President Monson’s Life Celebrated with Night of Song, Music, Tributes
By Gerry Avant, Church News editor
In a grand celebration and in honor of President Thomas S. Monson’s 85th birthday, some 20,000 people filled the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City Friday evening, August 17, for a program of music, narration, and tributes in a program titled “Golden Days: A Celebration of Life.”
President Monson’s counselors in the First Presidency and other General Authorities joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, guest artists, celebrity hosts, and Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in honor of the Church President, whose birthday is August 21.
Knowing of President Monson’s love for musicals, the program’s organizers included music and messages of some of his favorite Broadway shows and other inspirational songs.
The invocation was delivered by President Monson’s brother, Robert.
Steve Young, college and professional football Hall of Fame quarterback and founder of the Forever Young Foundation, and Jane Clayson Johnson, Emmy award-winning national news correspondent and former cohost of The Early Show on CBS, served as the program’s hosts.
Guest performers were professional actor and singer Dallyn Vail Bayles, originally from Green River, Utah; Metropolitan Opera tenor Stanford Olsen; and singer and actress Rebecca Luker.
Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy directed the choir and orchestra.
President Monson sat on the first row in the audience with his wife, Frances Johnson Monson, and members of their family. Throughout the program, he interacted with the performers by waving to them, smiling, and giving appreciative nods. On several occasions he was among the first in the audience to rise from his chair to give the guest artists a standing ovation.
President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency, spoke of President Monson’s love for and willingness to serve others. He told of witnessing a tribute to President Monson on “a country road in the deserts of Arizona” where some members had gathered to wave as his car passed en route to an airport from a temple dedication.
“The prophet asked his driver to let him shake the hands of a couple and their small children who were standing in the sand at the edge of the road,” President Eyring said. “There was not a house in sight, but as soon as President Monson began to shake hands with the children, more families began to appear. He greeted them all with a sunny smile and each smiled back in obvious delight.”
He said that President Monson had given the people “a golden moment to be remembered forever. He bathed them in the warmth of the pure love of Christ, without concern for his own comfort and safety and oblivious to the reactions of anyone except those he loved and greeted.”
President Eyring said, “The road and the barren hills reminded me of the land above the Sea of Galilee where crowds had gathered to feel the love of the mortal Lord.
“Now, these Saints of the latter days were drawn to the Savior’s prophet, an ordained servant of their day. And he blessed them by his loving, patient, undivided attention as they paid him tribute.”
Further, President Eyring said he has witnessed President Monson “going for the Lord to people,” usually including children, in settings across the world. “Not only were those he greeted given a golden moment, but so were those of us who saw it happen,” he said. “I am not the same, nor is any of the participants, because having felt that love, we are changed.
“More than once I have remembered his example and gone out of my way and out of my zone of comfort to someone in need of attention, encouragement, and help.
“President Monson has done so much of this, spoken and written, so movingly, and even asked us to go as he has in the Lord’s behalf to others. The Church has been changed across the earth for generations to come.
“We are here tonight to honor his service. We can do it tonight, tomorrow, and as long as we live, by serving others in the way he serves others.
“I am grateful to have been the object of his love, and I have tried to follow his example.”
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, congratulated President Monson “on a life full of golden days.”
“Thank you for letting us celebrate with you this precious moment,” President Uchtdorf said. “We love you; we love Sister Monson. It is a privilege, honor, and great joy to serve by your side in the First Presidency.”
President Uchtdorf quoted what someone once said: “Friends are born, not made.” Then, he added, “President Monson, you were definitely born a friend. You are claimed as one by millions of members of the Church all around the globe. Through numerous acts of kindness and friendship to your fellowmen worldwide you touched hearts, came to the rescue, and went about doing good.
“You have always been a friend to the German people, especially to those in East Germany.
“As a German I recollect the grand act of faith when during the Cold War you blessed our people and country behind the Iron Curtain with prophetic promises which seemed impossible at the time. The grandness of this historic moment was difficult for us to comprehend. Your faith stretched ours. That faith was rewarded, and we witnessed the literal fulfillment of your blessing. An Apostle of the Lord had been among us. We understood that President Thomas S. Monson was not only our friend, but that God was his friend.”
President Uchtdorf spoke of having accompanied President Monson to a regional conference in Northern Germany. Although it had been several years since President Monson had visited the area, he still remembered the names of many members and wanted to visit, in particular, Michael Panitsch, a former stake president and patriarch.
“I informed President Monson that Brother Panitsch was seriously ill, bedridden, and unable to come to our meetings,” President Uchtdorf recounted. “So President Monson said, ‘Then we will go to him.’
“I knew that President Monson had foot surgery shortly before the trip to Germany and could not walk without pain. When I shared with President Monson that Brother Panitsch lived on the fifth floor of an older building with no elevators but very high and long staircases, he only said, ‘Dieter, don’t you worry.’ And off we went.
“Every few steps he had to pause to get over the pain. He never uttered a complaint. He would not give up.
“He gave Brother Panitsch a beautiful blessing, cheered him up, and thanked him for his lifelong service.
“Helen Keller said, ‘I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.’ President Monson, you are a friend who brings light to the dark, and you are the prophet of God for our time. We love and sustain you. We pray for you.”
Prerecorded video birthday greetings and tributes were given by Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; Bob Mazzuca, Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America; Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City; and Manfred Schutz, one of President Monson’s long-time friends and Church member in what was formerly the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. Also giving tributes in the video were Elwood Blank, a boyhood friend who served as a counselor to then-Bishop Monson of the Sixth-Seventh Ward in Salt Lake City; Jami Palmer Brinton, to whom President Monson gave a priesthood blessing nearly 20 years ago when she, at age 12, was battling bone cancer; and Wayne Chamberlain, who served as a missionary when President Monson presided over the Canadian Mission.
One of the program highlights was the procession of nearly 200 Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in tribute to President Monson’s longtime association with Scouting. He has served more than four decades on the National Executive Board of Boy Scouts of America; received Scouting’s Silver Beaver and Silver Buffalo awards; International Scouting’s highest award, the Bronze Wolf; and Scouts Canada’s Silver Fox Award.
The program was a kind of sentimental journey through the President’s life. In the documentary, narratives were given and scenes presented of his boyhood in Salt Lake City, where he grew up surrounded by a loving family and committed Church leaders; his service in the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II, and his marriage to Frances Johnson in 1948. They are parents of two sons and a daughter.
The narration told of his service in Salt Lake City as a young bishop of the Sixth-Seventh Ward with 1,080 members, 85 of them widows; president of the Canadian Mission from 1959 to 1962, and of his call, at age 36, to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1963. In the documentary was a video segment of the October 1963 general conference, in which Elder Monson, as a newly called Apostle, said, “I pledge my life, all that I have. I will strive to the utmost of my ability to be what you would want me to be. I am grateful for the words of Jesus Christ, our Savior, when He said, ‘I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him’ (Revelation 3:20). I earnestly pray, my brothers and sisters, that my life might merit this promise from our Savior.”
The video’s narrator stated: “For decades, across the country and abroad, Elder Monson reorganized stakes, spoke to congregations, toured missions, and dedicated lands for the preaching of the gospel. At Church headquarters he chaired committees and worked tirelessly in a host of other assignments. But no matter his personal workload, he always reached out to rescue the lonely and bereft, the unnoticed and unrecognized.”
A tribute was given to President Monson by Monsignor Joseph Fitzgerald: “I have known you and Frances [and] some of your family for many years and have always been struck by the tremendous devotion all of you have for the betterment of other people, to the enrichment of our community, and of the greater world. . . . So many times I’ve heard you say, ‘We can’t let the hungry stay hungry, the homeless, homeless, or those without clothing, naked. We have to do everything we can together to help those people.’ And you have.”
President Monson has been a member of the First Presidency for 22 years. He was called in 1985 by President Ezra Taft Benson (1899-1994) as a counselor in the First Presidency. He served as Second Counselor to President Howard W. Hunter and First Counselor to President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008). He was ordained, set apart, and sustained the 16th President of the Church in 2008.
In the program’s concluding moments President Monson said, “Since I first learned that a birthday celebration would be held for me this evening, my desire has been to have an opportunity to express my thanks to all who worked to make this night possible.
“My sincere gratitude goes to those who have labored behind the scenes, in whatever capacity, so that this program might be a success. My deep and heartfelt thanks go to our beloved choir and orchestra, to the accomplished narrators, to our exceptionally talented guest performers. And to all of you, my beloved brothers and sisters, I say, ‘Thank you.’”
“I echo the words of the Scottish writer and poet James Barrie, who wrote, ‘God gave us memories, that we might have June roses in the December of our lives’ (See Laurence J. Peter, comp., Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time (1977), 335).”
Tonight I have received an entire bouquet of memories.”
Almost as a crowning touch, the Conference Center’s stage was adorned by hundreds of yellow roses. The roses were symbolic of the “golden” days of President Monson’s life. Also, the roses were yellow, his favorite color.