He is a handball player and a swimmer … a native of the desert who likes to walk the ocean beaches … a hunt-and-peck typist who can keep up with a trained secretary … a good host who always worries that there won’t be enough food for his guests—and because of his wife there always is … a letter writer whose personal correspondence numbers in the thousands, and a father whose son sees him as a deeply compassionate man.
At the morning session of general conference on April 6, 1974, the membership of the Church sustained President Spencer W. Kimball as prophet, seer, and revelator and president of the Church. That weekend, following an afternoon session of conference, members of the Kimball family gathered for a family dinner before husbands, fathers, and brothers went on to priesthood meeting.
Parked in front of the house was a member of the Church Security Department. President Kimball noticed the man sitting alone in his car; he quietly filled a plate from the family smorgasbord, and took it out to the officer. His action was spontaneous, thoughtful, and entirely in keeping with the character that Spencer W. Kimball has been building since boyhood.
He is a man of compassion whose first thought is always of someone else. He is a man of faith who witnessed miracles early in his life. He is a man of humor who laughs at himself and not at others. He is a man of simple tastes and habits, a man who lives the gospel as the Savior taught it.
President Kimball was only six years old when he witnessed what he considered to be a miracle. It also introduced him to a three-year-old Leo Cluff, now the patriarch of the Thatcher Arizona Stake and his lifelong friend.
Leo had been gored by a cow, and his stomach had been ripped open. In those horse and buggy days, nine hours passed before the doctor got there to sew him up on the kitchen table. Some visiting General Authorities were asked to administer to young Leo. They arrived with the stake president, Andrew Kimball, and his son, Spencer.
“President Kimball has often told of this experience and has related it as the first miracle he ever witnessed,” says Brother Cluff. “He told me, ‘I prayed for you, and I knew you were going to get well.’ He had that much faith.”
The simple faith of six-year-old Spencer W. Kimball was to become a great source of strength to him in his adult years. It was a faith that helped President Kimball survive serious setbacks in his own health and crisis times with his family. Sister Carmen Richardson Smith, once stenographer for the former Kimball-Greenhalgh Insurance and Realty Company in Safford, Arizona, recalls the faith of Brother and Sister Kimball when their son, Edward, was stricken with polio.
“The relationship between Brother Kimball and his wife was something I admired very much. When Eddie was in California, receiving extended treatment, Sister Kimball stayed with him and President Kimball traveled there at critical times. During periods of recuperation following Eddie’s surgery, Brother Kimball would return home to take care of the rest of the family, while his wife stayed with Eddie.
“I believe he wrote to her every single day. Not just a short 50-word letter, either. Sometimes when he was particularly pressed for time he would dictate a letter to me, and I remember how I felt: it was almost a sacred honor.
“Theirs was a good, happy marriage, and they seemed to have great regard for each other. It seemed that their worlds revolved very much around each other.”
Brother Cluff recalls how Brother and Sister Kimball met.
“He was out drilling for water one summer—he was always working at something to make money for his schooling; he’d work in the dairies or on the ranches building fences—and one day he was reading a copy of the Graham County Guardian. In it was a picture of Camilla Eyring. He commented, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ He’d never even met her then; he had just seen her photograph.
“That fall she was teaching at the Gila Academy in Thatcher and riding back and forth to her home in Pima. Knowing this, Spencer made it his business to ride on the bus one day. After gaining her permission to sit beside her, he told her that he was headed for Pima on business. They visited during the journey and when they got off the bus he walked her home. That was the business he had come to Pima for!
“The next day he came calling, although she already had a date with someone else. Spencer arrived early and found Camilla still with curlers in her hair. Even though she had another date, Spencer stayed on and made a threesome of it all evening.”
Sister Kimball taught at the Gila Academy, which then was a high school and has since become Eastern Arizona College. President Kimball, a student at the high school several years before Sister Kimball taught there, experienced both graduating and being expelled from the school.
Jesse A. Udall, a fellow student of President Kimball and later Chief Justice of Arizona’s Supreme Court, recalls the story. One April Fool’s Day, President Kimball and six other senior class students decided that a hayride was more fun than classwork. Anticipating such April 1 activities, the director of the academy, then operated by the Church, issued a warning against any action that would upset the regular class schedule.
When the seven young men decided to play hookey anyway, they were expelled. After apologies were offered they were reinstated.
When Spencer Kimball was graduated in 1914, he ranked top in academic honors, a position also held by Lela Lee, later to become Jesse Udall’s wife. To determine which of the two would be named valedictorian, academy officials flipped a coin. Lela Lee won the toss.
Recalling the incident, Sister Udall jokes that her children have since accused her of “gambling” with the president of the Church. She also recalls young Spencer W. Kimball as being “good company, jolly, and full of fun,” traits he still exhibits.
This sentiment is echoed by Brother Cluff, who remembers that Spencer Kimball was “very good at all types of entertainment. He sang and he played the piano and he danced. He was very talented, very much in demand. At any type of social gathering he was the life of the party, so to speak. He helped so much to make everything a success. He played in a dance band at one time and he sang baritone in a quartet called the ‘Conquistadores.’”
President Kimball was in demand as a soloist at socials and often at funerals. His skill at the piano was such that he could play by ear. His impromptu concerts in the homes of stake presidents around the world have endeared him to many children as he has invited them to accompany him in “I Am a Child of God.”
Brother Cluff adds: “If Spencer Kimball knew you, if he was your friend, he was always your friend, no matter where you met him or under what circumstances.
“If you weren’t his friend, and you came into contact with him, he soon made you his friend. He didn’t know anyone but friends; everyone was a friend to him. And he had a friendly greeting. He’d put his arm around you and give you a handshake. He remembered faces, people, and names.”
Sister Smith remembers that everyone loved to come to his real estate offices to visit, “and though he may have been very busy, he stood relaxed and easy, listening to his friends. He had his desk out in the front office where he was available to anyone who came in.
“I think one of his outstanding characteristics was his kindness. He just never tried to put anyone down. He never criticized or said an unkind word to anyone.
“Do you know, I never heard one word of contention the whole time I was employed by the company? No contention with his partner, nor with employees, nor with any customer who came to do business with him.
“His mind was agile to an incredible degree. He would get an idea, formulate it in his mind, and sketch it out on paper, all in a matter of minutes.”
One of the ideas that came to him was a housing development that Sister Smith considers was 30 or 40 years before its time. The housing development was “entered from the four corners and all the houses turned inward upon winding, curved streets where there was privacy, protection, a slower pace, and the advantages of the present-day subdivision. It was altogether a charming idea and a good example of his vision.
“Brother and Sister Kimball built their dream home in a corner of the new development. Its Pueblo style still bespeaks the charm of good, careful design. Formerly they had lived in a little white frame house that still stands. In the front yard they planted a palm tree that they loved and cared for. It still is a flourishing tree.
“Their dream home was still brand new when Brother Kimball was called to be an apostle, and the family moved to Salt Lake City in 1943. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., telephoned for Brother Kimball at the office, but he had gone home for lunch, and I suggested that President Clark could call him there. Brother Kimball did not come back to the office as promptly as he normally would have done after lunch. When he did come back he seemed perfectly in control of himself, and proceeded with the afternoon’s business. He did not say a word about the call, and, of course, we didn’t know until later that he had been chosen an apostle.”
Elder Kimball was to return many times to his beloved Gila Valley and the communities he knew so well—Thatcher, where he served in the Church as a boy and as a man; Pima, where his Camilla had lived; and Safford, where he and Sister Kimball owned their first home, and where he had his first job as a bank clerk and teller following a mission to the central states.
The warm, human traits that made him a “friend to everyone” in Gila Valley are still being exhibited in Salt Lake City and everywhere he goes. Sister Hattie Shurtz remembers when she was in Salt Lake City for a general conference a few years after Elder Kimball was named a General Authority. Elder Kimball’s father had been her stake president and young Spencer had served as stake clerk and as a counselor. Sister Kimball had taught her at Gila Academy, and now, standing on Temple Square, Sister Shurtz spotted the “Gila Valley General Authority” walking toward her with another man, deep in conversation. However, as Elder Kimball reached Sister Shurtz, he stopped, extended his hand, and beamed, “Hello, Hattie. How are you?”
Elder Kimball moved to Salt Lake City shortly after his call to the Council of the Twelve and rented a house directly across the street from Elder Ezra Taft Benson. Three years later, in March, 1947, he purchased a home in a nearby neighborhood. He has lived in the same house on the same quiet street—a street of substantial but unpretentious homes—ever since.
Not far away live Elder Delbert L. Stapley, a fellow Arizonian who has served as a member of the Council of the Twelve since 1950, and President Marion G. Romney, his second counselor, called as an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve two years before President Kimball received his call.
To live in the Monument Park Second Ward is to have had the unusual and entertaining opportunity of hearing President Kimball, President Romney, and Elder Stapley sing at a ward reunion, “I’ll Serve the Lord While I Am Young,” at a time when all three were in their 70s and recovering from illnesses.
To live in the Monument Park Second Ward is to know that if you are sick or if you have been bereaved, President and Sister Kimball often visit with words of comfort. Visiting the sick and the unhappy is not an official duty or a sometime thing with President and Sister Kimball: according to ward members, it is a constant action of friendship and concern—a concern that extends both to members and nonmembers in the ward.
A fellow ward member, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, explains: “One night, my wife, Colleen, and I were out visiting the sick, and everywhere we went it seemed that President and Sister Kimball had been there just ahead of us. The difference is that for us it was a special occasion, but for President and Sister Kimball it was almost a regular activity.”
During the past 14 years Sister Kimball has been the spiritual living teacher in Relief Society, and she has helped make it a scripture-reading group. At the beginning of every year she challenges the sisters to read a specific standard work of the Church. As an incentive she invites those who complete the challenge to a luncheon at her home at the end of the year.
“What makes the luncheon even more special is that the sisters know that Sister Kimball has fixed the meal herself, with perhaps the help of one of her sisters,” Bishop William Oswald reports. “Near the end of the year the lights burn late in the neighborhood as the sisters work to complete the reading assignment.
“Recently in a fast meeting President Kimball was on the stand and indicated to me his desire to bear his testimony. Before he did, Sister Kimball stood and expressed her love for the scriptures and stressed their importance in her life. It was a simple, but moving, testimony. The President then leaned over to me, and said, ‘One Kimball a meeting is enough.’
“I encouraged him to go ahead and bear his testimony. When he stood he said, very softly, ‘The bishop has given me permission to say a few words.’”
Like families all over the Church, the Kimballs look forward to receiving visits from priesthood home teachers. Former bishop, Lyle Ward, recounts the story of the first time his son, assigned as a junior companion, visited the President’s home.
“My son had known President Kimball a long time, ever since we moved into the ward. But he had known him more as Elder Kimball, the General Authority, than as a neighbor and friend.
“The first time he came home from his home teaching assignment he was more than excited. He exclaimed, ‘President Kimball came into the living room in his slacks and sweater!’”
A family friend of the Kimballs came to the home for a visit recently after his return from the mission field. He brought with him a good friend who was a recent convert to the Church and who was planning a mission. The President took more than an hour from a busy schedule—he was preparing to leave for Scandinavia—and spent it with his new young friend. He inquired about his conversion, his family, his plans for the future. “He seemed so interested, I mean personally interested,” the young man stressed later.
A similar story is told by Sister Jacque Felshaw of Pima, Arizona.
“I remember the first time that I ever saw President Kimball. It happened back in the early 1950s when I was a student at Pima High School. Several of the Latter-day Saint girls in my class were talking excitedly about a special youth meeting at which Brother and Sister Kimball were to speak.
“Although I was not then a Mormon, and did not know who Brother Kimball was, I sensed that he was someone extra special. According to the girls, Sister Kimball was special, too; after all, she had once lived in Pima, and the old Eyring home still stood. I felt a strong desire to attend the youth meeting and, as it turned out, it was all that my LDS friends had led me to believe.
“Much of Elder Kimball’s talk was on setting high moral standards. Even though I have since heard him speak to worldwide audiences, I have never heard him give a talk that was more important than the one he gave to a group of Gila Valley High School kids.
“At the end of the evening, I watched as the girls went forward to greet Brother and Sister Kimball and be embraced by them. The mutual love that was displayed was beautiful to see and I knew then that I wanted to be part of what they had.
“I am sure that Elder Kimball knew that my tomboyish hand was that of a nonmember, but perhaps he has never known that his talk that evening helped mean that I grew up to marry in the temple.”
His influence has been felt by many, many people, including, of course, the Lamanites. Although Arizona is thought of as Indian country, young Spencer Kimball grew up among the sons and grandsons of Mormon pioneer colonizers and he had little personal contact with the Indians.
His later special love for the Indians grew directly from his assignment from President George Albert Smith to be chairman of the Church’s Indian Committee. But to Spencer W. Kimball, his Indian brothers became more than an assignment—they became a cause, a cause that is still of great concern for him.
Many people, in and out of the Church, can tell of his Christlike love and concern. For Dr. Arturo de Hoyos, now a faculty member at Brigham Young University, President Kimball is a very special man.
“In the winter of 1947, I was a freshman at BYU and had come to school from Mexico after I finished a fulltime mission. My roommate, Alfonso Rodriguez, also from Mexico, was also a returned missionary. We had found a room on the back of a house which had no heat other than a gas stove and no refrigerator. The snow was a new experience to us. Apart from a few small problems like not having winter clothing, not knowing English, and other such minor details, we were full of enthusiasm and were enjoying being at BYU. We were making adjustments. To save money for books we had decided to eat only when absolutely necessary.
“This particular Sunday we had gotten up early. Among other things, we had been discussing the best way to go about defrosting some chocolate milk in a carton which we had left outside on the window sill. It had frozen during the night. As it was the only food we had, all the alternatives had to include saving the milk. As we considered the matter, we even thought of fasting again and perhaps leaving the milk for Monday, which would get us one day closer to our next parttime paycheck late in the week.
“But we were not discouraged. True, we were getting kind of thin, but we were still very happy to be alive and at BYU. We also reasoned that there were spiritual compensations. We figured that we had fasted enough that semester to cast off any type of bad spirit that we might encounter.
“As we were considering what to do with our frozen milk, we heard a knock on the door. I opened the door and the visitor said, ‘Hi, boys. I am on my way to stake conference in Sanpete County and I thought I would stop and say hello and see how you were getting along.’ As he spoke, a thousand thoughts went running through my mind, most of them in Spanish: “Shall I ask him to come in? … No, the room isn’t very nice … Buenos Dias … I wonder why he is here? … How do you do? … Perhaps we should invite him to have breakfast with us … Frozen chocolate milk for three? … How did he know we were here? … An apostle of the Lord in our room! … Finally I said, ‘Come in, Brother Kimball.’
“He came in and shook hands, and somehow we never felt embarrassed. Alfonso said something like, ‘We are fine and happy.’ We just looked at him and said little and, as I remember, we did not even invite him to sit down. But from the beginning he had made us feel at ease. As he talked he looked at us with that marvelous look of his that always conveys peace, concern, care, joy of life, complete knowledge of suffering, unselfishness, a deep desire to do good, and plain, simple love.
“‘Your mission president told me you were in Provo,’ he said, ‘and the other day I called the University to find out where you lived.’
“The previous June, during mission conference in Mexico City when Alfonso and I had been released from our two years of service, he, Spencer W. Kimball, had been the visiting authority. And he had remembered us, had called to find our address, and had stopped to see us; and now he was here in our room visiting us!
“He did not stay long. But it was long enough to lift our spirits up in a way that would be impossible to forget. And not only our spirits. For as he left and shook hands with us I found a $20 bill in mine! ‘God bless you,’ he said. ‘Let me know how you get along.’
“Alfonso and I stood there in the middle of our room. We did not say much for a long time. I opened my hand and showed him the $20.
“‘I wonder how he knew,’ I said, just to say something.
“‘He is a prophet of the Lord,’ Alfonso said, ‘and he knows.’”