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Twila Van Leer
John David Monk's diary includes a folded, yellowing sheet of paper written in French. It apparently tells of the end of World War I.

On July 7, 1915, Nancy Pauline Cowley was married to John David Monk in the Logan Utah Temple. A few weeks later, he was on his way to a perfect honeymoon spot in the South Seas — if his bride had been with him.

In fact, he was headed for Papeete, Tahiti, as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It would be four years before he and Nancy were together again back in Cowley, Wyoming. (A town no doubt named for one of her relatives.)

I became acquainted with the Monks' story through my quilting friend Debbie Randall. When you step into the home of Debbie and her husband, Fred, in Centerville, you are immediately assailed with bits and pieces of the past. Debbie is one of those who gathers and treasures relics from her ancestors and keeps them prominently displayed in her home.

Before filling a mission to Tahiti, Elder John David Monk married Nancy Pauline Cowley in the Logan Temple July 7, 1915. | Twila Van Leer

Proving once again that one man's (or woman's) trash is another man's (or woman's) treasure, she points to a scrapbook that looks far beyond the usual life span of such an item and well ready for the trash. But among its battered gems, falling apart and keeping a semblance of a scrapbook only by the ties that hold it (mostly) together are the details of her mother's teenage years.

Her mother, Roita (that's Row-eeta) Monk, faithfully consigned to the scrapbook every program (including graduation) every outing, every note from a friend, every napkin with which she dabbed her lips at a party, every news item, every anything that meant something to her in the 1940s and 1950s. Yes, even the piece of fudge wrapped in paper and now nothing more than a blotch on a yellowed page, became part of her memory book.

But the item among many of Debbie's memorabilia that caught my eye was the diary that Debbie's grandfather John David Monk kept after leaving his young bride behind to serve the Lord in Tahiti.

The red-leather-bound diary that Debbie cherishes is obviously not the first that he recorded about his mission. This one begins on April 4, 1918, as indicated by the inscription inside the fly leaf. It is signed "Elder John D. Monk, Papeete, Tahiti, Society Islands," followed by "Na Ioane a Monika i Papeete, Tahiti," no doubt the translation into Tahitian.

There was no mission home to which Elder Monk could go to learn the elements of Tahitian before sailing off to be a missionary. He and his companions learned "on the job."

Obviously, he had fairly well mastered the language by Sunday, March 31, 1918, when he recorded that several of his companions gave talks during the regular Sunday meetings in Tahitian "and I translated" for them. (I have left the elder's spelling intact in quotes.)

Incidentally, the young Elder Monk did not follow the dates printed at the top of each page of this diary. The above notation was on the page listed as Jan. 1, 1917. To save confusion, I quit reading the official information at the top of the page and just looked at his entry dates.

While Elder Monk labored among the South Sea islanders, the world had been at war. On Monday, Nov 11, 1918, he recorded that "The radio today stated that the war would close to day at five p.m. The people are getting real anxious to hear the news. It sounds real good to hear that the greatest war of history is at its close."

Having noted the end of World War I (the armistice was signed Nov. 11 at 11 a.m.), Elder Monk went back to more immediate business: "Winiki came this evening for a chat." In fact, the end of the war was of singular importance to the missionary. Later in that Nov. 11 entry, he noted that "I received a letter from President E.C. Rossiter conserning my being placed in class 1.A. for Army service. He said to take the exam here in Papeete according to orders and await the answer from the examination, which is to be sent to my home Board of Army Draft Service, but not to return home unless required by law."

On the following day, the diary entry describes the celebrations that were held in Papeete to greet the return of peace. "All the bells comence to wring, bugles were blown. All the flags of the Allied Nations were hoisted and every body comenced to selebrate … Most every body was drunk and the band and other musical instruments could be heard in every corner." Inserted into the diary, a single typewritten sheet of paper, all in French, now yellowed and browning around the edges, evidently gave further details of the armistice

A few days later, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1918, he wrote: "We received a Telagram this morning from Mr. Leambert at New Zealand stating that President Joseph F. Smith died Nov. 19."

Talk about World War I naturally segued to talk about the influenza pandemic that was soon to affect Tahitians as well. On Saturday, Nov. 23, his report was, "It has been talked around here that (la grip) is so bad in America it is said that in Philadelphia alone, 60,000 people have died from the desiese and on account of so many deaths they are buying them with steam shovels."

By Nov. 25, he reports, "We heard that there is thirty cases of the desease in town now. So we decided we would not go tracting for a few days, at least until we could see how it was caching (catching)."

Over the next few weeks as flu took its toll in the island nation, the missionaries were called on to treat the ill and bury the dead. The elders themselves took turns being ill, but survived to provide service as needed. With few medical resources available to the Tahitians, they provided what help they were allowed.

Dec. 1, 1918: "All gatherings have been stoped on account of the Spanish Influenza … Most all of our people are sick but we are unable to help them because the government will not permit it." A meeting with government officials reversed this order and the missionaries were kept busy administering to the needs of the sick.

Dec. 5: "It is reported that 800 people have died with this desease alredy and nearly every body is sick. They are halling the dead away in auto trucks. They cannot burry the bodies because they are so numerous so they are burning them, they have burnt hundreds."

One of the last entries in this treasured diary: Friday, May 9, 1919, Salt Lake City: "This morning Sarah Robinson took me to the depo to see if Pauline would come …"

After four years, John was reunited with Pauline and they returned to Wyoming to become the parents of Roita and grandparents to Debbie.

Debbie has done the right thing with this irreplaceable diary, had it digitized and preserved for further generations. Each of her children has a CD with this valuable history. If you have such a treasure, do the same.