Career of retiring LDS Church News editor started at a stop light

Gerry Avant’s name came up as President Russell M. Nelson addressed the Christmas dinner of the Deseret Management Corp. on Dec. 8, 2015.

President Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was looking into the future, anticipating the coming of Jesus Christ in glory. He was contrasting the prominence of that future event with the relative obscurity that attended the Savior’s mortal birth.

“The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” he said, alluding to scriptural prophecy. “Can’t you just see it? Fox News will be there, and CNN. … Gerry Avant will be there, covering it for the Church News.”

President Nelson’s comment may have been only partly in jest. For had the Second Coming occurred during Gerry's career, she surely would have been there to record and report on that most newsworthy of all events.

In the course of her nearly 45-year career with the publication — 18 as editor — she has had a front-row view of virtually every event of historic import during that time in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Gerry, who retires next month, has covered close to 40 temple dedications, including the recreation of the historic Nauvoo Illinois Temple in 2002, and the administrations of six Church presidents. She has become closely acquainted with scores of Church leaders, gaining not just their respect and esteem but their friendship. She has also told the heartwarming stories of many rank-and-file Church members.

Admitting that she hasn’t kept a precise count, she estimates her travels for the Church News have taken her to about 60 countries. Some of her destinations she had never heard of before going there, such as when she made a side trip to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, to catch up with contacts she had arranged to interview in Singapore but missed because of a delayed flight.

By her own admission, it was a career that almost didn’t happen, one that she nearly argued her way out of at the outset.

With a journalist’s flair for storytelling and an attention-getting lead, she says it all happened “because of a red light.”

A 1969 graduate of Brigham Young University with an English major, she returned to her tiny hometown, Uvalda, about 100 miles from Savannah, Georgia. She applied to be a substitute teacher for a high school in a neighboring county but was hired on the spot as a full-time teacher, a position she held for two years.

During the second year she became acquainted with “a very sweet, pleasant young man” who was incapable of writing his own last name. That got her interested in public education for students with special needs. She returned to BYU for training.

“It seems odd, but one of the requirements to qualify for certification in special education on the high school level was to take more hours in my minor, which was journalism,” she recalled. She took the quickest route she could find: an internship with Salt Lake City television station KUTV Channel 2.

“I discovered that reporting news was a whole lot easier than teaching,” she said. “I decided to try the news business when my internship concluded, but couldn’t find a job in Salt Lake City with any of the stations.”

Disappointed but not discouraged, and with a teaching job offered to her in Georgia, she loaded up her car, said goodbye to roommates and headed for home.

A friend had asked her to run an errand, so at the last minute she drove downtown.

“I stopped for the red light on 1st South and State Street,” she recounted. “Up ahead, I saw the marquee scrolling Deseret News headlines. I realized I’d never be satisfied teaching school until I knew for a fact that I couldn’t find work as a journalist. I parked at a meter across the street from the Deseret News building and went in.”

She said Doug Osborn, editorial assistant and personnel manager, “probably never heard a more negative approach from an applicant: ‘You don’t have any openings, do you?’”

There was one position open, but already there were more than 40 applicants.

“These were the days of Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, when thousands of college graduates wanted to be investigative journalists,” she recalled. “I told Doug there was no need for me to apply since they had so many applicants and I wasn’t even a journalism major.”

But he insisted she fill out an application and, after a brief interview, managing editor William B. Smart offered her a city desk position. He secured from her a commitment to stay at least two years.

“Neither of us imagined I’d stay nearly 45 years,” she said.

At the time, she and Maxine Martz, “a brilliant re-write woman and outstanding reporter,” were the only women on city desk, though there had been others previously; all other female writers worked in what was then called “the women’s section.”

She found the work interesting and exciting with its variety of assignments that might find her covering news at a junkyard and at the governor’s office on the same day.

But after about three months, the managing editor told her she was to report to work for the Church News, a venerable weekly supplement to the Deseret News. It had been established in 1931 with the exclusive province of covering news of the Church and eventually with a circulation extending beyond the market reach of the Deseret News itself.

She did not welcome the new assignment and said so.

“Bill said, ‘That’s OK. But on Monday you can report as a scanner typist.'”

In those days, journalists typed their stories on paper, then made corrections with a bold, black pen preparatory to feeding the hard copy into a scanner. If the corrections were too extensive, the page had to be retyped, a task that fell to “scanner typists” on staff. That work did not interest Gerry.

“So I went down to Church News, and the editor, J Malan Heslop, said, ‘Give us three months, and if you don’t like it, I’ll make arrangements for you to go back to city desk.”

Brother Heslop made the work appealing to her.

Before assuming the helm at the Church News, he had made his mark in the newspaper’s photo department as a photojournalist extraordinaire, the best in the state, according to Gerry. He had her try her hand at photography and gave her some tutelage.

Already possessing some experience with a TV camera, she was a natural.

“J said I had a talent that could not be taught,” she recalled. “He said, ‘We can teach you technical aspects of taking pictures, but you have an eye for what makes a good picture.’ ” She has won photography awards on state and regional levels.

Soon, she was going on out-of-town assignments.

It would be several years before she had any international assignments, but by then she had proven her facility with a camera as well as a pen.

“It was very stressful, because you’d get on a plane with two camera bodies, multiple lenses and a bag of film that took up a lot of space,” she said of those days before the advent of digital photography. “You’d have a normal, regular lens, a wide-angle and a telephoto. You’d have one camera with color film and another with black-and-white.

“I learned early never to check a bag. I had camera equipment plus film and then a carry-on bag for my clothes. It was sort of like being your own Sherpa going on assignments. I carried everything. I had traveled to several countries before I saw luggage with built-in wheels. I went in search of a wheel-aboard case immediately."

Her first international assignment was a three-week junket to Asia, with stops in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Guam and the Philippines.

“Asia was a wonderful place to travel,” she said. “The people were so kind, friendly and helpful, even though I couldn’t speak the language. That really calmed me down about going to a foreign country.”

The first Church president she got to know well was President Spencer W. Kimball, as she traveled quite a bit with him and his wife, Sister Camilla Eyring Kimball.

“One of the lessons I learned from President Kimball — and it took me years to realize it — was the value of keeping a journal,” she said.

At a missionary meeting in the Dominican Republic, he had the congregation stand, raise their hands and promise that before they went to bed that night, they would record in their journals the events of the day.

It was advice Gerry was not in the habit of heeding on wearying assignments before the age of laptop computers when the evenings were apt to be occupied with writing a story longhand or with a hotel typewriter, dictate or fax it back to Salt Lake City, or perhaps send it through the local bureau of a newswire service.

There came a time, though, when she wished she had heeded President Kimball’s injunction. She was in a van traveling with President and Sister Kimball in Missouri on the way to the sacred Church historic site Adam-ondi-Ahman.

“Somebody said something, and President Kimball came back with a one-liner that was so funny! Everybody was laughing. The driver had to pull off onto the shoulder of the road because he was laughing so hard.”

Several years later, as she was recalling the event, Gerry telephoned President Kimball’s personal secretary, D. Arthur Haycock, to refresh memory of what the Church president had said. The secretary recalled the incident but not the comment.

“Had I written it down, to this day I would be able to tell this funny, funny thing that President Kimball said. But I can’t recall it, because I didn’t write it down.”

She has other cherished memories of travels with President Kimball.

On that same trip to Adam-ondi-Ahman, they saw a tour bus parked along the shoulder of the road and a group standing with a tour guide. A local member recognized the tour guide as a member of the Church.

President Kimball asked the driver to stop, and they approached the tour group. The guide’s expression immediately changed and the people turned to see President Kimball approaching behind them. The tour group was just returning from the historic site. President Kimball invited them to return with his party.

There, on that site, still undeveloped as a visitor attraction, President Kimball talked to the group about the sacred significance of Adam-ondi-Ahman.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see these prophets up close and personal and see how compassionate and caring they were,” Gerry remarked.

On one international trip, she saw Brother Haycock in a hotel lobby around 10 p.m. He said he was on his way up to President Kimball’s room to tell him a group of Church members had just arrived, having chartered a bus to come to a member meeting held earlier that evening. The bus had broken down, they had arrived late, missed the meeting and were seated in the hotel ballroom, exhausted and disappointed.

“These people had sacrificed so much to come to this meeting, even to the point that some of the men bought the very first suit jackets they had ever worn because they were going to come see the prophet.”

Informed of the group's circumstances, President Kimball went down to the ballroom. “He spoke to them as if he were addressing the entire congregation from earlier that day and thanked them for their desire to come,” Gerry said. “I thought that, as tired as I was, how tired he must have been. But yet, his compassion was such that he got out of bed and went to speak to these people so they would not be disappointed.”

Gerry said she also had a good working relationship with President Gordon B. Hinckley. “He, Sister Hinckley and I traveled quite a bit before he became President of the Church. We were on the same flights, would be met at the airport and would be driven to the hotel or wherever we were supposed to be. We shared meals in restaurants and had conversations while waiting at airports.

Perhaps her most memorable photograph was taken in mainland China, just over the border from Hong Kong, on the occasion of President Hinckley having gone to dedicate the Church’s new temple in Hong Kong.

The Church president had accepted an invitation through the Church’s Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii to visit with other Church leaders at a “sister cultural center” in Shenzhen, China. More than 500 costumed dancers lined walkways to greet the visiting Church leaders, Gerry reported in her May 28, 1996, Church News article.

“I saw this huge line with uniformed band members and costumed dancers,” she recalled in an interview. “I thought that would make a beautiful picture if I could just get ahead of them. And so I ran.”

Having been diagnosed a few days before with "walking pneumonia," she nevertheless had the stamina to make it in time to shoot the scene. The photo, colorful with confetti falling down and the general festive ambiance, shows President Hinckley being escorted up steps, his wife, Sister Marjorie Hinckley at his side.

“I had time to shoot three frames,” Gerry said. “ The second picture is the one that got reproduced and has been used numerous times by the Church.”

It is featured in the biography of President Hinckley written by Sheri Dew.

Gerry's association with President Thomas S. Monson has been such that he has requested she be assigned to many of his travels that have been covered by the Church News.

“To see President Monson’s compassion and his caring for people has been wonderful,” she said. “He's never acted like it was a burden or that it was costing him an extra effort to do things for the members that he's met along the way. He just wanted every person who came to any meeting to feel, ‘Oh, this is just for you.’ I saw him embrace people and shake their hands in a very tender-hearted manner, especially anyone who had any kind of a disability or illness."

Some of the Church News stories that stand out in her mind do not involve people of prominence.

A May 31, 1975, article she wrote told of Joseph F. Beuchert and Hans Ruchdaschel, German prisoners of war in World War II, who joined the Church after being taught the gospel by Church member Walter Ruthenburg, another POW.

“I remember taking a photo of a woman in Arkansas, Louise Hooks, and writing a short story about her driving many miles to be a visiting teacher,” Gerry recalled.

Such dedication impresses Gerry, who grew up in south Georgia, where fulfilling a visiting teaching assignment can amount to a drive of 45 minutes or more, or in Malaysia where visiting teachers walked, then transferred bus routes to get to their assignments. Her mother’s life was blessed, perhaps saved, by a former visiting teacher, Betty Simmons, who felt impressed to visit her one day.

"Betty had a strong impression to visit my mother, who lived about 30 minutes away. She found my mother on the floor, wedged between the bed and the dresser. At that time my mother could barely walk, and she couldn’t reach the phone, so had Betty tried to call, she wouldn’t have gotten an answer and she might have thought my mother wasn’t home. But she heeded the prompting and went to see her.”

It’s a story Gerry has not written in full yet, except for a brief reference to it in a Church News “Viewpoint” editorial, but she might one day.

In 1988, Gerry became associate editor of the Church News, some years after J Heslop was made managing editor of the Deseret News and Dell Van Orden succeeded him as Church News editor. When Brother Van Orden retired in 1999, Gerry became the first female editor in Church News history. The precedent she set is being followed as associate editor and longtime staffer Sarah Jane Weaver assumes the editorship when Gerry steps down.

Colleagues will attest that Gerry seems to regard the Church News staff as family, assuming a protective, sisterly posture over them.

When a staff member takes an assignment out of town or overseas, she will draw on her extensive experience to give little tips and points of advice for surviving the trip with relative ease.

On days with extremely inclement weather, it is common for her to instruct staff members to go home early to avoid travel hazards as the weather worsens.

When a staff member gets a cold or the flu, she will insist he or she stay home and recuperate for the sake both of the afflicted one and the rest of the staff who might catch the contagious malady.

More than one family of a staff member has benefited from Gerry's considerable generosity as she has quietly and freely contributed to the missionary fund of a family member.

One grateful staff member remembers the occasion nearly seven years ago, when, while riding home from a commuter rail stop, he was injured in a bicycle accident that necessitated emergency-room care that night and surgery some weeks later. Informed that he would not be at work the next day, Gerry immediately made use of her extensive international network of contacts. She saw to it that the staff member’s name was placed on the prayer roll of a temple on the other side of the world where it was daytime and the temple was in session.

Asked if she has felt providentially guided in her career, given that it was something she never set out to do in the first place, Gerry is reluctant to respond, fearing that it might seem conceited.

But she did recount a conversation with the late Elder Boyd K. Packer, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, when he was acting president of that quorum.

“At the end of an interview, we were just talking, and he asked about my family,” she said. “My father had had a stroke and was paralyzed for about eight years. My mother was his main caretaker. She was nearly worn out by the time he died, and then her health was failing.

“I was going home every six to eight weeks to try to help her. I had made a comment to the effect that sometimes I felt I ought to go back home. He cut me off. He said, ‘No, your place is here. This is where the Lord wants you. You can find somebody to help your mother.’ ”

She has thus felt comforted by an apostle’s expression that she was pursuing the right course.

“I’ve just had this desire to do my part in helping tell of the Church and its members in whatever way I can,” she said. “And there are times when I feel so inadequate as I meet these very faithful members and I see the circumstances many are in, and I think of the opportunities I’ve been given that I’ve not taken full advantage of.”

She recalls sitting in the celestial room during the dedication of the Taipei Taiwan Temple with the congregation singing the “Hosanna Anthem” simultaneously in several different languages and dialects.

“It was the most joyful day of their lives to have a temple they could come to,” she said.

She thinks of the general conference when a temple was announced for Seoul, Korea. She interviewed Church leaders who had come from Korea to Salt Lake City for the conference. Some could barely talk due to emotion. One man recalled that the first time he had come to the Salt Lake Temple, he had touched everything in the temple that he could — furniture, door frames, walls. He returned home and told the members, “I’ve touched the temple; you can come shake my hand.” Many lined up to touch the hand that had touched the temple.

“I sometimes wonder if I’m qualified to tell the stories of these remarkable people,” Gerry mused.

Friends have expressed concern for her safety as she has traveled alone so much.

“ I always say there are a whole lot more good people than there are bad,” she said.

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