Moments etched in memory

The Church News staff became quite well acquainted with President Ezra Taft Benson.

On assignments, we visited him and his wife, Flora, in their home, and went to his office numerous times. We shook his hand, feeling his strong, firm grasp. We covered his travels and speeches. We interviewed him and shared special moments with him.We saw his tears when compassion for the plight of others moved him and when he expressed the desire of his heart for people everywhere to keep the commandments of God. We wiped tears from our own eyes on many of those occasions.

Our moments with the prophet are etched deep in our memories.

Among the most heartwarming windows into President Benson's life that I witnessed while covering his activities occurred in his hometown of Whitney, Idaho. It was on a warm Saturday morning in the summer of 1989, just before his 90th birthday.

President Benson's roots ran deep into southeastern Idaho's Cache Valley, and the first glimpse that day into a window of his life came when I saw how much he loved the quiet, tranquil valley. Returning to his hometown, if only for a brief period, seemed to rejuvenate him in spirit.

Notwithstanding the fact that his life since he left the valley had cast giant shadows across the world, he never outgrew his homespun roots. His deep feelings for the land of his birth were apparent in the sparkle in his eyes, in the smile on his lips and in the glow on his face.

Among other activities on this visit, President Benson called on a lifelong friend, Howard "Slim" Swainston.

President Benson, in a comfortable padded rocking chair, and his wife, Flora, in a wheelchair, held hands as they sat on the porch of the Swainston home and reminisced for a few minutes with the prophet's boyhood friend.

The peaceful scene was the second glimpse that day into a window of President Benson's life, and it vividly revealed once again the love and affection that he and Sister Benson had for each other. The tender moments of holding hands together spoke - as it had done so many times before - a quiet, but powerful, sermon.

As President Benson and Brother Swainston were growing up, they sang in a ward chorus, and would practice in the home next to the Swainstons. One of their favorite songs was "I Am a Mormon Boy."

The two boyhood friends once more sang that song, providing a third glimpse that day into a window of the prophet's life. He wasn't embarrassed to sing about being a "Mormon boy." That's what he had been all his life - a Mormon boy from the small farming community of Whitney, Idaho - and for all the greatness he had achieved through the years he never forgot that heritage. - Dell Van Orden

Early in President Benson's administration, it seemed I saw him more often in cities outside Utah than I did at Church headquarters. Our paths crossed in such places as Washington, D.C.; London, England; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Kirtland, Ohio; and Palmyra, N.Y.

Nearly every time he saw me, he asked one of two standard questions: "What are you doing here?" or "Don't you ever stay home?" I accepted the questions as his jovial acknowledgment of my presence.

In Puerto Rico in 1987, a torrential rainstorm washed out roads and literally dampened a regional conference congregation in a gymnasium. The wind blew rain inside the building with such force that Elder Rex D. Pinegar of the Seventy and Gary Gillespie, President Benson's secretary, held umbrellas over the prophet and his interpreter at the podium. Many people in the congregation held umbrellas or tarps over their heads.

The meeting proceeded under uncomfortable conditions, but no one seemed to mind. Rain or shine, they were thrilled to be right where they were, in President Benson's presence. Tears of gratitude mingled with rain that splashed on many faces.

At the end of the meeting, people stood as President Benson prepared to leave the building. Many reached out to shake his hand and adults lifted youngsters on their shoulders to get a glimpse of the prophet. The unfolding scene of love, dedication and sheer joy was a photographer's dream.

President Benson noticed my efforts to keep my camera dry. "You should have stayed home! It's dry there!" he said in a teasing tone as he walked by.

But, as so many others in that rain-soaked gym, I was right where I wanted to be. - Gerry Avant

I recall attending a Primary function in Farmington, Utah, in about 1984. This was during a period following President Spencer W. Kimball's second surgery when he was largely incapacitated.

When I saw President and Sister Benson enter the old rock chapel where the Primary was organized more than 100 years earlier, they seemed to be just like President and Sister Kimball - the spirit about them was identical. It was a very striking resemblance, and a personal witness to me that President Benson would bear the mantle of prophet.

President Benson seemed to enjoy traveling. On one particular flight from Sweden to the United States, the group traveling with the prophet was seated in a waiting room in Stockholm with time to spend while waiting for the plane's departure.

I came in lugging a camera case and proceeded to open and stuff it with candy bars. When President Benson asked what I had, I told him that Sweden had great candy bars and offered him one. He unwrapped one corner and nibbled a little.

"This is good," he remarked.

Later, one of his family members on the trip thanked me for the candy bar but assured me that President Benson really didn't need it. She offered to retrieve it so I could give it to my children. The notion was interesting. A candy bar shared with the prophet would be a genuine memento. But I declined and said, "No, I am willing to share my candy bars with the prophet."

One of President Benson's qualities that impressed me most deeply was his love for others. He expressed it frequently; his sincerity was overwhelming.

Burned into my memory are the faces of so many members I met in my travels who never had the opportunity to see the prophet in person. People in small towns, people in other countries. "We love the prophet," they would say. "If you see the prophet, tell him we love him."

One day I did. He was in his office, waiting at his desk while some people were gathering in the foyer to visit him. I took courage and spoke for the so many who would never have such an opportunity:

"We love you, President Benson."

And he replied, to the so many I felt I was representing:

"We love you, too." - John Hart

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