More than three years after his ordination, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has his feet secured on the international stage, as comfortable in Accra, Ghana, as in Salt Lake City.
Utah civic leaders who watch him say he is clearly a man for the season.He's answered Mike Wallace on CBS's "60 Minutes." He travels incessantly, yet found time to leave his office, business suit and all, to wave and cheer on the University of Utah basketball team in a downtown parade.
He's a hand shaker, a praiser, a man who knows what to say and how to say it, often with a sense of humor. His affable nature and energy have taken him beyond events normally requisite of his office to a place of notice from those inside and outside traditional LDS ranks.
Next month, President Hinckley will address graduates, including his granddaughter, in commencement exercises at the University of Utah.
Record keepers at the U. have only kept track of commencement speakers since 1965. School spokesman Larry Weist said in those three decades no LDS Church president has spoken at commencement.
Well, chalk up the 1998 commencement talk as another first. President Hinckley is also the first church president to have spoken at a conference of the NAACP. He filled Madison Square Garden, another first.
President Gordon B. Hinckley might be 87, but he doesn't look it, act it or define it.
Former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson says President Hinckley's ascent to the public stage is a matter as much about the church's place in the world in 1998 as President Hinckley's effervescent personality.
Last year marked the first time in the faith's history that more members of the LDS Church lived outside the U.S. borders than within them.
"The Mormon Church has crossed a line in its history which makes it imperative for the church to move out into the bigger world," Wilson said. "President Hinckley sees the world as his theater."
There have been times in the history of the church where the focus may have been more internal. But that's changed, Wilson says, making the missionary church, led by a man who Wilson says is "an includer not an excluder," a much different entity.
"You put his personality together with that imperative and you have a church that's starting to say, `We are tolerant. We're open. We're moving ahead. We're out to take the good word to everyone.' "
Since 1988, Jeanetta Williams has worked with the NAACP in Utah as a national board member. She worked with two previous LDS Church presidents and has found President Hinckley's tenure "a very different and more open" presidency.
Williams said Hinckley reached out a hand of fellowship from his first moments as president in March 1995 and her group reached right back to meet him.
His message of inclusiveness, regardless of religion or ethnic background, earned Williams' respect and Hinckley an invitation as the first LDS leader to speak at an NAACP convention.
"He's reaching beyond members of the LDS Church and the LDS faith. I think that's more or less why people are being drawn to him. They feel he's showing sincerity in what he's doing," Williams said. "He's not just out there doing it for show but he's doing it because he really believes it's the right thing to do and he really believes he can make a difference."
University of Utah President J. Bernard Machen said President Hinckley has been "overtly open, friendly and helpful to me during my first four to five months, much more than you would expect of someone at his level and with the commitments he has."
Machen and his wife, Chris, met with President Hinckley and his counselors Thomas S. Monson and James E. Faust, (all three U. graduates, Machen notes), for about 45 minutes last December.
"From that, I've just had this warm feeling about the church (leaders) and the way they've been receptive to me at the U."
At the U., selection of the commencement speaker is the president's decision.
"I was asked who I would like and I said, `him.' The other hook was, his granddaughter is an intern in my office, Ann Hinckley. She's graduating this June. I thought he might be coming or think about coming so I might have a chance to get him. All of those things came together."
President Hinckley will not receive an honorary degree, customarily bestowed upon the commencement speaker. That's because he already has one.
Machen said he believes President Hinckley's "ambassadorship is going to be one of his great legacies to the church. He's done a lot to spread the message of the church to non-LDS folks around the world.
"It's because of who he is and how likable he is as a human being that people are willing to entertain the notion of the church and become much more positive about it."