Non-Mormons reading this blog will have no idea who he is or what that means, so by way of information, Gordon B. Hinckley has been the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for well over a decade, and he’s been at the center of church government for far longer than that. He has essentially been the administrative head of the church since the early ‘80s, when he was called as a “third counselor” when President Spencer W. Kimball and his other two counselors were incapacitated. After President Kimball’s passing, President Ezra Taft Benson did alright for a few years, but soon he was also too infirm to carry on day-to-day duties, and it was up to President Hinckley to pick up the slack.
No single individual in my lifetime has had a greater impact on the LDS Church than Gordon B. Hinckley, and, frankly, I can’t imagine what the Church will be like without him.
That’s not to say I will be leaving the Church, or that the Church will be unable to function. As my uncle is fond of saying, “It’s the Lord’s name over the door, so let Him worry about it.” President Monson will be an able and capable president, and I doubt much, if anything, will change in terms of doctrine or policy. I will simply miss President Hinckley’s singular wit, his no-nonsense straight talk, and his willingness to open up the Church to the world at large.
I have met President Hinckley on three occasions that I can remember. One was in 1992 at a large banquet honoring outgoing Utah governor Norm Bangerter. President Hinckley was sitting at the table next to me, and if I had leaned my chair back far enough, I could have hit him from behind. (I didn’t, but I was scared the entire night that I would have if I wasn’t careful.)
As a tribute to Governor Bangerter, whoever it was that sponsored the dinner gave the outgoing Governor two Delta Airlines plane tickets to anywhere in the world. As the gift was being presented, President Hinckley leaned over to our table and said “My nightmare is getting two plane tickets to anywhere in the world.” We all laughed. Considering the man’s age and exhausting travel schedule, we knew there was more than a ring of truth to what he said.
President Hinckley came to visit the USC Ward twice while I was a student there. On one occasion, he opened up the meeting to questions from the congregation. I took the opportunity to stand up and ask, “President Hinckley, I’m 23 years old and single. Am I going straight to hell?”
He laughed, and then said, “No, but you may be taking a detour.” He followed up the quip with counsel about the importance of marriage that I can’t remember. It’s the gentle-yet-piercing sense of humor that stayed with me – it was certainly his most endearing trait.
On the other occasion at USC, President Hinckley spoke to us about the evils of Hollywood sleaze. Being a theatre major at the time, I took umbridge at his remarks, and I sat there and seethed through most of the meeting. (I’ve since realized he was absolutely right and I was a punk kid, but that’s beside the point.) After the meeting, President Hinckley took the opportunity to shake our hands, and he made the mistake of asking me what my major was.
“I’m one of those evil theatre majors you were talking about,” I smirked with a hint of hostility.
President Hinckley just chuckled and said, without missing a beat, “Well, there’s always time to repent.”
And then he moved down the line. I was spoiling for a confrontation; he disarmed me completely. He was pretty good at that.
He will be missed. We shall not see his like again.