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Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press
LDS Church Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley shows how to play "mumble peg."

The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pulls out a pocket knife, balances the tip gingerly on his nose, flips his wrist and lets go. The blade stabs at the top of the walnut desk — an heirloom used by two previous presidents — but doesn't stick.

"My brother and I used to play mumble peg for hours," says the 95-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley, retrieving the knife to try again. It was a rare, unscripted moment for the shepherd of 12 million Mormon souls — one that left his public-relations executives wincing.

To those who know him well, the moment is pure President Hinckley, a man revered by his followers as a prophet of God and a third-generation Mormon who became the 15th president of the church in 1995.

"It shows how real he is," said President Hinckley biographer Sheri Dew, who is president of Deseret Book, a church-owned publishing house. "There are no pretenses with him. What you see is what you get."

President Hinckley has spent 70 years working for the church — one of the world's fastest-growing religions — helping to shape everything from its public face to the development of missionary programs. His charisma and kindness routinely disarm skeptics.

"You won't find any (criticism)," said veteran CBS newsman Mike Wallace, who twice put President Hinckley on "60 Minutes." "I love him. I can't think of any individual I admire more. He's open. He's optimistic. He has a vision and he is honest."

CNN talk show host Larry King, who interviewed President Hinckley in 1998, is equally enamored but is critical of the church for being slow to embrace racial equality and wrong to denounce homosexuality.

Nor does King, a self-described agnostic, believe President Hinckley could be a prophet.

"I can't conceive that God talks to him, if there is a God," said King, whose wife Shawn is Mormon. "But I can't disparage him in any way. I like being around him. You feel good around him. I hope he lives a long time."

President Hinckley "likes to talk about his age. He likes to say, 'I'm the last leaf on the tree and the wind is blowing,' " said Dew, who spent two years working on the biography. "But he doesn't act like he's 95."

This year alone, he visited Africa, Russia, Iceland, Korea, Taiwan, India and Western Europe — the most traveled president in church history. Church insiders say he meets daily with leadership and takes an active role in church programs, always looking for innovative ways to solve problems or make improvements.

The LDS church was founded in April 1830 by Joseph Smith, who said that 10 years earlier God and Jesus appeared to him in a vision as he prayed in the woods near Palmyra, N.Y. He later said an angel, Moroni, led him to a buried set of gold plates inscribed with the story of a lost tribe of Israel that had settled North America. Smith's translation of the plates became known as the Book of Mormon, the faith's foundational text.

Today the church has a reported 12 million members in more than 26,600 congregations around the world. The Book of Mormon is available in 185 different languages, and some 59,000 missionaries are working around the world.

At times, President Hinckley seems an unlikely church leader.

By nature, his daughters will attest, he is shy, fiercely private and uncomfortable with praise. But in personality and presence, President Hinckley more than lives up to his title.

He is witty, charming and loves a good round of verbal sparring. He is adept at working — and managing — a room, including the swarm of church public relations officers who hover around him.

In the LDS church, ascending to the presidency comes through a combination of service, level of leadership and longevity — the longer high-ranking leaders live, the more likely they'll get the post.

But the job is not something President Hinckley says he wanted, or even thought much about getting.

"I was an employee," he said. "We don't have any ambition for office in the church. We accept what we are asked to do and give it our very best, but we don't have ambition or aspiration for office."

President Hinckley's children never knew what a mark their father was leaving on the church when they were young, daughters Virginia Pearce and Kathleen Walker say.

"It wasn't until (Dew) wrote the biography that we really found out a lot about what he had been doing," says Pearce, 60. "We just never felt that what he was doing was particularly difficult or meaningful. We were just normal."

Family life was full of laughter and adventure, not heavy with expectations or rules, the women say. As a parent, President Hinckley taught much the way he leads his church, through quiet example.

"He would talk about other people at the dinner table and say 'he's a fine man,' and would talk about the characteristics and attributes of the person, and we would know that these are the things that you value," said Walker, 66, the eldest of the five Hinckley children.

"Nothing in Dad is mass-produced," Pearce said. "I think everything he does, he does because he loves the individual people of the church."

President Hinckley has never fully shaken the shyness he felt as a child, but from the pulpit and among the people of the church President Hinckley is transformed, Pearce and Walker say.

"He can say some things from the pulpit that he can't say face to face," Pearce said.

Getting President Hinckley to talk about President Hinckley isn't as easy.

Asked to describe his own traits, the president seems almost embarrassed to respond.

"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I only want to be known as a man who tried to do his best to make the world better."

What President Hinckley will say is that his parents taught him the virtues of honesty, hard work, faith and prayer, qualities and practices he tried to emulate and pass along to his children.

He is, he says, deeply honored for the opportunity to lead the church.

"When the office is bestowed upon you, you feel the weight of it, course you do," he said. "It's a tremendous responsibility."

It is one he manages with prayer and effort.

"You want to do what the Lord expects of you," he said. "You seek divine guidance and then you go to work. Get on your knees and pray, and stand on your feet and work."

To be the prophet means to surrender one's life to the work of the church and its members.

President Hinckley can no longer experience the world as others do. There are no ordinary trips to the mall, nor afternoon strolls through the beautifully manicured church gardens outside his office door.

"I can't. Everybody wants to shake hands wherever I go," President Hinckley said. "But you don't consider relative values. You accept where you are and you do the best you can."

Privately, Pearce says, her father has talked about the burden of leadership.

"He's quieter than he used to be," she said. "He talked once about how lonely it is at the top. We sense that in him."

The death of President Hinckley's wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, in 2004 also changed their father, the daughters say. The couple grew up together and were married 67 years.

"There is a sadness there that wasn't there before," Pearce said. "But he doesn't think he's done yet. He's still got work to do."

Religious leaders in Utah credit President Hinckley with cultivating a greater ecumenical spirit between Mormons and other faiths.

"There's a real readiness in both directions to come together for matters that concern us about life in the community," Catholic Bishop George Niederauer said. "It's entirely for the better."

Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish was raised Mormon and knew President Hinckley when she was a child. Irish and Walker took dance classes together, and President Hinckley drove them home after the lessons.

"He's become one of the more interesting and really generous souls that I know," Irish said. "He's worked very hard to encourage the church in the direction of acceptance of their neighbors."

President Hinckley acknowledges that during his tenure, the church has "in a very real sense come out of obscurity and darkness, and it's better understood and appreciated."

Wallace credits President Hinckley with opening the church to the news media. Before President Hinckley, Wallace had tried over a span of 20 years — and three church presidents — to secure an interview with the head of the Mormon church.

"He said come and ask me anything," said Wallace. "That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

The pair last saw each other in July when Wallace spoke at President Hinckley's 95th birthday celebration.

"I had a few things to say about him, and he cried," Wallace said. "I think he's the real deal."