually by one of their daughters to look after Marjorie at her pace so President Hinckley can dash ahead to attend to church business without worrying that his wife will be all right. "When they travel they keep a very rigorous schedule," says Kathy. "They are up early, there are
no naps, and they go all day. I come home quite tired. But they (security and other assistants) manage him carefully. He has security and they are very good to him and mother. There are so many people around them who are so helpful in every way."
Marjorie has the normal aches and pains of her age, but any discussion of them doesn't get far. A conversation with her daughters will go something like this:
Daughters: "Do your knees hurt?"
Marjorie: "Well, I'm old."
Daughters: "You never say anything."
Marjorie: "What good would it do?"
Her advice for living a long life is about what you'd expect from her: "If you're happy, you live longer than if you're unhappy." And she has always been happy and content with the world. In 1937, when a young Gordon Hinckley told her he wasn't sure they could be married because he had only $150 in the bank in those Depression-era days, she replied, "You mean I get $150 and a husband?!"
Her position in a worldwide church has changed nothing. She is still a sensible-shoes woman, ever practical. Once one of their daughters saw her getting dressed in a pleated skirt and white cotton blouse for a reception. Her daughter protested, "The reception is in honor of Dad and you. He's probably going to wear a tux. Every woman there will have on sequins and diamonds." As she continued to dress, Marjorie said, "I don't have any sequins in my closet, but this skirt is black and the blouse does have a lace collar and, besides that, if we're the guests of honor, whatever I wear will have to be right."
(Acquaintances like to say that Marjorie has always just tried to be herself, to which Marjorie likes to say, "I couldn't think of anyone else to be.")
It has been the great surprise of her life for this simple woman to find herself married to the famous, beloved leader of the LDS Church. "How did a nice girl like me get in a mess like this?" she says frequently.
Says Kathy, "She comes from simple, hard-working stock. I don't think to this day she completely comprehends where life has taken her. She still lives her life, and he has his church job. She wouldn't be any different if he were the chorister in Sunday School."
She grew up in a salt-of-the-earth family in the Salt Lake Valley and, except for a brief stay in Denver, she has lived in the valley her entire life. She never learned to swim or ride a bike, and never went to college, which was a big regret for a woman who loves learning and books and took classes when she could manage it. One morning during the Depression years she registered for classes at the University of Utah. Later that day she learned her father had lost his job. That afternoon she took a job in downtown Salt Lake City, and that was the end of college.
And yet she has seen the world at the side of her husband, visiting more countries than she can count. Sometimes, she says, she has to pinch herself to see if this is really her wonderful life, one that she never saw coming.
She says she knew from the beginning that she would never be No. 1 in Gordon Hinckley's life God held that position but she took comfort in that. He went to work for the church following his mission and has worked there ever since. While he was busy opening missions in the Orient and traveling abroad, she was taking care of the house and yard, putting the kids through their chores, driving the boys on their paper routes, picking fruit from the backyard trees. It was a job she loved. When the kids went back to school at the end of the summer, she cried. She hoarded every minute she could with them. Once, when one of her children was required to stay after school for disciplinary reasons, she marched into the school and told the teacher, "You can do anything you want with this boy all day long, but after 3 p.m. he's mine."
The Hinckley children have gone on to productive lives. Kathy, who has five children, owned her own convention-service business, but sold it shortly after her husband, Alan, died suddenly of an undetected heart problem two years ago. She remains active in community service, serving on several boards. Richard, a retired businessman, is serving as president of the Utah-Salt Lake mission. He has four children. Virginia, whose husband, James, is a physician, is a former counselor in the Young Women's general presidency and is now a stake Relief Society president. She serves on the board of directors for Deseret Book and has co-authored three children's books with Kathy. (She soon will release her own book.) She has six children. Clark is a senior vice president of Zions Bancorp. and a stake president. He has six children. Jane is a homemaker with four children, and she's active in the high school PTA.
"I'm grateful to say our family's turned out amazingly well in my judgment," says President Hinckley, "and I give all the credit to this little lady."
Perhaps it is revealing that all five children live in the same corner of the Salt Lake Valley. Marjorie no longer hears the screen door slamming, but she is surrounded by her children and their children and standing at her husband's side, and she's still putting on her shoes every morning to go to work and is thankful just for all of that.
E-mail: [email protected].