Walking in the prophet’s shoes

Gerry Avant poses for a portrait at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 09, 2017. Spenser Heaps
Credit: Gerry Avant, Photo illustration

Editor’s note: Former Church News editor Gerry Avant retired in May after 45 years as a reporter/editor chronicling events of the Church and the work of its leaders and members. This is the first in a series of articles about behind-the-scenes events she witnessed.

In June 1980, I traveled with President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Eyring Kimball, to an area conference in Lakeland, Florida.

From the start of his presidency, President Kimball was holding area conferences in arenas and stadiums across the globe, from Scandinavia to the Far East, and from South America to South Africa to the South Pacific. In 1979 and 1980, he held similar area conferences across the United States, including the June 28-29 conference at the Lakeland Civic Center, located between Tampa and Orlando in central Florida.

On the first evening in Lakeland, I took the hotel elevator to the floor on which those of us from the “Salt Lake group” had our rooms. When I arrived on the floor, I saw a man walking in the hallway. He was walking when I left about 15 minutes later and walking still when I returned about an hour after that.

A local Latter-day Saint, he had been assigned to serve on the security detail during the prophet’s stay in the hotel. Back then, there weren’t several full-time security personnel traveling with the prophet, but rather local members were recruited to position themselves at a small table near the floor’s elevator and stairwell — moreso to protect the leaders’ time and energy from local members trying to meet and greet the prophet.

I made a comment to the walking man, something along the line of, “Are you getting your exercise?”

With a big smile lighting up his face, he exclaimed: “I’m walking in the prophet’s shoes! I’m breaking them in for him. I’m going to wear them all night.”

I later asked President Kimball’s personal secretary, D. Arthur Haycock, about how the man came to be wearing the prophet’s shoes. Brother Haycock said that he had received a letter from a member who had been at a recent meeting in which President Kimball, sitting on an elevated dais, had stretched out his legs and rested one foot on top of the other, thereby exposing a hole in the sole of one shoe.

Brother Haycock said the letter writer expressed dismay that he (Brother Haycock) would allow the prophet to go around wearing shoes with holes in the soles. Until he received the letter, Brother Haycock was unaware that this was the condition of President Kimball’s shoes. Having received the letter the day before President Kimball’s trip to Florida, he left his office, went to a store and bought a pair of shoes, which he gave to President Kimball that evening.

The next morning, President Kimball put on his new shoes, which felt fine — initially. However, by the time he arrived in Florida and then attended some meetings with local leaders, his feet were hurting. He had not brought along his old, comfortable shoes.

When they got to the hotel that evening, Brother Haycock asked the men in the hall if anyone could find a way to stretch President Kimball’s shoes. He had in mind someone going to a store to buy a shoe stretcher, or perhaps a trip to a shoe repair shop to have the shoes stretched professionally. But when the man I would later meet asked what size shoe President Kimball wore, he volunteered to wear the prophet’s shoes all night. He told me that he wore shoes in a size slightly larger than President Kimball’s. It was a bit uncomfortable squeezing his feet into smaller shoes, he said, but declared it was a great honor to do that little bit of service.

“How many people can say they’ve walked in the prophet’s shoes?” he asked.

Now, I’ve never walked in the shoes of a prophet, but I have walked in the footsteps of prophets: Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson.

I recall only three times in my 45 years at the Church News that I’ve written personal accounts, or to say it another way, put myself in the story. When I retired last May, Deseret News editor Doug Wilks invited me to write a series of articles about some behind-the-scenes experiences of my assignments.

I’ve traveled the width and breadth of the United States and to some 60 countries, mostly reporting on the travels of prophets and apostles as they’ve spoken to tens of thousands of members and ministered to the one.

To start this collection of recollections, I chose this story — to put a twist on the “footsteps of the prophets.”

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