I'm sitting here in my office, on a snowy Monday morning, reflecting on the life of President Gordon B. Hinckley, the universally beloved leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Where to start? How about one last interview? If I could, these are some of the questions I would ask him:
DID HE TAKE MONDAY OFF? If there was one thing President Hinckley was about, it was work. He believed in getting up in the morning, putting his shoes on and going to work, and he did so for nearly 100 years. "I wish to be up and doing," President Hinckley famously once said. "I wish to face each day with resolution and purpose."
He died on Sunday evening, but four days earlier he was working in his office, as usual, at the age of 97.
"And I was told he got a lot done, too," says Evelyn Henriksen, his sister-in-law who remained close to the church leader.
On Thursday, he couldn't get out of bed, or he would have been back at the office.
HOW WAS THE REUNION? What was the first thing you thought about when you heard he passed away? He's reunited with Marjorie. They met more than 80 years ago. After their first date, Marjorie reported to her mother: "That young man is going someplace in this life." He took her with him and missed her deeply in the years after her passing in 2004.
After hearing of President Hinckley's death, Evelyn says she and her siblings immediately thought of his reunion with their sister. "Oh, boy, we sure did," she says. "Wouldn't you like to see that going on? He talked about her a lot since she died."
DO THEY LAUGH IN HEAVEN? President Hinckley was involved in a serious and sacred business, but he was famous for his sense of humor. He was no dour-faced preacher; he made it OK for church leaders to smile and laugh, reminding us that the purpose of life (and religion for that matter) is happiness. He was quick with a quip or one-liner and, as Evelyn recalls, "He was always cracking jokes and making us laugh. Sometimes he'd tell a joke, and he'd laugh so hard he couldn't tell the end of it. His children loved to tell us about that."
DID HE GET TO TAKE IT WITH HIM? The faithful believe the only thing you take with you on the trip to the next life is your intelligence. In President Hinckley's case, he probably had to pack an extra bag. He was intelligent, well read and knowledgeable about many things. Even in his old age, he was brimming with ideas, popping up in the morning and saying, "I was up in the night. I've got this idea. I've been thinking about this. It might work."
Once, during a trip to Wyoming, Evelyn began listing books one by one, pausing after each to ask if he had read it. "He'd read all of them," she says. "And then when we got to Wyoming, the local stake president was a pilot and President Hinckley talked to him knowledgeably about aviation, and then there was a miner he met there and he talked to him about that, and then there was a rancher and he knew a lot about that. I've never known a man who was so intelligent.
"He seemed to remember everything he had ever read."
He quoted often from books, whether it was a biography on Florence Nightingale or Madam Curie or a poem by Robert Frost.
It showed in the articulate, often poetic way in which he wrote and spoke. "I'm in my 97th year now," he said last May. "The wind is blowing and I feel like the last leaf on the tree." That was typical of how he often expressed himself.
The wellspring of all this was a desire simply to learn. "I want to read more. There is so much I want to learn, and I just don't have the time," he once lamented. We should all turn off our TVs and be so motivated. It was how he found time to raise a family, build a house with his own hands, write best-sellers, oversee a church's growth from 8 million to 13 million, visit 160 nations, build temples and conduct the daily business of a worldwide church.
ARE THERE ANY MORE LIKE HIM UP THERE? President Hinckley's mix of humor, geniality, optimism, wisdom and intelligence won him respect and admiration from all ages and all people, because those traits never go out of style. After interviewing President Hinckley for "60 Minutes," Mike Wallace said the church leader deserved his "universal admiration," adding, "I know that may sound more than a trifle corny coming from a dyed-in-the-wool, jaded, New York-based reportorial cynic. But it was difficult not to arrive at that conclusion."
DID HE EVER MAKE IT TO WAL-MART? He was famous for wanting to be out among his people, but with it came the limitations placed on him by fame. He loved tools and handyman jobs and wanting nothing more than to wander through a hardware store. He was never even able to step inside a Wal-Mart, although he tried once and didn't get past the front door because of the mobs of people he attracted.
He liked working in the yard and he liked fixing things himself, but fame required him to send assistants or family members to buy parts for his projects. Once, when he needed a part to repair the washer in his apartment, he couldn't describe the part to his security guard, so he showed up unannounced at a small parts shop in Sugar House and bought it himself. He found great joy in simple things like that.
DOES IT ALL WORK OUT? In a worrisome, troubled world, people took comfort when President Hinckley said, in his fatherly, assuring way, "It isn't as bad as you sometimes think it is. It all works out."
Don't worry. I say that to myself every morning. It will all work out.We're counting on it.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. E-mail [email protected]
E-mail [email protected]