1 of 12
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Visitors paying respects to President Gordon B. Hinckley brave cold temperatures Thursday morning at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

He was the people's prophet.

It wasn't just the fact that he led The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for nearly 13 years, or traveled almost a million miles to conduct the church's business, or helped spread the faith and its message in ways few could have imagined a decade ago.

As President Gordon B. Hinckley confessed to church members worldwide during a recent general conference, "I love you."

And they loved him back in a personal way at his viewing on Thursday, coming by the thousands to the Conference Center downtown, in cars and buses; on bikes and on TRAX; lugging backpacks and bags and briefcases; in wheelchairs and strollers; walking briskly and slowly; with canes and crutches and walkers and tiny children in tow.

They are old and young, able-bodied and feeble, missionaries with tags and many more without them. They came in suits and dresses as well as jeans and parkas, a mixture of people typical in any Utah suburb — most of them Latter-day Saints, but many of them believers of a different stripe.

As they filed quietly into the center he built to help spread what Mormons believe is God's message around the globe, the reverence and the love was palpable.

Gathered in groups at the bottom of the massive building's escalators, they waited to move up to floor three — anticipation, remembrance and a deep desire to pay their last respects all percolating inside. As they entered the Hall of the Prophets — with busts of President Hinckley's predecessors looking on — there were weak smiles, but no laughter; tears, but no tragedy; and good-byes, but no fear that it was a farewell without a future.

Latter-day Saints believe they will see their beloved prophet, who died Sunday at the age of 97, again, in a better time and place.

But today, it was enough to say farewell.

Some brought flowers, some brought cards. Most brought memories of times they were touched deep inside by a man they had never met, but felt they knew personally.

Tributes were both silent and spoken, as some paused at the casket with tears, while others spoke quietly to themselves and their loved ones about their prophet, dressed in white, looking as peaceful in death as he was animated in life.

One young missionary in a wheelchair was pushed up next to the casket and rose from his seat as those around him helped steady him. With his head cocked to one side, he whispered a personal message inaudible to those around him, brought his hand up in what appeared to be a salute, and paused for a minute more before returning to his seat.

For those few seconds, it was just man to man.

Katelyn Yvonne Van Steun, age 9 1/2, created a white cardstock tribute in which she penned a message of condolence: "I'm sorry, I'm sure you feel really sad but we will all be with (him) later because familys can be together forever! Love, Katelyn."

The pencil drawing on a separate sheet inside reflected her remembrance of President Hinckley at the Conference Center pulpit, with flowers adorning the front and his name across the top: "Presedent Gordan Hinckly" with the words from his lips, "We need to lisin to God!"

Kaipo Rokobuludrau wore a bright flower in her hair and a smile on her face as she and her three children approached the entrance. "I've been privileged to meet President Hinckley three times in my life, and this is the one opportunity for me to bring my children."

She had met him twice as a student at BYU-Hawaii, and again at the dedication of the LDS temple in Fiji. "I think it's important for my children to see him for the first time and to say goodbye."

Shaila, 6, Charity, 8, and Atu, 10, all affirmed that they already knew what he looks like, but they wanted to see him in person.

Mary Nevers of Provo brought four small children and was looking for her husband in the crowd. "We just really wanted to come. It's a ways away, and we didn't know how many people would be here, but it will be a memorable experience for our kids."

She said President Hinckley's personal testimony of gospel principles and of God's reality "and his desire to do what Heavenly Father wanted him to do" were inspiring.

Chad Stock and Kristian Workinger from Provo were checking their backpacks near one entrance after taking a break between classes at the BYU Salt Lake Center nearby.

"He's our prophet," Stock said. "I've never been real close to him, so I thought it would be something unique and special to come. He's the only prophet I really remember."

Workinger remembered listening to President Hinckley's last address to students at Brigham Young University's Marriott Center last fall, and the recent picture of the president he acquired to display on his wall.

Bryce Larsen, 16, of Pleasant Grove, was in suit and tie. His mother, Melody, said her son's autism causes a hyper-focus on specific things — and those things for Bryce involve President Hinckley, whom he called "my prophet."

A few years ago at a BYU devotional, as President Hinckley left the Marriott Center, Bryce was in a group of children gathered at the exit to greet him, and when he returned the greeting, it stuck that the prophet had talked with him.

Between school, a job at a fast-food restaurant and shoveling snow for elderly people in his neighborhood, Bryce said he's become "really, really busy just like President Hinckley, and I'm tired just like him, too."

Both Bryce and his sister, Kelsi, dressed in their Sunday best for school on Monday after getting the word via text, e-mail and phone message.

Personal tributes from family members were available for public viewing as those who passed the casket left the hall and exited into the auditorium of the Conference Center, the building in which President Hinckley's funeral will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Among the floral tributes, a huge bouquet of multi-colored roses bore a card from his great grandchildren, reflecting the impact he had on the lives of young church members everywhere with his book, "Way to Be!"

"Dear Grandpa: We will always be grateful, be smart, be clean, be true, be humble, be prayerful because we love you."

E-mail: [email protected]