Ryan Long, Deseret Morning News
King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga visited Utah in 2004 to dedicate the United Methodist Church in West Valley after the previous church was destroyed.

Members of Utah's Tongan community and their friends were mourning the death Sunday of Tonga's long-time king, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who died in a New Zealand hospital at age 88.

The loss of King Tupou IV, who ruled Tonga for 41 years, was not unexpected but caused sadness among Utahns of Tongan descent and others who knew the king.

Utah has one of the largest populations of people born in Tonga outside of the small Pacific Ocean kingdom. King Tupou IV and his wife, Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho, visited the state in recent years.

"It's a terrible tragedy for the kingdom, because he's been a king for so long," said Lani Sitake, Orem, who was born in Utah of Tongan descent, lived in Tonga for a time as an adult before returning to Utah.

"The people are so loving of their royalty. We love and we honor our royalty. ... The king and the queen are treated with such deference and respect."

A nephew of the king and the nephew's wife recently died in a car accident while visiting San Francisco, she noted. "This is a double-whammy. That was just a few months ago. It's a nation already in mourning."

The 2000 Census lists 6,587 Utahns as of Tongan descent. Most are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to experts interviewed. Many others are members of the Tongan United Methodist Church.

King Tupou IV visited Utah more than once, most recently in 2004 to dedicate the Tongan United Methodist Church building, which replaced a building destroyed by an arson fire in 2000.

The king called upon then-Gov. Olene Walker and visited with officials of the LDS Church. At the time, officials said it was his second trip to the state.

LDS Church officials have had many friendly contacts with the king. At the celebration of church President Gordon B. Hinckley's 95th birthday in July 2005, President Hinckley wore a lei sent to him from King Tupou IV.

Among those close to the king was John H. Groberg, an emeritus General Authority and currently president of the Idaho Falls LDS Temple. He is author of "The Other Side of Heaven," a memoir of his mission to Tonga in the 1950s which was made into a film in recent years. In 2003, President Groberg and Elder Ronald T. Halverson of the Seventy were in Tonga for a satellite conference, and met with the king and members of the royal family.

In 1993, King Tupou IV participated in the 30th anniversary of the Church's Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, and in 1991, the queen visited Salt Lake City for six days as a guest of the Church.

In August 1991 the LDS Church celebrated the centennial of its work in Tonga, and the king attended major events and declared a public holiday. The Tongan post office issued two commemorative stamps in honor of the occasion.

While on his mission, 1954-57, President Groberg became friends with the future king. "One of the places I was assigned to was in the islands of Ha'apai," a group of islands within Tonga. He became friends with the royal couple when they visited Ha'apai. At the time, the future king was crown prince and his mother, Queen Salote Tupou III, was ruler.

"They had two or three of their children with them, and I used to just visit with them a lot," President Groberg recalled in a telephone interview. "And a couple of times I would say, 'Why don't you go out and take an evening off, and I'll watch your kinds for you?'"

Their friendship continued when President Groberg returned to Tonga as a mission president. After Queen Salote died, President Groberg was invited to King Tupou IV's coronation. "We just had association with him over the years, the king and the queen and my wife and I," he said, referring to his wife, Jean.

President Groberg noted that he and his wife had a baby born in Tonga who had some problems. Members of the LDS community there prayed and fasted.

Queen Mata'aho told him it wasn't only LDS members who were doing that. "I was, too," she said. King Tupou IV attempted many ventures to improve Tonga's economic status, from agricultural changes to oil, aircraft and other investments. "Some of them worked out, some of them didn't," President Groberg said.

"He was a good man. He was very articulate, very interested in all aspects of life. ... He liked to travel, he liked to see what's going on in different parts of the world."When the king was in Utah to dedicate the Tongan United Methodist Church, President Groberg was in Salt Lake City as a General Authority. "He just invited us up to visit him," he said.

King Tupou IV was friends with many Utahns, and spoke at Brigham Young University at one occasion, he noted. "They (the Tongan people) have been expecting it," said Semisi Pau'u, president of the Salt Lake Utah LDS Tongan Stake, referring to the king's death. The stake has 2,700 members in the Salt Lake City and West Valley areas.

"He was very ill and he was also very old. But the people really love him and respect him as their leader."

People in the region will participate in mourning, he said.

"He has been a great king for us," he added. When King Tupou IV dedicated the Methodist church building, he said, he was able to meet him. "It was great for me personally to meet the king."

Although the king was not a member of the LDS faith, he invited a delegation from the stake to have a prayer service with him. "Any denomination who comes to meet him, he invites them to say a prayer of their own religion," he said.

Pau'u recalls King Tupou IV was a large, impressive man, well over six feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds. In fact, The Associated Press says he reached 462 pounds and shed about 154 pounds while leading his kingdom on a diet to encourage better health.

Tonga Tauteoli, former president of the Magna Utah Tongan LDS Branch, said the passing is sad. He, too, met the monarch during the king's visit to Utah.

"I think it's a big loss for everybody," Tauteoli said. "He's a very good king. He loves the people."

When the king's nephew and the nephew's wife were killed, said Sitake, a wake was held in every place where many Tongans lived. They contributed money to send back to the islands to help with the funeral. She believes a wake will be held in Utah for the king.

Crown Prince Tupouto, the late king's son, immediately ascended the throne. The new monarch, King Taufa'ahau Tupou V, will take the vows today, and his coronation will occur later, Tonga's Chief Justice Tony Ford said, according to New Zealand's National Radio.

Contributing: Associated Press and Deborah Bulkeley

E-mail: bau@desnews.com