Prophet had a deep love for children and youth

Many redheads suffer through childhood with jeers about the color of their hair and the numerous freckles that cover their face and arms.

But having freckles and red hair became a boon for young members of the Church, thanks to President Ezra Taft Benson.Many times when he would see a redhead, President Benson would sing the song "Freckles," to the child's delight.

Read Flake, now 25, remembers when President Benson, then president of the Council of the Twelve, sang "Freckles" to him and his two brothers - all redheads.

During a trip to Independence, Mo., President Benson stayed in the Flake home. Read's father, Lawrence Flake, was mission president of the Missouri Independence Mission at the time.

Read was only about 12 years old then, but his feelings about President Benson and his visit with the family remain vivid in his mind.

"He had a kind, gentle manner about him that was really noticeable to us and made an impression even at that young age. I remember that he was on our level as children, whereas some adults might tend to shun us or treat us like little kids.

"He talked to us a little about the Church and about reading scriptures, specifically the Book of Mormon. He told us to remember to say our prayers and encouraged us to go on missions. I still remember that. It has stuck with me."

Elaine Flake, mother of the redhead boys and five other children, said President Benson "was very attentive, kind and loving and good to our children. He talked to them and made them feel like they were important. We were just amazed at how good he was with children. It was definitely a talent he had."

While in the Flake home, President Benson also sang "A Mormon Boy," a song that became a favorite for the boys after his visit. They all learned the words and would sing it as well.

"He just seemed to have a real softness and tenderness for children that was very impressive," the former mission president said. "He was kind and gentle with everyone, but he really seemed to be that way with children."

One of the qualities that President Benson admired about his wife, Flora, when he first met her was the way she treated children, he once said in a tribute to Sister Benson. He took her to his home and while there his youngest brother fell down. Sister Benson went over to him and said, "Oh, did you make a hole in the floor?" The comment distracted the young boy from thoughts of pain and he went on playing. Meanwhile, President Benson was falling further in love.

President Benson's love for children was evident when he would speak to them. He considered them an important element of the Church by speaking directly to the children during an April 1989 general conference address:

"Dear children, our Heavenly Father sent you to earth at this time because you are some of His most valiant children. He knew there would be much wickedness in the world today, and He knew you could be faithful and obedient.

"I promise you, dear children, that angels will minister unto you. You may not see them, but they will be there to help you, and you will feel of their presence."

After his address, a videotape was shown of him singing "A Mormon Boy" to a group of children.

When the videotape was made, the children gathered in the lobby of the Church Administration Building to meet the prophet. Michaelene P. Grassli, Primary general president, recounted the experience:

"When he entered the room, he was rejuvenated to see the children. He reached out to each child individually and said, `I love you.' I think they could feel that he really did love them. As he sat down on a bench, he motioned to a couple of children and they crawled on his lap. He talked to them eye to eye and then he sang to them. Every eye was glued on him just because he emanated genuine love and concern for each one. I'm sure he relates to children everywhere in the same way."

His interaction with children indicated how much they meant to him. Those who assisted him through the years said he went out of his way to talk with handicapped children or any children with special needs.

President Benson's love for and belief in the youth of the Church was also evident, as explained by Church leaders who have worked with young people. Elder Jack H Goaslind of the Seventy and Young Men general president said: "President Benson's love for youth, his understanding of their problems, and his dedication to teaching them to live by gospel principles began early in his life when he served as a young Scoutmaster.

"His vision of what young men could become through honoring their priesthood and learning to do their duty helped to shape his views on living worthily to be ordained to the priesthood, missionary preparation and service, and preparing for fatherhood and a lifetime of service to others. Throughout his life, he was drawn to youth, and they were drawn to him."

Speaking of the prophet's belief in youth, Janette C. Hales, Young Women general president, said: "Nothing has been more reassuring to me than the words of President Benson when he told young people, `You have been born at this time for a sacred and glorious purpose.'

"His words give me confidence in the future and in the divine potential of young people," Pres. Hales added.

Concerning her personal feelings and love for the prophet, she spoke of when she was set apart as a counselor in the Young Women general presidency in 1990. President Benson, she related, helped set her apart. "Being in his presence," she said, "made me want to be as prepared as Alma explained in Alma 34:32."

Ardeth G. Kapp spoke of the prophet's love while she served as Young Women general president from 1984-1992. "President Benson's love for youth was evident in his countenance and his sensitivity to their presence in addition to all that he said."

In Provo, Utah, for a meeting of the Young Women Worldwide Celebration in November 1989, President Benson was walking past a young girl about 12 or 13 years old when he stopped and without saying a word cupped the young girl's face in his hands.

"To our knowledge he said nothing, but simply looked at her," Sister Kapp related. "The evidence of his deep love for her brought tears to the eyes of those who stood close by. The stake president said he knew the prophet was inspired to stop and touch the girl because she was a young woman who was having some challenges."

Many children throughout the Church have returned their love to the prophet through letters. The bulk of his mail came from children sending valentines, birthday cards, pledges about reading the Book of Mormon and notes saying they accomplished their goal to read the book.

"I know you are reading the Book of Mormon, for I have received hundreds of personal letters from you telling me that you are reading this sacred book," President Benson said to the youth in his April 1989 conference talk. "It makes me weep for joy when I hear this."

In a Church News article Feb. 23, 1986, President Benson wrote a special thanks to children who sent him valentines. "To the many choice Primary children and youth who sent us such beautiful valentine's greetings, Sister Benson and I send our love and thanks. We were overwhelmed with your tender, handwritten messages of support. May the Lord bless each of you in your righteous pursuits is our prayer. We love you."

Children would often slip notes to visiting Church authorities in their area asking them to take the notes back to the prophet.

Many times President Benson referred to youth as "a rising generation" and the "promise of the future."

"God bless the children of this Church," President Benson said in his April 1989 address. "How I love you! How Heavenly Father loves you! And may we, as your parents, teachers, and leaders, be more childlike - more submissive, more meek and more humble."

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