During a Church News interview in 1985, President Thomas S. Monson, then second counselor in the First Presidency, told of having been called at age 22 to serve as bishop of the Sixth-Seventh Ward, in which he had grown up in Salt Lake City.
"Why I was called as bishop, I can't tell you," he said during the interview. "Only the Lord would know that."
On Monday, Feb. 4, that former bishop was introduced at a news media briefing as the 16th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
No living person is more acquainted with the office of Church president. He has spent the past 22 years in the First Presidency, serving as a counselor to three presidents: second counselor to President Ezra Taft Benson and President Howard W. Hunter and, for nearly 13 years, first counselor to President Gordon B. Hinckley.
President Monson has been on the Lord's errand all his life, from serving as president of his ward's deacons quorum in his early teens, to serving as a bishop in his early 20s, to serving in a stake presidency in his late 20s, to presiding over a mission in his early 30s, to becoming a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in his mid-30s at age 36.
Perhaps with some of the same feelings of wonderment he had upon being called as a bishop, he set out on his course of full-time service to the Lord and His kingdom when he was called as an apostle. Just two years after he was sustained to the Twelve, he was assigned to supervise the missions of the Church in the South Pacific, and five years into his call as an apostle, he was given a special assignment for the work of the Church in Europe, during which time he went behind "the Iron Curtain" to minister to the saints of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. It was a bold undertaking.
In 1995, the Church News accompanied President Monson and his wife, Frances, and Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then a member of the Seventy, and his wife, Harriet, to Goerlitz, near Poland's border in what had been the DDR to dedicate a new meetinghouse. En route, President Monson spoke of his first visit there, in 1968, when a representative of the U.S. Government advised him "if anything happens, we can't get you out."
"That was the first time, as far as I know, that an apostle of the Lord had been to Goerlitz," President Monson said. Yet, Elder Monson, with concern but no fear, made trips to minister to the saints in various areas of eastern Germany as no one else could, giving compassionate service, inspired counsel and apostolic blessings.
President Monson had a key role in gaining permission from the DDR government for the Church to build the Freiberg Germany Temple, which was dedicated in 1985, and in helping further the growth of the Church in other parts of eastern Europe that had been under communist control. (President Monson broke ground and dedicated the temple site in 1983.)
Elder Hans B. Ringger, then of the Seventy and now an emeritus General Authority, accompanied President Monson on several trips to that part of the world. Elder Ringger said, "I have learned that his personal pragmatic attribute is 'teaching by doing.'
"All his aspirations consider the welfare of the individual," Elder Ringger added. "After completing his specific assignments during his calling as an apostle, he would take his personal time to assist and strengthen his European brothers and sisters prior to his arduous trips that rushed him back to his busy schedule in Salt Lake City."
President Monson's name and life have been linked to compassionate endeavors, service to others and a strong desire to help those who are helpless, nourish those who are weak and lift those who suffer various afflictions.
While he has had a major role in the Church's welfare program over the years, he has demonstrated that service is most effective on a one-to-one basis.
Tender feelings and caring for others were instilled in him, President Monson said, by his mother, Gladys Condie Monson, who was known for her compassionate service. From his father, G. Spencer Monson, he learned, among other virtues, the importance of respecting others. In an interview with the Church News in 1985, President Monson said, "I never heard my father speak a negative word toward another person. In fact, he would not remain in the room if anyone were speaking disrespectfully or negatively toward another person."
One singular account could very well sum up the caring nature of President Thomas S. Monson. It was related in the early 1990s to a Church News reporter by Werner Adler, who said, "You have an expression in America about someone being so kind that he will give you the shirt off his back. President Monson is more kind than that. He gave me the suit he was wearing."
Brother Adler said that after a district conference in Dresden in the 1960s, Elder Monson, then of the Twelve, noticed that he was wearing a nearly worn-out suit. "I'm a big man, just about the same size as President Monson, so I guess that's how I attracted his attention," Brother Adler said. "In our country at that time, it was hard for just about anybody to buy new clothes; for a man my size, it was nearly impossible."
Brother Adler said that President Monson changed into an old pair of trousers and a shirt and then gave his nearly new suit and shirt to Brother Adler. He offered to give him his shoes also, but they wouldn't fit Brother Adler. Another member, Rudi Lehmann, said he thought they would fit his son, so President Monson removed his shoes and gave them to Brother Lehmann.
"I'll never forget that day," Brother Adler said. "Apostle Thomas S. Monson had come to our conference dressed in a fine suit and was wearing practically new shoes. He left wearing a pair of old trousers, a shirt and old shoes."
In a Church News interview on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1997, President Monson said that one of the things that has brought him the most joy is "feeling the nudge of the Lord, the promptings. When you respond to them, you discover that in a way you're answering someone's prayer."
He related as an example the experience he had years earlier after a visit with his hospitalized father. He was in a hurry to go to a meeting in the temple, but when the hospital's elevator doors opened, "I just couldn't take that elevator." As he wondered what he was to do, a woman asked if he would visit her mother, "a dear woman who was having a hard time leaving this earth." The woman's family asked him to give her a blessing, petitioning the Lord that if it was her time to leave, her wish would be granted; if not, that her health would be restored. With the woman's son assisting, he offered the blessing. After he returned to his office, he received word "that each one of the children kissed the mother and said goodbye. Then she slipped away. I didn't know any of them when I went into that room, but I knew then why I couldn't get on that elevator."
President Monson said, "I've had that happen to me all through my life to the extent that I try to keep the antennae up, and have no interference so there is clear communication. When I'm the recipient of that kind of blessing, I think of a little couplet, 'God's sweetest blessings always go by hands that serve Him here below' (Whitney Montgomery, "Living what We Pray For").
"You develop an appreciation that Heavenly Father knows who you are. And He says, 'Here, go do this for me.' I always thank Him. My only regret is that I don't have more time to do the many things we are called upon to do. I work hard. I work long. I hope I work effectively, but I never feel I have exhausted what I should be doing."
A few days before his 80th birthday last August, the Church News asked if he had a birthday wish regarding his future. President Monson said, "I want to live the best I can and do the most for others as long as I can."