Midway through his April 2008 general conference talk, "Examples of Righteousness," LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson had his vast priesthood session audience rolling with laughter.
While once seated on the stand during a stake conference, President Monson noticed a boy on the front row was imitating his every move. Using animated eye-contact and facial expressions, hand gestures and timely pauses, the seasoned church leader described their unspoken exchange. It ended when President Monson stumped the boy by wiggling his ears, something he did simultaneously as he related his narrative at the Conference Center pulpit.
"My wife told me not to say that," President Monson said with a smile.
When the laughter subsided, the prophet related his colorful account to the power of example. It was one of countless memorable and effective teaching moments over decades of his service as a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Why would the prophet of God ... wiggle his ears?" said Elder Marlin K. Jensen, an emeritus general authority, in President Monson's biography "To the Rescue." "I think the answer is that he wanted the young men in the church to know that he could understand them. He was a boy once. He does a pretty good job of conveying his humanity to the church."
President Monson knew the power of sharing personal experiences, and he was a master at it. With his characteristic lilting cadences and voice inflections, President Monson will long be remembered for his warm, moving personal experiences, delivered with enthusiasm, clarity, humor and a heartfelt, spiritual message. The tall church leader was also known to quote at length from a list of his favorite poets, plays and musicals to illustrate gospel principles.
His boyhood adventures were especially enthralling for church members. In April 2013, President Monson told about one mischievous summer day when his family was staying at their Vivian Park cabin in Provo Canyon. He and buddy Danny Larsen started a fire that burned several acres and got them in heap of trouble.
"Danny and I learned several difficult but important lessons that day — not the least of which was the importance of obedience," President Monson said.
As a deacon, President Monson learned the power of the golden rule by performing service for a woman in his neighborhood. In an April 2000 talk, "Your Eternal Voyage," he related how he and his neighborhood friends did not like that if they hit a baseball near her house, she and her large dog would confiscate it
"She was our nemesis, the destroyer of our fun — even the bane of our existence. None of us had a good word for Mrs. Shinas, but we had plenty of bad words for her," President Monson said.
Their feud continued for years until one day, President Monson noticed Mrs. Shinas' lawn was turning brown. He decided to water it for her. In the fall, he cleared the leaves. One evening the woman's door opened and she invited President Monson for cookies and milk. She also handed him a large box of baseballs and softballs.
"The treasure, however, was not to be found in the gift but, rather, in her words," President Monson said. "I saw for the first time a smile come across the face of Mrs. Shinas and she said, 'Tommy, I want you to have these baseballs, and I want to thank you for being kind to me.' I expressed my own gratitude to her and walked from her home a better boy than when I entered. No longer were we enemies. Now we were friends. The Golden Rule had again succeeded."
As part of his 1987 talk, "The Will Within," President Monson spoke of dealing with life's trials. The topic reminded him of once shooting the ball at the opposing team's basket. Thanks to a quick prayer, he missed.
"My prayer was answered, but my ordeal was just beginning," President Monson said. "I heard a loud cheer erupt from the adoring fans: 'We want Monson, we want Monson, we want Monson OUT!' The coach obliged."
Another personal experience related by President Monson, shared in the October 2011 talk "Dare to Stand Alone," conveyed a message of courage.
One Sunday, a stern chief petty officer ordered the men to attend worship services with one of three faiths — Catholics, Jews, Protestants — and not return until 3 p.m.
"Instantly there flashed through my mind the thought, 'Monson, you are not a Catholic; you are not a Jew; you are not a Protestant. You are a Mormon, so you just stand here!'" President Monson said. "I can assure you that I felt completely alone. Courageous and determined, yes — but alone."
But, he wasn't alone. A handful of sailors behind him also belonged to the LDS Church. The chief petty officer ordered the small group to find a place to meet.
"As we marched away, I thought of the words of a rhyme I had learned in Primary years before: 'Dare to be a Mormon; Dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose firm; Dare to make it known,'" President Monson said. "How grateful I am that I made the decision long ago to remain strong and true, always prepared and ready to defend my religion, should the need arise."
President Monson also loved to quote at length from poets such as Rudyard Kipling, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Shakespeare.
One line he quoted more than once, shared in his 1999 talk "Becoming Our Best Selves," came from the Scottish poet James Barrie: "God gave us memories, that we might have June roses in the December of our lives."
First Presidency Christmas devotionals were another venue where he shared heartfelt personal experiences and poetry. He imparted these words written by English poet Christina Rossetti in 2013: "What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give Him? Give my heart."