Back in the days before LDS industrialist and philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr. made a corporate jet available for church leaders' travels, members of the Church News staff traveled throughout the nation and world with them.
Before that private jet came on the scene, and when President Gordon B. Hinckley was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, we often flew on the same commercial flights with President Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie, and shared rides to and from airports and venues where church events were held. From time to time, we ate at the same table in hotel restaurants. Many opportunities to see him among members and the general public throughout the church abounded.
International travel, under the best circumstances, can be tiring and stressful, yet President Hinckley took the challenges in stride. A delay at one airport was met with a sigh and a declaration by President Hinckley that went to the heart of the matter: "I guess we'd better find a comfortable place to wait."
Thirty years ago or even 20 we didn't have the technological links to home base that are taken for granted today. A wait in an airport didn't include the use of a cell phone or laptop to communicate with someone who wasn't physically present. We talked, and talk often ranged from thought-provoking to something bordering on idle chat, as when a rather in-depth discussion unfolded about what constituted the perfect suitcase and the quest to find it.
"I've tried just about everything out there," President Hinckley commented during a wait at a boarding gate in London. "This bag (a carry-on with wheels) is about the best I've found."
One vivid airport scene is of President Hinckley walking down a concourse, tugging two carry-on cases one belonging to him and the other to Sister Hinckley. By then, he was a counselor in the First Presidency. For some reason, the thought emerged that he shouldn't have to lug around suitcases. But he seemed perfectly content carrying out that task.
Whether being welcomed by the king and queen of Spain at their country palace, meeting dignitaries in China, shaking hands with elderly church members in Mexico, smiling at children in Korea or interacting with many other people in various places in the world, President Hinckley always communicated the feeling that the people he was greeting were important. As the years passed and world situations dictated more security measures, his one-on-one contact with people lessened. However, his interest in them didn't.
"Tell me about some of the people you met," he said to me as we neared the end of one trip.
I'm among those fortunate people who received personal and direct counsel from President Hinckley, although it was delivered with a bit of humor and, perhaps, some chiding.
At the rededication of the Swiss temple in October 1992, I was anxious to get "the" picture required: a photo of President Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson, then second counselor in the First Presidency, with the temple in the background. It was raining when we arrived at the temple, and it rained between every session, making it impossible for them to pose for the picture I wanted.
As the day wore on, I expressed concern that I might not get a Church News cover photo. Finally, President Hinckley said, "Gerry, don't be governed by your fears. Things will work out."
Things worked out when President Hinckley and President Monson posed in the doorway of the temple as the rain continued to come down.
I felt a kinship with President and Sister Hinckley. They "felt" like family. The last time I saw Sister Hinckley was when we said farewell to each other in Africa as they were preparing to leave the Accra, Ghana, Temple after President Hinckley dedicated it in January 2004. She collapsed from exhaustion during the return trip home and never recovered; she passed away in April. I felt as if a second mother had died.
I went to her viewing in the Relief Society Building. As I neared the casket, President Hinckley got up from the stool where he had been seated, walked over to me, shook my hand and held onto it as we proceeded to the casket. We stood there, hand in hand, sharing grief over our loss.I wonder who will be at my side as I stand at his casket.