Heavenly Father...hears and answers prayers. All anybody has to do is speak to him. He has ears for all of us and loves us all. —Kenneth Hutchins
Ken Hutchins was a 27-year-old police sergeant in Walpole, Mass., when two Mormon missionaries visited his home in 1968 and invited him to read the Book of Mormon. A few visits later they taught him what they termed "the pattern of prayer" – address Heavenly Father, speak from the heart, and close in the name of Jesus Christ. Hutchins, a protestant, had never prayed aloud. But at the missionaries' urging, he tried it and soon thereafter joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That was forty-four years ago. Since then he has given hundreds of prayers from the heart in Mormon congregations throughout the greater Boston area as a bishop and later as a stake president. Next week, at Mitt Romney's invitation, the 71-year-old retired police chief from Walpole will give the opening prayer on the final day of the Republican National Convention.
"I am honored and stunned," Hutchins said in an interview from his home in Northboro, where he is recovering from chemotherapy treatment. He has active lymphoma. "I plan to be in good enough shape by next week to travel to Tampa and do what Mitt has asked."
Duty and honor have dictated virtually every decision Hutchins has made in his life. He started his career as a police officer in 1962 at age 21. He retired as a chief in 2003. For most of that time he doubled as a lay church leader in the Mormon faith. As a leader he had the uncanny ability to command respect by virtue of his humility and his compassion.
The selection of Ken Hutchins as the Mormon ecclesiastical leader to address the convention is an insight into how Mitt Romney relies heavily on people he has known and trusted for a long time. Back in 1987 when Romney was a stake president in Boston, he tapped Hutchins – then chief of police in Northboro, Mass. — to be a bishop. Later, Romney asked Hutchins to be his counselor in the Boston Massachusetts stake presidency. During that time, Romney developed a deep respect and appreciation for Hutchins.
But the two men could not have been more different. Romney, the son of an auto industry CEO and former governor, was the CEO of Bain Capital. Hutchins, the son of a union organizer for mill workers in Massachusetts, was chief of police in a small town. In many ways, Hutchins was a lot like Andy Griffith — wise, folksy, gentle and quick to smile. Together, he and Romney carted Mormon teenagers all over Boston for youth activities, figured out to build congregations for a burgeoning community of foreign speaking Mormon immigrants in inner city Boston, and helped bring a Mormon temple to Boston.
"We had some just outrageous, wonderful, memory-stoking youth events," Hutchins said. "Mitt was an integral part of those memories. I spent time with him there and talked with him and got to live with him so to speak. He was a terrific leader."
When Hutchins retired after 23 years as chief of police in Northboro, Romney was governor at the time. He spoke at Hutchins' retirement ceremony and formally declared it Kenneth Hutchins Day. Then, with Romney looking on, Hutchins took the lectern and thanked all his officers for their loyalty and friendship over the years. Then he gave each one of them a copy of the Book of Mormon as a token of his friendship and shared his personal testimony. It's the sort of thing Ken Hutchins has been doing his whole life. Serving the public as an officer of the peace and telling people about his faith in Jesus Christ.
Hutchins has had minimal direct contact with Romney in recent years. But he has become quite close to Romney's oldest son Tagg. After Hutchins retired from law enforcement in 2003, he spent three years as a mission president for the church in Tampa. Then he returned to Boston to become the temple president of the Boston Temple in Belmont. Tagg Romney was his neighbor and was assigned to be his home teacher, essentially making monthly visits to check on the Hutchins' family's health and welfare.
On Monday morning Hutchins received an unexpected call from Tagg at his home. It was Hutchins third straight day in his pajamas, thanks to the negative effects of his chemo.
"What are you doing right now?" Tagg asked.
"Sitting on the couch," Hutchins said. "I'm not feeling very well. But I'm cheered up by hearing your voice."
"I'm going to cheer you up even more," Tagg told him, "because my dad would like you to give the opening prayer on the closing night of the convention down in Tampa."
Tagg explained that the convention would include prayers from Catholics, Muslims and many other religions. He went on to say that his father also wanted "a good old fashioned Mormon prayer from someone I can trust. So call Ken Hutchins."
At first, Hutchins was speechless. If Romney could only see him, looking haggard in his pajamas, barely able to walk from his bedroom to the couch. He felt obligated to be upfront with Tagg.
"Right now at this very moment," he told him, "I'm struggling a little bit from the after effects of chemo. I think I can be in shape next week to do this. But if I cannot, my oldest son Rich is a stake president in Providence, Rhode Island. You could never go wrong in inviting him down to do something like this."
Tagg accepted Hutchins' suggestion for a back-up without hesitation. Before hanging up he gave only one instruction. "Now, I'm not going to give you counsel on the prayer," he said. "We just don't want any political statements in it."
"You don't have to worry about that, Tagg."
As soon as he hung up the phone, Hutchins telephoned his 45-year-old son Rich, a senior director in pharmaceutical advances for oncology at Pfizer's research and development headquarters in Groton, Connecticut.
"My dad told me about the call with Tagg and that he'd be there if at all possible," Rich Hutchins said in an interview earlier Wednesday. "But he also told me that he wanted me as his back up if he couldn't make it. I told him I'll be praying for you, dad."
Rich Hutchins said that filling in for his father would his greatest honor. "But I told my dad that you are the one who had the personal relationship with Mitt and served with him in a stake presidency in Boston. I'm rooting for you to get better and be able to do this."
It wouldn't be the first time that Ken Hutchins has overcome cancer to do something great. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, but later went on to serve a three-year stint as a mission president in Tampa, Florida. Anyone who has been around Hutchins knows that he would have to be drop-dead sick not to fulfill a request to pray. Ever since that day in 1968 when he first knelt with two Mormon missionaries in his home, he's been saying the kind of prayers that inspire people to do better, strive harder and be more compassionate.
He doesn't use big words. Nor does he raise his voice or pause for effect. Rather he speaks a simple language – the language of the ordinary man on the street. But Ken Hutchins was my stake president for eight years and I've knelt with him in the privacy of his home and heard him pray for my family and me. No one – and I mean no one – has ever motivated me to be a better husband, father and neighbor than Ken Hutchins. That's the sort of prayer that can be expected when Ken Hutchins takes the lectern at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
"I just love the Lord and I'm grateful for the great life he has given me," Hutchins said. "It doesn't matter what somebody's status is. It doesn't matter what culture they are from. It doesn't matter what their economic status is. When they open their mouth and talk to Heavenly Father, he hears and answers prayers. All anybody has to do is speak to him. He has ears for all of us and loves us all."