SALT LAKE CITY — President Thomas S. Monson, the Mormon prophet who died last week at the age of 90, had a way of distilling the universe down to where it felt like it was just him and you. It was his gift: an uncanny ability to focus on the one.
Many staffers at the Deseret News got to experience this Monson phenomenon firsthand during the time when he was chairman of the board of the Deseret News Publishing Co. — until The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took apostles off the boards of its for-profit companies in the late 1990s.
No matter how recently they might have met, Tom Monson treated people as if he’d known them forever. “New friends are silver, but the old are gold,” he used to say in greeting. But it seemed as if to him all were gold.
I was a sports writer just getting started when I was walking down the aisle of an airplane traveling to an out-of-town ballgame and heard someone call my name.
I turned. Tom Monson was in his seat, headed out on a church assignment. Before I knew it, we were in deep discussion about the BYU passing game or the University of Utah Runnin’ Utes or if the Yankees could win the World Series. I don’t remember the exact details of what we talked about, just that the subject matter was sports and it was as comfortable as an old couch.
That’s how we met. That was how Tom Monson struck up a relationship.
I don’t know if he remembered everyone he ever met; but I know he always remembered me.
Fast forward a couple of decades to the year 2000 and the two of us were seated on the stand in the United Methodist Church on the corner of 200 South and 200 East in downtown Salt Lake City.
We had each been asked to speak at the funeral honoring a woman named Ellen Marshall.
Almost until she died at the age of 93, Ellen, an African-American woman originally from French Lick, Indiana, managed the Deseret News lunchroom, which is how we got to know each other. She’d come to Utah in 1950 with her husband, Theodore, when he was hired as head waiter at the old Hotel Utah.
Ellen, too, loved to talk sports. Every year, she would take two weeks in the spring to travel “back home” to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Kentucky Derby. For 49 straight years she did that. She also loved the occasional wager. She’d make up posters of betting squares for the derby and other big events like the Super Bowl.
She grew fond of me because of the frequency I would lose sports bets to her.
I talked about that at her funeral, just before the LDS general authority stood up to talk about his relationship with Ellen.
Over the years, Ellen had catered food for events involving church authorities. That is how she and Tom Monson became acquainted.
As he recounted in his talk their many interactions, it certainly came as no surprise to me that Tom and Ellen, despite widely different backgrounds and circumstances, became fast friends.
Still, I was surprised a couple of weeks after the funeral when I ran into Tom in the hallways at the Deseret News.
He stopped to tell me the rest of the story.3 comments on this story
A few days after Ellen’s funeral, the church had assigned him to conduct some business in Kentucky. After his plane landed and he was picked up by a car and driver, he asked the driver to make a detour and take them past Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run.
When they got to the front gate, Tom said he asked the driver to stop. He then got out of the car. “I picked up a handful of that rich Kentucky soil and tossed it in the air in honor of our friend Ellen,” he told me.
Then he got back in the car and continued on to his destination.
In my mind’s eye I see a Mormon apostle standing at the entrance to a Kentucky racetrack remembering an African-American Methodist woman he met when she served him lunch.
And he served her right back.