President Monson’s love for the elderly can be traced to his earliest positions in the Church. He was assigned to be a bishop in Salt Lake City when he was just 22 years old. His ministry included responsibilities for over 1,000 members — 85 of them widows.
President Monson remembers one particular year when a drought caused a severe shortage of food for the needy, especially fresh fruit. He offered a sacred prayer one night late at the chapel asking the Lord for help. “I pleaded that these widows were the finest women I knew, that their needs were simple and conservative and that they had no resources on which they might rely.”
The next morning, President Monson said, he received a call from a man in the congregation who owned a large wholesale produce company. “Bishop,” he said, “I’d like to send a semi-trailer filled with oranges, grapefruits and bananas to the Church for those who would otherwise go without. Could you make arrangements?”
President Monson not only provided physically for the needy in his congregation, but he also forged lasting friendships. He took a week of his personal vacation time each Christmas season to visit every single one of the widows in his congregation. For the first several years he took them a dressed chicken from his own poultry coops as a gift.
These visits continued decades after President Monson was given other Church assignments for as long as each of the 85 widows lived. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “Perhaps no one in the present leadership of the Church has spoken at so many funerals — he once had three in one day — and always very personal remarks are given for the sometimes ordinary and otherwise unknown souls that he has met and loved during his ministry.”
President Monson describes his childhood as idyllic with hours spent fishing and exploring the surrounding valleys. “Ours was a close-knit family,” President Monson said. “We gained a sense of appreciation and love for our relatives, because all of us lived together on one corner on Salt Lake’s west side.”
During the Depression years, the Monson family lived frugally with few if any luxuries. When young Tom learned a family of one of his friends planned to eat cereal moistened with hot water for Christmas dinner, he invited his friend to his backyard. He then took his two pet rabbits out of their hutch and gave them to his friend for Christmas dinner for his family.
It was at a university dance that he first saw the young lady who would later become his wife — Frances Johnson. At the end of their courtship, President Monson said he had planned a special evening to propose to Frances, but his youngest brother, Scott, spoiled the surprise by blurting out, “Tommy has a ring for you, Frances!” the moment she entered the door.
“From the first day of our marriage, Tom has served in leadership positions. Some have asked how a new bride adjusts to that, but it has never been a sacrifice to see my husband doing the Lord’s work,” Frances said. “It has blessed me, and it has blessed our children. He always knew that if it was for the Church, I expected him to do what he had to do.”
He was unprepared when Church President David O. McKay asked him to be one of 12 modern-day apostles who help govern The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After sharing the news with Frances, President Monson recalls, “that night neither of us slept very well. My feet were like ice.” In what he would later describe as one of the most dramatic days of his life, President Monson was ordained an apostle at the age of 36.
Although President Monson had heavy responsibilities and demands on his time, Frances said he considered his highest priority to be that of husband and father. In fact, he often shared his spiritual experiences with his children. Daughter Ann said some of her fondest memories came from “hearing him tell of the special inspiration he had in calling a patriarch or of the faith-promoting experiences he had interviewing missionaries.”
His son Thomas said, “Every night before I went to bed, I would go upstairs to his office, and whatever he was doing, he would put aside, and he would play me a game of checkers. That is one of the sweetest memories I have of my father.”
Clark Monson also recalls teaching moments with his father. “Dad and I were out fishing on a boat, and he asked me to reel in my line for a moment. When our lines were in and the rods set aside, Dad said, ‘In about five minutes your brother Tom will be sitting down to take the bar exam. He’s worked hard through three years of law school for this and he’s probably a little apprehensive. Let’s just kneel here in the boat. I’ll offer a prayer for him, and then you offer one.’ That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
In the midst of visits with widows, playing checkers with his son or attending to worldwide needs of members of the Church, President Monson has always been “on the Lord’s errand” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:29).