Spencer W. Kimball: Stories about 12th president reflect his love for others, commitment

During 1993, members of the Church are studying the Doctrine and Covenants and Church history in the Gospel Doctrine class. This is the 12th of a series of articles about the presidents of the Church that is running in the Church News this year.

My father, Spencer W. Kimball, liked to tell stories about himself. My favorite is about the time he received his call to become a General Authority and friends flocked to his business office in Arizona to wish him well and tell how inevitable it was, and that they were not at all surprised. Then Evans Coleman came in, a cowpuncher type who had known my father from boyhood. Evans asked, "Spencer, can I talk with you?" Of course he could. They sat down."So you're going to Salt Lake to be one of the Twelve Apostles, are you?"

"Yes, Evans, that's right."

"Well, it's clear the Lord called you - because no one else would have thought of you!"

Born in Salt Lake City in 1895, my father moved to southeastern Arizona at age 3, when his father was sent there to be president of the St. Joseph Stake. He lost his parents early, his mother when he was only 11 and his father when he was 29. All his life he kept them in mind, noting in his journal their birthdays and wondering if they approved of his life. Maybe in part that is why he was such a family-minded man.

Conscious that he came from a faithful tradition, he desired to foster closeness among his relatives and spent untold hours tracing the numerous descendants of his grandfather Heber C. Kimball and maintaining contact with them. He collected whole file drawers of genealogical information on these cousins and revitalized the Kimball family organization - not singlehandedly, to be sure, but as the major figure.

In his own family, with his wife and four children, he was affectionate, quick with a hug and a kiss. At a solemn assembly held in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple for priesthood leaders of the Provo area, a thousand men attended, including me. I was singing in a chorus. After the meeting, the audience stood in respect, waiting for the First Presidency to leave. On his way out, passing the chorus, my father spotted me and unselfconsciously went out of his way to embrace me and kiss me. I was first embarrassed at the display of affection with a thousand people watching, but then I thought to myself, "What better place for a father to express his love for his son than in the temple."

Unusually outgoing and people-oriented, he often amazed relative strangers by remembering their names after long intervals. For example, Robert H. Daines told me: "When I was in the district presidency in New Brunswick, N.J., as counselor to Henry Eyring [Spencer's brother-in-lawT, we entertained Elder Kimball in our home one day. He was a marvelous house guest and played the piano for group singing. Some months later I passed through Salt Lake City, to which Henry Eyring had moved, and I telephoned the Eyring home. Elder Kimball happened to be there and answered the telephone. After he responded that Henry Eyring was not there, he said, `Is this by any chance Brother Daines?' I was flabbergasted that he would remember my voice and name after such a long time and with such short acquaintance. He might have tied me to Henry Eyring, but he had no reason to know that I would be calling."

Similarly, some years ago David Hamilton wrote my father: "In the summer of 1973 you were the speaker at the Hill Cumorah Pageant.' After you spoke, my father went up to re-introduce himself to you. As we moved toward the stand he told me it had been more than 25 years since he had last spoken to you. Yet as he extended his hand to you and before he could open his mouth, you said,Brother Hamilton, how are you?' "

People tell me stories about my father. I love to hear them. Just the other day Johnny Turner said to me, "I guess everyone has a Spencer Kimball story," and proceeded to tell me his. Most often they relate to an act of kindness, of attention to "little" people.

Years ago when Johnny attended general conference, he noted that between sessions other leaders disappeared, but Elder Kimball came down onto the Tabernacle floor to greet people and shake hands. When the apostle came to Johnny's group and saw that it included former missionaries and several Native American men, he spoke to and hugged each one.

Eric Vernon mentioned to me that as a boy he had sat across from Elder Kimball at a wedding breakfast after the marriage of Eric's oldest brother. Elder Kimball slid a silver dollar across the table to Eric and asked, "Are you planning to go on a mission?"


"This is to start your mission fund."

Eric told me, "It is amazing what one such gesture can do."

No one could ever fairly accuse Spencer Kimball of being pretentious. In a recent talk Hugh Nibley told about having traveled, as a young faculty member, with Spencer Kimball to visit a stake conference in order to recruit students for BYU. In Los Angeles, while the train stopped, Hugh rushed off to a nearby bookstore, bought some books, and hurried back to the train across a dusty lot. On the train, "as we sat talking about the books, Brother Kimball casually took an immaculate linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket, and, stooping over, vigorously dusted off my shoes and trousers. It was the most natural thing in the world, and we both took it completely for granted . . . but ever since, that has conditioned my attitude toward the Brethren."

He seemed to take pleasure in helping. Once when I arrived at the Salt Lake airport my elderly parents met me as I landed. My father tried to carry my heavy briefcase and I actually had to twist it out of his hand. Another time, when he was 85 and had survived two brain surgeries, I was at my parents' home and was going to carry a heavy box of books to my car. I momentarily set the box on a chair to do something else and when I turned around again I saw my aged father tottering off toward my car carrying the box. I hurried after him, grabbed the box, and said in exasperation, "You can't do that!" He said plaintively, "Why can't I do what I want to do?"

In March 1979, after minor surgery at LDS Hospital, Marcia Packer was ready to go home and a nurse wheeled her to the elevator. They waited for some time, and when the doors finally opened, there stood President Kimball. She felt surprise and excitement as they exchanged smiles. But the elevator was full, no room for the wheelchair. President Kimball stepped out and said, "I'll get off here and you can get on." The nurse quickly replied, "No, President, we can wait for the next one." It was then someone from the rear spoke up and said that if they all squeezed together there would be room, and they did. The prophet held Marcia's hand as they went down.

He respected other people, including children. In 1947, I think it was, President George Albert Smith had been in Laguna Beach, Calif., resting, and wanted to return to Utah on the train, but he had a car in California. Since my father and I were in Southern California also, President Smith asked us to drive his big car back to Salt Lake City. We took turns driving. I was 16. As I drove across the desert I fell asleep at the wheel of the president's car and ran it off the road. But just at that point the desert was as flat as a table, and so when I woke up at the sound of gravel crunching under the tires I had merely to drive back onto the shoulder of the road. I stopped the car and got out shakily to change places with my father, but he said, "You go ahead and drive. I don't think you'll go to sleep again!"

Another characteristic was loyalty. We moved to Salt Lake City when my brother Andy was a senior in high school and I was a freshman. We two younger sons still at home resented having to leave our Arizona home. On the way to Salt Lake City, as we crossed the border, Dad said: `Boys, we're now in Utah. This is our new home. From now on Utah has the most beautiful scenery, the best schools, the prettiest girls. It is the best state because it is our home.'

When I went to the University of Utah my friends urged me to join a social fraternity and I thought I might. When I asked my father for advice, he said, "Why don't you join the Church fraternity at the institute?" I said, "I don't think it has much to offer me. I doubt it would be much fun." He responded, "If it isn't up to much, maybe you can make it better. You know, you don't join an organization just for what you can get out of it, but also for what you can contribute to it!"

He was generous almost without calculation. Andy once saw a sweater someone had given our father, brand new, still in the box. Knowing Dad had a lot of sweaters, Andy said to Mother, "Do you think Dad would give me that sweater?" She said, "I don't know, I'll ask him." She went to him and asked, "Dad, could we give Andy one of your sweaters?" He said, "Of course," and started to take off the sweater he was wearing.

He could be almost hypersensitive to others' feelings. Sam Parker, next-door neighbor, liked to visit with President Kimball when he spotted him out in his yard. His wife, Saundra, said to him once, "You shouldn't impose on President Kimball to have to visit with you all the time. He deserves a little privacy." So Sam stopped going out. But after about 10 days Dad appeared at the Parkers' door with a plate of cookies. "I'm here to apologize," he said. "What for?" Sam exclaimed. "I don't know," he said. "It is for whatever I did that made you mad at me. You used to come out to visit me, but now you seem to be avoiding me."

After our youngest son's baptism, we took several of our children to their grandfather's office, which they had not seen. He visited with us and showed the children the different interesting objects in the office. Then, after we took our leave and went to the exit of the Church office building, he followed us and said goodbye again. The next day he telephoned me to apologize that he had been somewhat distracted (a thing I had not even noticed) because he was preparing several talks for general conference just a short time off.

I admired the way that he could laugh at himself on occasion, but I also appreciated that he kept things in perspective. When he attended a Church program in Cleveland, Ohio, he spent some time with one of his non-member Kimball cousins. Afterward, on the way to the airport, the cousin commented to my father's personal secretary, Arthur Haycock, "You Mormons should make my cousin Spencer a saint, like Saint Peter." When Dad heard that, he responded quite seriously, "You know, no one can make you a saint; you have to make yourself one."

At the end of one general conference he said, "While sitting here, I have made up my mind that when I go home from this conference this night there are many, many areas in my life that I can perfect. I have made a mental list of them, and I expect to go to work as soon as we get through with conference." (October 1975)

Despite his lifelong commitment to service in the Church, he never felt he was good enough or capable enough to do what was expected of him. In consequence he worked harder, longer, than anyone I knew. He once said: "I still feel that the Lord made a mistake, that He shouldn't have called me, that there were many, many men greater than I was who could have done a better job. And I still wonder what was the Lord thinking about making a little country boy like me [president of His ChurchT . . . unless He knew that I didn't have any sense and would just keep on working." (Church News, Jan. 6, 1979, p. 19.)

Arthur Haycock summarized, "He never wanted the job, but was content to go along quietly and do the work. He had a common touch. He never worried about whether his shoes were shined or his suit pressed. Some of his hard work seemed trying to compensate for his shortness and feelings of inadequacy in his callings. He ignited the Church with his simplicity, warmth and prodigious capacity for work. He wanted to die with his boots on and he did, having attended the conference sessions just a few weeks before his death."

His personality was right for the time of his leadership. Despite his age and poor health, he encouraged the Church to new heights. "We need to lengthen our stride," he said, including himself in the admonition. "Do it," he urged.

He inspired significant growth in missionary service. He presided over an incredible burst of temple building. He had the openness and humility to receive revelation that allowed extension of priesthood and temple blessings to people of all races. When he began his presidency, at age 78, those who expected it to be a short, caretaker presidency proved to be mightily mistaken. The 12 years he led the Church proved to be a period of great productivity in building the Kingdom, the task to which he dedicated nearly all his 90 years.


Highlights in the life of Spencer W. Kimball

March 28, 1895: Born in Salt Lake City, the sixth of 11 children of Andrew and Olive Woolley Kimball.

May 3, 1898: Moved with family to Thatcher, Ariz., a pioneer town where Andrew was called to be president of the St. Joseph Stake.

May 1914: Graduated with honors from Gila Academy, where he was class president.

October 1914-January 1917: Served in the Central States Mission.

Nov. 16, 1917: Married Camilla Eyring. Marriage sealed in the Salt Lake Temple the following June.

Feb. 20, 1938: Called as president of the Mount Graham Stake.

Oct. 7, 1943: Ordained an apostle by President Heber J. Grant.

June 1957: Underwent surgery for throat cancer; one vocal cord and part of another removed.

October 1969: The Miracle of Forgiveness is published.

July 7, 1972: Became president of the Council of the Twelve after death of President Joseph Fielding Smith.

Dec. 30, 1973: Ordained and set apart as 12th president of the Church after death of President Harold B. Lee.

April 4-6, 1974: Issued famous "Lengthen your stride" address to regional representatives.

Oct. 3, 1975: Reactivated First Quorum of the Seventy.

June 8, 1978: Announced in letter to priesthood leaders revelation that priesthood available to all worthy males. The announcement was made public the next day.

April 6, 1980: Addressed conference from Church's birthplace in Fayette, N.Y., during simultaneous telecast during Church's Sesquicentennial.

Nov. 5, 1985: Died at age 90 in Salt Lake City.

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