Early on Saturday morning, Sept. 30, 1961, Boyd K. Packer, then Supervisor of the Church Seminaries and Institutes and a member of the Brigham Young University Administrative Council, was in a meeting with teachers and leaders who had come to Salt Lake City for training in conjunction with the 131st Semiannual General Conference.
He was summoned from that meeting to take a telephone call from President Hugh B. Brown, a counselor in the First Presidency, who told him he was to go to President David O. McKay's office.
"I was 37 years old. I had no idea what was coming," said the former seminary leader during a recent conversation with the Church News.
What was coming was a call as a General Authority, first, as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve and, eight and a half years later, as a member of that Quorum. He served as Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve from June 5, 1994, to Feb. 3, 2008, when President Thomas S. Monson became President of the Church, at which time President Packer became President of the Quorum of the Twelve.
This general conference marks President Packer's 50th anniversary as a General Authority, making him the longest-tenured among the Brethren serving today. (President Monson was sustained on Oct. 4, 1963, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve; at that time, Elder Packer was serving as an Assistant to the Twelve.)
Elder Packer's call as a General Authority came just minutes before the day's conference sessions began. He did not have time to telephone his wife, Donna, who was at home recovering from an injury sustained in a fall, so she heard the news of his call as she and her mother were listening to conference on the radio.
"I don't know where the years have gone. There I was — and here I am," said President Packer, who is 87. With a smile that hinted of his warm sense of humor and a wave of his hand, he said, "The time's gone like that."
He said of his call as an Assistant to the Twelve that he felt he was "flying with a higher flock than I belonged to."
But members of that flock took him under their collective wing. He knew personally only one member of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time of his call, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, who had visited the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah, where Brother Packer had been a seminary teacher.
"I had quite a schooling as I learned from the senior Brethren," President Packer said. "I learned to be taught.
"It's one thing to study the gospel and another to study men who have given their lives to it," he said of the Brethren with whom he served in the early years as a General Authority and who since have passed away. "President McKay had a great influence on me. Elder Marion G. Romney, Elder N. Eldon Tanner and Elder Kimball were my mentors.
"Elder LeGrand Richards (born in 1886) was my history book. I learned in those early days to associate with the older Brethren. I would walk back from meetings in the temple with Elder Richards. He walked very slowly because he had a crippled leg. The other Brethren would say, 'Oh, you're so kind.' I thought, 'You don't know how selfish I am.' I would ask Elder Richards questions. He knew everything."
President Packer spoke of his associations with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who on Jan. 23, 1970, became the 10th president of the Church. "He was a wonderful man. I liked to be around him and just listen to him and study him." Elder Packer worked closely with Elder Harold B. Lee, who became the 11th Church president on July 7, 1972, and Elder Mark E. Petersen.
He spoke with admiration of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who "was regarded as very rigid and staid, but he had more humor than many of the others. He was very pleasant to be around."
President Packer said, "If we look at the past, we can know where we're going. The footprints are there, marching in a line. We need to take a thought for where we've been and where we're heading."
President Packer was preparing his address for this conference at the time of his conversation with the Church News. Asked how he goes about preparing a talk, he commented that making an early start helps, and that his early start "begins as soon as the last conference has ended."
Ever a special witness and teacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ — he is the author of the widely used Teach Ye Diligently — he said that the Brethren have different ways of preparing talks, but all rely on the Spirit.
"It's just that simple. I also work at it. I would much rather get up and just talk," President Packer said. However, a prepared text is needed for purposes such as translation of talks into more than 93 languages. Typically, President Packer said, he goes through 20-25 drafts of his talks, with the Spirit moving him as he sits with scriptures open on his desk and paper and pen at the ready.
This will mark the 100th time he has given an address in general conference since he was set apart as a General Authority.