A Special Witness

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(This is an excerpt from the chapter "A Special Witness" in the book To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson.)

It was two days before general conference, October 3, 1963, and there was a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. But those two facts did not even cross Tom’s mind. He felt honored to meet with President McKay, whose heart was kind and his manner gracious. Tom saw in him the ways of the Savior.

President McKay invited Tom into his office and had him sit on his right, very close to him. “With great emotion and obvious pleasure he got right to the point. ‘Brother Monson,’ he said, ‘with the passing of President Henry D. Moyle I have named Elder Nathan Eldon Tanner to be my Second Counselor in the First Presidency, and the Lord has called you to fill his place in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Could you accept that calling?’”

The moment was sacred. Tom remembers feeling overwhelmed, shocked, and unable to speak. “Tears filled my eyes, and after a pause that seemed like an eternity, I responded by assuring President McKay that any talent with which I might have been blessed would be extended in the service of the Master in putting my very life on the line if necessary.”

President McKay then told him of the “great responsibility” being vested in him, “expressed the confidence of the General Authorities,” and welcomed him to their ranks, promising that this would be “a most rewarding experience” and one in which his talents and energies would be used to the maximum. He asked him not to tell anyone except his wife.

Tom went back to his office, retrieved his car from the shop, and went home. Frances wondered what he was doing there in the middle of the afternoon. He was a successful and confident businessman, a proven Church leader, but the call caused him to take stock of his life and what lay before him. He mentally retraced his visit with the prophet of God and the call to the holy apostleship. He thought about how it would affect his family, their future, his career. Then he went outside and cut the lawn.

That evening he ate little at dinner. Afterward he asked Frances to take a drive with him, ostensibly to deliver some proofs. “I couldn’t imagine why, all of a sudden, he would want to go out for a drive. We took our youngest son, who was three,” she recalls, “and we drove to This Is the Place Monument, on the east bench of Salt Lake City, where he parked the car. We got out and walked around the monument, reading the inscriptions.”

The stately monument, placed there in 1947 to commemorate the centennial of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, was named for Brigham Young’s famous declaration, “This is the right place, drive on.” Tom felt oddly connected to the scene, with Brigham Young “standing as a sentinel pointing the way . . . his back turned to the privations, hardships, and struggle of the long desert way.” His outstretched arm pointed forward.

Frances asked, “What’s wrong? You have something on your mind.”

He told her of his visit with President McKay and his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. She remembers being both “surprised and humbled” at this “most significant call” and its “overwhelming responsibility.”

With young Clark trailing along, the two of them walked around the monument, speaking of the great sacrifices of the early settlers, their unexpected trials, and their willingness to do all they were asked. At this monument honoring the early pioneers, the Monsons were in good company.

That night neither Frances nor Tom slept well. Tom’s feet were so cold that he had to get up and pull on stockings. “I must have been in a state of shock,” he suggests, “for I am told that this is one of the symptoms. At five A.M. I heard a rooster crowing, and I realized that I had not closed my eyes.”

That morning, before leaving for general conference, Tom called his parents and told them to be sure to watch the first session. He told them that sometimes a returning mission president might be called upon to speak. He and Frances took the children to her mother’s home and recommended that she too watch conference on television.

And he took a call from Max Zimmer, one of the employees at Deseret News Press, who recounted twenty years later:

“On that fateful Friday morning, October 4, 1963, I felt especially concerned about my translation assignment because in those early days of conference translations, the translation facilities were quite primitive. I finally felt that I needed your help and called you . . . asking you to utter a silent prayer in my behalf when you would attend the Friday sessions. Little did I realize what a momentous morning this was in your life! You must have felt apprehensive so shortly before that crucial session. Yet, with great calmness and your usual quiet reassurance and loving spirit, you listened to me and gave me your full attention and promised [to pray for me]. You are indeed a champion of the lowly and simple people in the Church, such as me.”

Tom found a seat in the Tabernacle with the Priesthood Home Teaching Committee of which he was a member, along with Hugh Smith, Gerald Smith, Jay Eldredge, and others. As he sat down, Hugh, whose sense of humor was well-known, said, “You don’t want to sit there! On two previous occasions the men who were sitting next to me were called to be General Authorities.”

Tom sat down. He could feel the gaze of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, who knew of his appointment.

Frances sat with Thelma Fetzer, whose husband, Percy, had served with Tom in the Temple View Stake presidency. It was the section where the Primary general board members sat, as Thelma served on that board.

The conference was broadcast from the Tabernacle to an overflow gathering in the Assembly Hall next door on Temple Square, over a loudspeaker system to the grounds, and by KSL television and radio “to the largest worldwide audience in the history of the Church,” more than fifty stations, including some in Hawaii and Canada. President David O. McKay presided and conducted.

In his welcoming remarks, the venerable Church President acknowledged the passing of President Henry D. Moyle on September 19, 1963, and added, “I like to think he will be listening in here with us this morning.” His further remarks touched a theme that set a course for Tom’s ministry and his ever optimistic approach. “The true end of life is not mere existence,” President McKay said. “The true purpose of life is the perfection of humanity through individual effort, under the guidance of God’s inspiration. Real life is response to the best within us. To be alive only to appetite, pleasure, pride, money-making, and not to goodness and kindness, purity and love, poetry, music, flowers, stars, God and eternal hopes, is to deprive one’s self of the real joy of living.”

President McKay, who had been called as an Apostle at age thirty-three, asked President Hugh B. Brown, new First Counselor in the First Presidency, to read the names of those to be sustained, including the changes in leadership. Before presenting the names, President Brown admonished the congregation, “This is not a mere formality, but is a right given by revelation.” He then proceeded, including in the lengthy list Nathan Eldon Tanner as Second Counselor in the First Presidency and Thomas S. Monson as the new Apostle. At age thirty-six, Elder Monson was the youngest man called to the apostleship in fifty-three years; he was seventeen years younger than the next youngest, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who had been sustained to the Twelve two years earlier.

“I don’t remember the opening song [“The Heavens Are Telling,” sung by the Singing Mothers of Mesa, Arizona] or much of what took place in the early part of that session,” Elder Monson wrote later, “but I do remember distinctly hearing the names of the Council of the Twelve read and then hearing my own name read as a newly appointed member of this sacred Council.”

Members of the Quorum of the Twelve included President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elders Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Mark E. Petersen, Delbert L. Stapley, Marion G. Romney, LeGrand Richards, Richard L. Evans, Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. For seven years he would be the junior member of the Twelve. He had long respected these men, their spirits and spirituality. They had been his examples, latter-day disciples who had left their nets at the call, “Follow me.” Now he was one of them.

Elder Monson rose to take “that long walk to the stand” as an astonished Hugh Smith whispered, “Lightning has struck a third time!” He took his seat next to Elder Hinckley at the end of the second row. The two would sit side by side in the Quorum for eighteen years and would serve together in the First Presidency for another twenty-two.

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