President Thomas S. Monson: Finishing the Course, Keeping the Faith


Jeffrey R. Holland

President Thomas S. Monson has served as a member of the First Presidency since 10 November 1985. (Courtesy of Portraits by Merrett.)

Positioned on the wall of President Thomas S. Monson’s office directly opposite his astonishingly clean desk (astonishing only because of the legendary amount of work he processes every day, sometimes requiring up to three secretaries at a time to handle it), a lovely artwork of the Savior greets the gaze of the Second Counselor to President Howard W. Hunter in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Monson loves the painting, which he has had since he was a 22-year-old bishop and which he has taken with him wherever he has been assigned to labor. “I have tried to pattern my life after the Master,” President Monson says in a quiet, reflective mood, gazing at the portrait. “Whenever I have had a difficult decision to make, or perhaps have had to measure the request to give a blessing against the endless demands of some of my paperwork, I have always looked at that picture and asked myself, ‘What would He do?’ Then I try to do it.” With that characteristic smile breaking through, President Monson adds, “I can assure you the choice has never been to stay and do paperwork!”

Meeting President Monson, a buoyant, energetic 66-year-old, it is difficult to comprehend that he has already been serving in his apostolic calling for more than thirty years, including eight years as Second Counselor to President Ezra Taft Benson! Truly this man has devoted his life to the Savior, emulating Him in his personal life and in his calling as a prophet, seer, and revelator. As one of his favorite scriptures declares, Thomas S. Monson has ever been “on the Lord’s errand” (D&C 64:29).

“To know my brother Tom,” says President Monson’s younger brother Robert, “you have to know our father. He was a quiet man—quieter than Tom,” Robert laughs, “but whatever assignment he accepted, he saw it through to completion. He believed that if you did a job, you did it all the way. He always gave 100 percent.”

Certainly this legacy from his earthly father—an inheritance now so vitally employed in the work of his Heavenly Father—is one of many characteristics of the multifaceted and multitalented Thomas S. Monson that his associates in and out of the Church quickly recognize. “The demands upon his life would be absolutely incomprehensible to the average member of the Church,” says Lynne Cannegieter, his secretary of more than twenty-nine years, “but he does it all with a smile. He has an amazing capacity for hard work, with an equally amazing capacity to manage many complex and detailed matters simultaneously. And he is thorough. He never leaves any task unfinished.”

Perhaps understanding this kind of personal devotion to duty gives even more meaning to the April 1972 general conference address Elder Monson gave, entitled “Finishers Wanted.” Of a modest two-word sign seen in a furniture store window, Elder Monson said, “In life, as in business, there has always been a need for those persons who could be called finishers. Their ranks are few, their opportunities many, their contributions great.

“From the very beginning to the present time, a fundamental question remains to be answered by each who runs the race of life. Shall I … finish [and as the Apostle Paul said, receive] … ‘the prize? So run, that ye may obtain’ (1 Cor. 9:24).”

This singular quality of wholehearted devotion and uncompromising commitment seems as true of President Monson’s personal and family relationships as of his work habits—if that is possible. Loyalty is a word which often comes to the lips of those who best know Tom (or in his youth, “Tommy”) Monson. His is a deep-seated, undying loyalty to friends of many years, friends he might not be expected to remember in the rush of his now very busy life—but remember them he does.

His lifelong friend John Burt says, “Tom’s care of the widows who lived in his ward—eighty-seven of them—is an example of his loyalty and devotion to people. When the rest of us were released as bishops, we just kind of moved on to the next task and left the widows to our successors. Not Tom. He somehow found time to keep visiting them. He is the most loyal man I know. He never forgets where he came from, and he never forgets the people who knew him before he was ‘somebody.’”

Nearly all of those eighty-seven widows are gone now, but their “bishop” kept visiting them to the end. One night during the Christmas holidays some years ago, President Monson was making his customary rounds to “his” widows, leaving gifts purchased from his own pocket, including plump dressed chickens that were, in the early years, raised in his own coops. In one of the many Salt Lake City rest homes he has come to know so intimately, he found one of his ward members, alone and silent in the darkened room of a world made even darker by the onset of blindness. As President Monson made his way to this sweet sister’s side, she reached out awkwardly, groping for the hand of the only visitor she had received in the whole of the Christmas season. “Bishop, is that you?” she inquired. “Yes, dear Hattie, it is I.” “Oh, Bishop,” she wept through sightless eyes, “I knew you would come.” They all knew he would come, and he always did.

This reverent, near-sacred loyalty to and respect for the elderly is often accompanied by another loyalty—a loyalty to the still, small whisperings of the Spirit, which may be the most conspicuous and inspiring characteristic in the life of Thomas S. Monson. “The sweetest feeling you can have in this world is to feel the hand of the Lord upon your shoulder,” President Monson says softly and with some emotion. “In my patriarchal blessing as a boy, I was promised that I would have the gift of discernment. I have to acknowledge that such a declaration has been abundantly fulfilled in my life.” Indeed, President Monson’s life—certainly his life as an Apostle and member of the First Presidency—seems in a sense to be one long, extended chronicle of the promptings of the Holy Spirit, with the many inspirational and varied miracles which have resulted from his response to those promptings.

Not long ago a telephone call came to President Monson’s office from the son of an 82-year-old woman who was nearing death. The mother’s final and only request was that she might meet her “favorite General Authority” before she passed away. When such calls come, the secretaries hope they will be able to get to the telephone before President Monson does, because otherwise his entire life would be spent on such visits, for requests of this kind come in to his office by the score. One of the secretaries did take this particular call, carefully noting the details and promising to relay the message to President Monson. She also courteously mentioned that President Monson’s time commitments were overwhelming, so the elderly sister would certainly be in President Monson’s prayers even if he were not able to make a personal visit. The faithful son hung up the telephone, very grateful for and fully satisfied with the response he had received.

The message was relayed. The schedule, overflowing as always, precluded a visit. A day went by, and President Monson began to be restless. That night he was more restless still. On the second day, he could not resist. He got into his car and headed for an unfamiliar address to visit a dying woman he had never met.

Wending his way through streets and side roads and neighborhoods totally unfamiliar, President Monson eventually arrived at his destination. Knocking at the door, he introduced himself to that very surprised son and handed him a green planter purchased for the visit. He was then ushered into a modest bedroom where a newfound friend was entering a comatose state, hovering between life and death. Quietly President Monson sat on the edge of the bed and held her hand. He talked softly and lovingly to her at great length about a wide variety of gospel principles. Although her eyes were essentially closed and she could make no verbal response, her son—witness to every detail of this great apostolic gesture—testified that he was certain that his mother not only knew who was visiting her but also understood every word he said. A blessing was given, and then President Monson, noting but not mentioning a framed picture of himself on the modest mantlepiece, excused himself from the room. The sweet sister died nine hours later, having realized the one final wish she had in this life. The next day the local newspaper obituary read, “Alice Petersen Tingey, 82, passed away of natural causes at her home. [She] was a loving person who touched the lives of many people. We would like to thank President Thomas S. Monson for his special blessing and the influence he shared with her and her family.” Following such spiritual promptings, often in the briefest and most crucial window of opportunity, has become one of the most important hallmarks of Thomas S. Monson’s life and ministry.

It is interesting to note that in addition to such testimonies about President Monson’s loyalty to the elderly, many unsolicited testimonials of his equally urgent concern for the youth of the Church are also offered. There is something perpetually youthful about President Monson which allows him to relate to all the members of the Church, but especially the young. He loves them, is conscious of them, and is devoted to their spiritual success.

Immediately after young Tom Monson’s discharge from the navy following the conclusion of World War II, he was called to serve as a ward clerk. One evening he sat silently taking minutes while the bishopric agonized over the obvious lack of success with the young people in their ward, including challenges within the MIA program. Apparently the young clerk took it about as long as he could and then said, “Excuse me, brethren, but may I say something about the MIA and the youth challenges in this ward?” He then launched into a rapid-fire and profound summary of not only what was wrong with their ward youth program but what could rather quickly make it right. Then, realizing he may have been too bold and too presumptuous, he said, “Forgive me. I think I have said too much,” and excused himself from the room. He was no sooner out the door than the bishopric looked at each other and said, “What are we waiting for?” They immediately called him back into the room, released him as ward clerk, and called him to be the superintendent of the MIA. In six months the Sixth-Seventh Ward combined program, with its totally committed young superintendent, was the example to which every other leader in the Temple View Stake looked for their own youth activities.

That lifelong devotion to youth is currently reflected in President Monson’s twenty-five years of service on the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America, a longer term of service rendered than that of any other man who has ever been seated in that distinguished circle. Jere B. Ratcliffe, Chief Scout Executive for the Boy Scouts of America, says, “I don’t know any person about whom I could say more good things than I can say about Tom Monson. For me Tom personifies ‘enthusiasm’ in its original meaning, ‘God within’ or literally ‘inspired.’ He lights up every meeting he is in. The LDS Church is blessed to have such a leader of youth.”

One associate says that President Monson relates well to youth “because he is still just a boy at heart. Have you ever seen him at a Utah Jazz or collegiate game? He follows every play with keen personal interest. Tom is a big man with big responsibilities, but he still displays the enthusiasm of youth.”

Somehow that observation rings true, especially when we realize that this is the twelve-year-old boy who, when making his first visit to the Seagull Monument on famed Temple Square, spent time wondering how a person could get those nickels and dimes, which had been thrown there by the slightly more contemplative, out of the reflecting pool. Actually Tommy Monson was very touched by that visit to Temple Square, returning to his ward to give the first talk he ever delivered—on that wonderful pioneer story of the seagulls and the crickets.

Less mischievous now but no less devoted to his heritage, President Monson is a leader whose civic participation at the local, national, and international level has always been highly visible and highly valued. His generosity, friendliness, and buoyancy of spirit have served him well in a host of community and governmental relationships, including service to a number of business and professional groups.

Glen Snarr, an associate of some forty-five years in the work of the Deseret News Publishing Company (of which President Monson is now chairman of the board, with Brother Snarr serving as a member of the board of directors) says, “When I first met Tom, he was in the advertising department of the News and I was in the editorial department. He was full of energy, enthusiastic, efficient, with a keen mind and memory. Above all he was thoughtful and caring. Tom always cared about people. He hasn’t changed.”

One young associate in community-related service confirms that Christian quality in President Monson: “Some movers and shakers move or shake right over the top of you, especially if you are one of ‘the little people.’ President Monson, on the other hand, is certainly a mover and a shaker, but never in an insensitive way. He has always been extraordinarily thoughtful and kind to me.”

Robert H. Bischoff, longtime friend and associate of President Monson in a host of civic contributions to both the greater Salt Lake City community and the state of Utah, recently observed, “During a fifty-year business career, the most unforgettable person I have ever met is President Thomas S. Monson. Over a 25-year span we have met hundreds of times under a number of different circumstances. We have met at board of directors meetings, committee meetings, weddings, funerals, sporting events, civic events, private dinners, and just to visit personally. On each occasion, everyone present feels the warm glow of President Monson’s personality. He has the great gift of being so natural and friendly in any setting that all those present feel at ease. His incisive mind, impeccable judgment, and photographic memory cause people to seek his opinion on many subjects. His reputation extends well beyond the LDS Church, and he is held in the highest esteem, both nationally and internationally, by all of us who have come in contact with him.”

One who in her own way matches President Monson in total devotion and uncompromised loyalty to Church, family, and friends is his beloved wife, Frances Johnson Monson. Sister Monson is quiet and unassuming, but without Frances Monson we surely would not have the Thomas Monson the Church knows and admires. Because of President Monson’s callings very early in their marriage—from that first ward clerk’s position to his present calling in the First Presidency—Sister Monson has almost never been seated next to her husband in forty-five years of Church meetings. “But never once has she complained,” says President Monson with conviction. “Never once. Not in our entire married life has she done anything to keep me from any aspect of my service. I have never received anything but support and encouragement from Frances.”

President and Sister Monson’s daughter Ann Monson Dibb said recently of her mother, “As we were growing up, my father’s responsibilities as a member of the Council of the Twelve often took him away from home. Many times Dad would be touring missions around the world, gone for five or six weeks at a time. Mother conveyed to us that he was doing his duty and that we would be watched over and protected whenever he was away. She communicated this message to us not only with words but by her quiet manner of making sure everything which needed to be done was always accomplished. My mother is unlike many of the women of today’s generation. Instead of looking for the recognition of the world, she has always received her acknowledgment of worth from such things as the happy smile of a son or the outstretched hand of a grandchild. President Wilford Woodruff once said, ‘The mother has greater influence over her posterity than any other person can have, and her influence is felt through time and eternity.’ I am grateful to my mother, thankful for her influence, and pray that I might always be worthy of her love. As I reflect upon the many blessings which I have received as the daughter of an Apostle of the Lord, the one which means the most to me is the gift and blessing of the woman he married, my mother.”

While on an assignment in Scandinavia some years ago, President Monson learned of a 26-year-old disabled young man named John Helander. John was at a youth conference in Kungsbacka, Sweden, and determined to take part in a 1,500-meter race. He had no chance to win and little chance to finish. But he lined up with the entrants and began.

From the sound of the starter’s gun it was obvious John was in difficulty. The other runners bolted past him even as he seemed fixed at the starting line. He was only partway into his first lap when all of the other participants passed him toward the completion of their second lap. And so the race went, with a winner being announced while John was scarcely halfway through the measured distance.

“Perhaps everyone else thought when the race was over,” says President Monson, “that John would quietly step from the track and disappear. But clearly John Helander didn’t think that.” He just kept running. His speed was minimal. His fatigue was immense. But his whole-souled determination was obvious even to the most cynical of spectators. None stirred from their seats. It was obvious that the race—the race—was still being run. By the time John Helander completed his fifteen hundred meters, seemingly ages after the other contestants had crossed the finish line, the entire stadium was in pandemonium. The roar of the crowd was deafening. The stumbling, staggering, exhausted but victorious John Helander had broken the tape, newly stretched for this champion. Determination, courage, devotion, faith—call it what you will—had carried the day.

That story is one of President Monson’s favorites. Perhaps it reminds him of his father, who finished every job he ever started. Or his mother, who during her lifetime gave so generously of her means to those hungry people who came calling at her door with so little to recommend them. Like parent, like child. President Thomas S. Monson’s life has been devoted to helping people succeed spiritually and temporally. Every John Helander whom he has met has been cheered on by Thomas Monson. He knows something of their humble beginnings and knows much of what life has not bestowed upon them—all the more reason that his love and loyalty and robust nature are thrown into the fray in their behalf. If John Helander were running his race today, Thomas S. Monson would be down on the curve of the track, or if necessary out on the track, shouting encouragement, lifting up heavy hands, and strengthening feeble knees. And if it appeared at any moment that John and the legions like him were not able to complete the race, then full-statured Tom Monson would simply pick them up and carry them to victory. There would be no question regarding success. There would be no consideration of defeat. Victory in Christ would be certain with Thomas S. Monson moving toward the tape. This man whom we sustain in a new First Presidency of the Church is a finisher, a winner, a friend to all he ever knew. He is the man the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve once called “a genius in Church government.” But he is also the man whose greatest talent may be, according to his daughter, “making memories for his grandchildren.” This is a man who seemingly does it all—and does it all the way.

When he eventually stands before the Savior of the world and meets that gaze he has always loved in his favorite painting, surely President Thomas S. Monson will be able to say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

[photo] Above: Known as “Tommy” during his youth, Thomas Monson attended high school in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[photo] Near the time when Thomas Monson was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve on 4 October 1963, he was photographed with his wife, Frances, and their three young children, Thomas, twelve, Ann, nine, and Clark, four.

[photo] Called to serve as a bishop at the age of twenty-two and as an Apostle at the age of thirty-six, President Monson willingly accepted important leadership responsibilities at an early age.

[photo] Prior to his call as a General Authority, Thomas Monson (shown here surrounded by a few of his 350 co-workers) served as general manager of Deseret News Press.

[photo] President Monson’s genuine love and concern for people is reflected in his smile and spontaneous laughter.

[photos] Left: A vibrant speaker, President Monson is well known for the faith-promoting experiences he often tells in his conference addresses. Below: President Monson has served on the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America for twenty-five years—longer than anyone else.

[photo] Married on 7 October 1948 to Thomas S. Monson, Frances Johnson Monson matches her husband in “total devotion and uncompromised loyalty to Church, family, and friends.” (Photo by Olan Mills.)