I remember President Hinckley (or "Gordie B", as I affectionately and irreverently called him) coming to BYU to speak when I was there as a freshman. He had just been called as the Prophet/President of the church, and I recall sitting in the Marriott Center waiting for him to appear. All the seats were filled and it seemed many shared my eagerness and excitement, as the place was quite loud. As he entered, however, it only took about 4 seconds for the cacophany to reduce to a pin-drop pipe-down, and as I watched him take the stand, I knew that here before me stood a prophet of God. To cut the silence, however, he turned around to his audience and as loudly as he could, said, "Well, how are you? You look great!" to which we all chuckled and smiled. With that one line, he established in me a long-standing affection that never once wavered. In fact, he just got better and better.
My next brush with Gordie B was when he came to a regional conference in Atlanta, GA in Spring 1998. I was there on my mission, and he requested to have a meeting with just the missionaries in the area, which meant all the missionaries for the Georgia Atlanta Mission (go GAM!). Elder Perry, Sister Hinckley, and he spoke, and all were phenomenal. I remember that in the middle of my note-taking, I freaked out, so amazed that I was in his presence. We were asked to remain in our seats as he exited the chapel, but he took his sweet time and shook several of the missionaries' hands as he walked down the aisle, mine included. Love that gap-toothed smile.
Later on that year, in October 1998, to be exact, I distinctly remember his announcement during General Conference that over the next several years, many more temples - most of them smaller - would be built worldwide to accommodate the growing membership in the church. What a perfect blessing for us! I can still recall the many whispers of glee that circulated the darkened chapel that morning. Here are pictures of him dedicating two of scores of temples that were built during his lifetime. What a legacy.
Gordie B was a prophet during a period of huge growth in the church. The temples he approved and completed offered great blessings, church membership continued to grow by the hundreds of thousands and even millions, and a project was undertaken to move General Conference to a new "Conference Center" just north of the existing Temple Square. When I first heard that announcement, I was crushed that they would be leaving that ultra-cool Tabernacle, mostly because we have some pioneer heritage tied in with the building (specifically the organ), but also because it was a huge piece of history. However, with this new building, the number of saints who could attend a live session of conference jumped from approximately 6,000 to about 20,000. Not a small feat. I've been there a few times now, and it's amazing. During the first conference held there, he stood at that gorgeous pulpit and he told the story of how his favorite black walnut tree got fashioned into the most recognized pulpit now in the church. Very cool.
I used to teach at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo when I was attending my final year at BYU. Best part-time gig in Provo. As a teacher in the English program (since they didn't have a "Southern Dialect" program), I got a new district every 3 weeks. One of these districts brought an Elder Hinckley into my life. He was young, he apparently had a sister who was very similar to me (God bless her), he dug jazz, and he was just a very cool and very kind Elder. As the days went on, we had teaching exercises - some with the class, some with their companions, and some one-on-one with me. During one of these tete-a-tetes, I asked Elder Hinckley about his testimony of the prophet. His response was like nothing I'd hear from anyone else. To paraphrase: "Well, first and foremost, he's Grandpa. I admit that when he was called as the prophet I wondered if there'd been a mistake, because only men who are, y'know, not related to me are prophets. But then I remember the first time he spoke at General Conference as the prophet. I watched him. I listened to him. I just felt that it was right." I smiled at him and asked if he was even more personable as Grandpa as he is as our prophet. He grinned and told me a funny story. "Grandpa - President Hinckley, I should say - came over for FHE one night at our house. He was having a good time with us, and my dad came home from work wearing a suit and tie. Grandpa stopped what he was doing and looked at my dad and said, 'Son? Are you still wearing those button-down collars? You need to get some better shirts - dress up a bit,' all with a twinkle in his eye." I was cracking up. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he was such a classy dresser, right down to his French cuffs. After that talk, I always kept an eye out, and they were always there.
And wasn't he just hilarious? I remember one particular conference when (I believe it was) Elder Nelson gave a talk about prophets and focused in on President Hinckley. Man, did he go on about him! Elder Nelson moved from revelation and leadership to adoration and personal praise for our prophet. It was very sweet, but with President Hinckley being as humble as he is, I think it also embarrassed him a bit. Gordie B was conducting that meeting, so after Elder Nelson sat down, he came to the pulpit and said, "Elder Nelson? I challenge you to a duel! In the basement of the tabernacle, following the meeting!" The audience roared. When he had to start using a cane, he'd hobble up to the pulpit and then hook it on there with a loud thud, and then use it to wave at everyone in the choir on his way back to his chair. It always brought chuckles. I wondered if it was more of a weapon when he'd point it at his fellow leaders, like in this photo:
The man couldn't be ominous if he tried. Maybe I felt a kinship with President Hinckley because of his humor and love for everyone he met. Maybe I love him because he wasn't a pulpit-pounder. Maybe I love him because he loved the women of the church and encouraged them to forget being "barefoot and pregnant" (Ted's favorite line) and to get, finish, or acquire more of an education. Maybe he was just a kind of grandpa to all of us.
So here's to you, our wonderful French-cuff-wearing, gap-smile-flashing, cane-threatening, temple-constructing, pimp-ring-adorning, laugh-evoking, love-spreading Gordie B. Farewell, my friend. Give Marjorie a kiss from all of us.