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Feature story — President Gordon B. Hinckley

He was in his late 90s. He arrived at the office early and often left late. He traveled the world at a breathtaking pace and kept up a speaking schedule that would drain the energy of men decades younger.

"I would enjoy sitting in a rocker ... listening to soft music and contemplating the things of the universe," he once told the Associated Press. "But such activity offers no challenge and makes no contribution."

Gordon B. Hinckley, the venerable and beloved president and world leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was described by veteran 60 Minutes television journalist Mike Wallace as "a genuinely remarkable man ... (a) warm and thoughtful and decent and optimistic leader."

Back in 1933, with a bachelor's degree from his hometown University of Utah in hand, 23-year-old Gordon Hinckley had his sights set on graduate studies and then a journalism career. Columbia University in far-off New York City was the school of choice.

But before leaving his boyhood home in Salt Lake City and heading off to the East, he accepted a call to serve as a missionary for his church.

Two years in the British Isles, where he not only "spread the word" but also picked up some leadership skills along the way, didn't change his professional goals. As his mission service wound down, the Great Depression in the United States was in full throttle. Times were tough.

But he still harbored hopes that he could find the financial means to study at Columbia's renowned journalism school. From there he hoped ultimately to find a professional outlet for his considerable writing skills.

As young Gordon prepared to set sail from England back to the United States, his mission leader asked him to call on Church headquarters as soon as he returned home to Salt Lake City and tell them of the need for publicity materials in not only England, but all of Europe. There was an urgent need to help missionaries better explain their faith.

That last mission assignment changed the direction of his life. Impressed by his plea for an information program to buoy up missionary efforts, Church leaders asked him to come aboard and spearhead the development of such a program.

The rest, as they say, is history.

On that day in 1935, when he was assigned to run the Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nobody could have foreseen that 60 years later Gordon Bitner Hinckley would become the global leader of a faith that today includes almost 13 million adherents spread over many nations.

He never became a professional journalist. But, ironically, he was interviewed by hundreds of them over the years, including reporters from Time magazine, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many other major publications around the world. In recent years he appeared on national television news shows such as 60 Minutes and Larry King Live.

This gifted wordsmith also honed his writing skills in a variety of Church assignments over the years and was renowned for the wit and wisdom of his self-written sermons. His sparkling sense of humor balanced the generally serious nature of his messages from the pulpit.

Despite his age, President Hinckley was blessed with a keen mind, good health and incredible energy as he led the global expansion of a faith that, according to U.S. News & World Report, "has sustained the most rapid growth rate of any new faith group in American history."

Latter-day Saints viewed President Hinckley as a prophet of God in the same way they revered the prophets of scripture. Church members believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is literally a restoration of the church originally established by Jesus Christ during His mortal lifetime. Part of that restoration includes living prophets.

"This is not a reformation," President Hinckley said. "This is a restoration of that church which was set up by the Savior. This is the handiwork of the God of heaven and His Beloved Son."

President Hinckley's deep involvement in the world expansion of the Church long predated 1995, when he became its world leader at age 84. He was involved in major leadership roles since 1958 and was ordained in 1961 to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles — one of the highest governing bodies of the Church.

President Hinckley was by far the most traveled of the 15 prophets who have led the Church since the restoration in the early 19th century, logging more than 250,000 miles over the years in meeting with, instructing and inspiring Latter-day Saints in dozens of nations. In fact, at the age of 95, he traveled nearly 25,000 miles on a seven-nation, nine-day tour to Vladivostok, Russia; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong, China; Delhi, India; Nairobi, Kenya; Aba, Nigeria; and Seoul, South Korea.

He was the driving force for the erection of dozens of Latter-day Saint temples in the past few years, bringing the number to over a 120 around the world. Temples, which are special buildings reserved for the highest sacraments of the faith, are significantly different from the thousands of chapels or meetinghouses used for Sunday worship.

President Hinckley personally initiated a smaller, more practical style of building so that temples could be erected more readily in far-flung locations and be more accessible to Church members.

He also oversaw the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, built on the same site and to virtually the same exterior specifications and design as the original Nauvoo Temple, which was dedicated more than 160 years ago. At a news conference prior to the dedication, President Hinckley said: "The past is behind us, and the future ahead never looked better than it does today. ... This is the greatest season in the history of the Church, and it will only get better."

President Hinckley frequently expressed concern for the well-being of all of God's children and was aware of the impoverished circumstances of many members of the Church in underprivileged countries. On 31 March 2001 President Hinckley announced the creation of the worldwide Perpetual Education Fund to assist missionaries from areas of the world such as Asia, Africa, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Philippines, who often return to a life of poverty after Church service, lacking the resources to pay for an education.

President Hinckley made clear this was not a welfare effort, but an educational opportunity. He said, "Where there is widespread poverty among our people, we must do all we can to help them lift themselves, to establish their lives upon a foundation of self-reliance that can come of training."

During the 2002 Winter Olympics, President Hinckley welcomed the world to Salt Lake City. He personally met with political leaders such as President George Bush and participated in 13 interviews with major media from all over the world. Many remember Church leaders on the steps of the Church Administration Building as the torch was passed to President Hinckley and he invited the crowd to salute the Games' athletes and organizers, the state of Utah, the United States and the whole world as they joined in celebrations of excellence.

On June 23, 2004, President Hinckley was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award, by President George Bush. President Hinckley said: "I will be deeply honored to receive this prestigious award from the president of the United States. I am profoundly grateful. In a larger sense, it recognizes and honors the Church which has given me so many opportunities and whose interests I have tried to serve."

And serve he did into his late 90s with the same unselfish vigor he was characteristically known for. In a rare moment of personal introspection, President Hinckley talked about his health during the Church’s general conference in October 2006.

“The President of the Church belongs to the entire Church. His life is not his own. His mission is to serve. … The Lord has permitted me to live; I do not know for how long. But whatever the time, I shall continue to give my best to the task at hand.”

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