With the passing of President Thomas S. Monson, we talked with Heidi S. Swinton, who wrote To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson. She said she once asked President Boyd K. Packer, how he would describe President Monson. He leaned back in his chair, smiled at her, and almost chuckled when he answered, “Oh, he’s not like the rest of us. He is more Christ-like than the rest of us, more Christ-like than any one I know.”
In this Q and A, we go behind the scenes with Heidi to see how President Monson became “not like the rest of us.”
Meridian: What surprised you doing this book on President Monson?
Heidi: It surprised me how engaging he was one on one. I was used to hearing him at the pulpit where he would tell us accounts from his life and he would talk with such sincerity about the Savior, Jesus Christ. But then when I got into a situation where it was one on one, it was the same. He doesn’t have a public and private persona. He is this man of such integrity that no matter where he is, he is the same engaging, inspiring individual, and I was surprised by that.
I immediately felt that he had taken the chair at the kitchen table, scooted it up, sat down with me and looked at me like we’d been old friends and we were talking over breakfast.
Yet, you feel that way when you are at conference. For instance, because he had been so sick, Elder Hales has been gone for a couple of conferences. President Monson looked over at him, “We’re so glad to have Elder Hales with us.” And then he paused and he said, “We love you Bob.”
I love that he took everybody into his inner circle and it didn’t matter if you were watching him on TV or sitting in his office, you felt that way. I think members of the Church feel that way about him. They feel like he’s one with them, that he’s not removed, an “I’m telling you how to do this, now you go out and do it” person. He is “We can all do this. We can work together. We can be part of the whole and Jesus Christ will lead us.” There is a tone in the way he does things, no matter where he is that is so engaging. I didn’t expect that. I expected some formality and it wasn’t there at all.
Meridian: Any other ah-ha’s in working with him?
Heidi: The other thing that I didn’t expect was the extent to which he relies upon the Lord Jesus Christ. (I should expect this; he’s a prophet.) He’d sit at his desk and look over at the wall to a picture he’s had in his office since he was a young, 22-year-old bishop. He’s taken it with him everywhere, and he said, “Whenever there is a question that comes up that I don’t quite know what to do or how to answer, I just look over at that picture and I say to myself , ‘What would the Savior do?’ And it comes to me and that’s what I do.”
I think that reliance, that humility, that recognition that service is in the service of God is never far from his approach to leadership. He is always drawing upon the Lord, Jesus Christ and teaching us about Him by the way he tells personal examples, which are parables of sorts, very much like the Savior taught with.
His stories are always about individuals who have struggled or had a problem just like the woman with an issue of blood or Lazarus who is dying. He has the same kinds of accounts. I think it is because he has so totally turned himself over to the Lord, that he thinks like Him. He feels like Him. He has become one with the Lord which is what we all want to do.
I was so impressed that, no matter the setting, he could be funny, but he could still have that reverence for the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of everything he was doing. I just can see the prophetic mantle always on his shoulders and he never took it for granted.
Meridian: What did it mean to him to have this tremendous responsibility on his shoulders as President of the Church?
Heidi: One time I asked him, “President, what was hard about coming into this responsibility as President of the Church? You’ve been in the First Presidency for twenty years. You’ve done all the things that the First Presidency does. You’ve dedicated buildings. You’ve conducted meetings. You’ve called General Authorities. You’ve called temple presidents and general auxiliary officers. You’ve called mission presidents. You’ve dealt with issues on an international scale. But now you’re the President of the Church. How is it different?
He paused and he looked at me for a second and he said, “It’s very different. It’s very lonely.” My heart just stopped. But then immediately he said, “But I am never alone. The Lord is always on my right hand and on my left,” quoting that scripture from D&C 84:88. That’s one of his favorite scriptures, but it was meaningful to put it in that context. This is it. Gordon’s not here. President Hunter and President Benson aren’t here. It’s Tommy Monson now.” He understood the weight of his responsibility.
Meridian: What did you learn about his relationships and how he worked?
Heidi: I asked him one day, “What should I call you?” Should I call you President? Should I call you President Monson? He said, “Most people call me Tom.” I said, “I can’t call you Tom.”
He finally said, “What are you comfortable with?” I said, “President Monson.” He said, “Well, I’m comfortable with that too.” That’s how natural he is about who he is.” He doesn’t put on any airs. There’s none of that with him. There’s no pretense. There’s just this warm, engaging, honest man who has, for his entire life, tried to do the right thing.
For the most part, it’s the right thing in working with other people. He has no hesitation as an administrator. He’s firm. He surveys all the options. He’s not quick to judge. He’s not quick out of the gate. He measures things. I remember Elder Hales saying to me, “He measures more than once and he long thinks about it and takes a lot of counsel, before he ever cuts. “ I think that’s a measurement of his humility and his respect that everybody brings something that he needs to hear.
He would go around the room and would ask everyone’s opinion, because that is the way he listened and he processed. Then he would make a decision. Yet, he was interested in every person in the room and what they had to say. That sense of respect and honoring what they had experienced and brought to the table was engaging and enlivening to everyone. It sent a message that we all have work to do and the Lord is relying on us individually, as well as collectively.
All of those things didn’t surprise me, but they were ah-ha moments that gave me further understanding of him.
Meridian: How did President Monson become so full of charity and love?
Heidi: Another thing that was an ah-ha moment for me was to connect his early years of life, his home life and family, his growing up on the west side of town, his growing up during the Depression, his growing up in an environment where people had so little and connecting that with the way he has chosen to live his life.
He was always sharing what he has with others, and that wasn’t so much goods as time, and interest, and the quality of life. He wanted to embrace people in the lives that they lived and recognize that they needed to find joy in that journey.
He saw that in the people that he lived with. They had nothing. He went to school with kids who wore a coat because they didn’t have a shirt, who wore rubber galoshes because they didn’t have shoes. He came to
appreciate them for them, not for any trappings, not for where they came from or who their family was—but for them.
You see that develop in his ministry where he had such profound interest and respect for every individual that he met because he knew that each was a blessed and precious child of God. That was enough. They didn’t need to be any more than that. They were of great value. You saw him acting on that, reaching out to people and encouraging us to reach out.
You see President Monson talking repeatedly about reaching out to people, bringing them back, giving them encouragement, helping someone when they are having a bad day. The concept of rescue became so complete in my mind as I came to see him because he was all about rescuing. Rescuing people on a bad day or in bad circumstance or a difficult life, especially those who had lost sight of how much the Lord loves them.
He would share that with them, and I just marveled at that. It was in everything he did.
Meridian: How did you prepare to write his biography?
Heidi: I read his journals. We were on a mission in England when I was asked to write his biography and I tried to figure out how I was going to do it. I determined to begin by reading every talk that he had ever given that I could get my hands on. His office sent me a copy of every written talk. That’s not just conference talks but addresses to the Rotary, to universities, to international groups, to the Boy Scouts. I read all of them and the stack was a couple of feet tall.
What I found as I read was I heard the Lord speaking through a prophet and it helped me to focus my attention on the prophetic mantle. A lot of people expected a cultural biography—one that told the story of where he went and what he did. But I never saw this book as that, because I saw him as a prophet of God, recognizing that his life wasn’t a bit linear, that it was all about the heavens opening and revelation and inspiration pouring down to him, not just for his own life, but for the lives of all the members of the Church for which he was responsible and for his family
and his associates and friends, and those whom he was engaged with in the community who weren’t members.
He spoke at so many funerals of people he was close to who weren’t members of the Church. What I got from all of that was this was a man who recognized his roots and he never left his moorings. He came from a very charitable, kind and generous family.—not particularly engaged or involved in the Church—yet as a young age he was encouraged to go to church.
He became riveted to his primary teachers and his Sunday School teachers. These were the women who became his widows when he was a bishop. They taught him the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that he was able to spread that love and that gospel to all kinds of people. I think that’s part of the real rescuing that goes on in his life and it’s part of his desire to see the best in everyone. I just don’t think he sees anything else. He’s grown so close to the Lord that he’s got that filter on.
He sees the best in people. I came to appreciate that and wanted to tell that story—not the story that he went here and there. He became what the Lord had in mind for him with the idea that we could do the same. We could become what the Lord has in store for us, no matter where we came from, what hoops we had to jump, what challenges we had to face, what difficulties we had to encounter in life. He’s had a lot of them. I wanted to tell that his story is like the story of each one of us. The Lord has prepared us to do things. He is hoping that we will turn to him for guidance and counsel and that we will be obedient. In the process of that, the Spirit will pour down into our hearts. Like President Benson said, “The Lord can make more of our lives than we can.” President Monson caught on to that very fast, so at 36 he became an apostle.
How do you not tell that story without a reverence for the Lord Jesus Christ in his life and hence in the lives of all of us?
Meridian: What would he say were some of the most pivotal moments in his life?
Heidi: I asked him that once and he was quick to respond. He told the story of him as a young bishop being called by a boy who lived in his ward who was staying with his uncle. The uncle had been taken to the hospital and he wanted to see the bishop and could he come right now? President Monson said, yes I can come. He had to go to a stake meeting that night and then he would go to the hospital. He went to the stake meeting and he is sitting on the stand in the choir seats and the Spirit prompts him to get up right now and go to the hospital.
He looks around at everybody sitting there in that meeting and looks at the stake president speaking there and wondered if he could get up and walk out. He determined, no, I’d better stay here. This would be so rude. So he stayed in his seat and the meeting continued. Then the next person was speaking and the prompting came again, “Get up right now and go to the hospital.” He sat there and looked around and said, “I’ll go as soon as the meeting is over.”
The meeting ended and he bolted down the hall and out the door, got in his car and raced up the hill to the old Veterans’ hospital. He ran in, ran up three flights of stairs, not even waiting for the elevator. He raced down the hall. He’s 22-years old—a young bishop. There was a little cluster of people at the door of the room. He stopped at that door and a couple of others were standing there. One said to him, “You must be Bishop Monson.”
He smiled and says, “I am.” She continued, pointing to the man in the room, “He was calling for you as he died.”
When I asked President Monson, what was that pivotal moment, that was the story he told me. He said, “The Spirit prompted me to get up and I waited. That man needed to talk to me.” Then he always says this great line. “That lesson was not lost on me.” He said, “Never again would I dismiss or postpone a prompting. I have heard promptings and calls from the Lord when I’ve been in meetings and had to get up and excuse myself. I picked up the phone and made a call at just the right moment when someone needed me.
“I have learned when the Lord has an errand to run, He can call on Tommy Monson and I will go.”
That’s indicative of his whole ministry. He learned a hard lesson there. He tells that story with such soberness that you know it went down to the very core of who he was and he would never let that happen again.
Meridian: What did you learn about him as you read his journals?
Heidi: When I was reading all of his journals, you don’t see a listing of all the meetings he went to and all the decisions they made and all the important things he was working on. You’ll see time and again the focus is on someone whom he went to see or someone he called or something he learned from them. It isn’t all about his pouring out to them. He also takes in from them.
I love his concept of talking to an elderly man who was in his ward growing up that he told, “Everywhere I go, I take you with me. Everywhere I speak in the world, I take you with me. “
He had a recognition of the influence others have on us if we take advantage of the goodness that they are pouring into our hearts and our souls. He really means that. He doesn’t have this life that is just date, time and place. He has a life that reaches out to every place that he’s been, and every place that he’s learned something,, and the people who have touched him. He remembers their names and he remembers their experiences together and he takes that with him. It’s in him.
I learned very quickly that when I asked him a question about when this happened or what did you think about that, he just looked at me for a second and then he would say, “Let me tell you a story.” I realized that he was not a cause and effect person. Instead, he was driven by the power of the Spirit to do whatever he was prompted to do, sometimes never seeing the effect of it, but always responding to the power of the Spirit, knowing that is what the Lord would have him do.
That prompting was what it was all about. He’s prayerful. He’s considerate. He’s patient. He’s all of those things. I tried to communicate that in such a way that people could grasp that his life is not unusual because he’s a prophet, but unusual in how he has chosen to live his life so that the Lord could use him.
Meridian: It always seemed in his interactions with people like he had unlimited time. I don’t know how he did that with the weight of responsibilities he carried, but when he was talking with someone, he seemed to have all the time in the world. He has these priorities that were so clear in terms of serving people that other anxieties or worries did not get in the way. He seems like a walking miracle. I can’t comprehend how he could be so entirely other-centered. I am sure he must have been at thousands of sickbeds and funerals.
Heidi: Oh, thousands. It gives us a glimpse of eternity. We see time as all of the things, and he saw time as the people. He could just shut off everything on the calendar and all of the pressures and turn to you and with full purpose of heart say, “How are you doing today?” I heard him say that over and over again, not because it was an opener to a conversation, but because he really wanted to know.
As you talked, the feeling would just come into his heart as to what to say next and he would just open up the conversation so that everyone who left, having been with him, felt like they had been in the presence of greatness. The greatness was that he was so focused on them, and so focused on telling them a story, relating this experience, sharing with them things that had happened to him as if you had been his best friend all of your life. In his mind, you have. I think he is an absolute miracle. You’re right. It is a marvel to me.
I think when we get outside of this framework of how many hours in the day and how many minutes in an hour, which I think he was able to do, we can focus on the things that really matter. He had a simple approach to life.
He also doesn’t carry around any baggage. He doesn’t have a bag of rocks on his back that he carries around because he can’t get rid of the pain and anguish. He has a joyful countenance and such a pleasing manner that comes from recognizing the power of the atonement in his life. He just has total confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ and the faith that the Lord is there and that the Lord will work with us.
Meridian: Any personal stories that stand out to you?
Heidi: I remember him asking me when I was just sitting in his office so discouraged that the book was so terrifying to me and it wasn’t working. He had seen it in my face. I hadn’t said a word. As we got talking, he said to me, “Every morning when I get up, I’m going to pray for you by name.” Imagine a prophet of God giving you that promise.
I just looked at him and he said, “Now, do you have the faith that the Lord will help you?” That was the bottom line. It was one thing that he had the faith to pray for me, but I had to have the faith that the Lord would be there. I said, “I do.” He answered, “Then we’ll get this done!” Then he moved right on and asked, “What should we talk about next?” It was like, ‘we’ve dealt with that. Let’s get on.’
That sensitivity to individuals and to their time with him, he just never cut it off. When I first called his secretary to set up video conferencing with him from England, she said, “How much time do you think you’ll need?” I thought, I’d love to have all the time in the world, but I knew this was the busiest man on the face of the earth, carrying the weight of all of God’s children. I can’t even imagine what that feels like.
I said, “How about 45 minutes.” Then there was this long pause and I thought, I’ve asked for too much and that’s not good. She said, “Oh, you’ll need more than that. I’ll put you down for two hours but plan on three. That’s exactly what it would turn out to be, which was about once a month on a Wednesday night. I learned that he just pulled that chair up to the table and sat down and started to talk.
Everything was put aside. There was no pretense; there was no lecturing. There was just this warmth and this engaging personality that was so interested in sharing this and sharing that. It wasn’t calculated at all. It’s just the way he is. Everybody who went into his office would tell you the same thing.
I remember talking to one of the mission presidents who was called by him and he said, “You won’t believe what happened to us. We went in and were
different things like we had always been friends. I said, “There you go. That’s how he feels about you. That’s how he feels about all of us. We’ve always been friends.”
Meridian: I love that because there’s no calculation, no pretense, no ‘what do you think of me?’ There are none of those false things that get in people’s way. He seemed to surmount that and surmount it at the youngest age.
Heidi: I was telling him one time that our son couldn’t have children. He said, “Bring him in. I need to talk to him.” They were in there for two hours. He gave them a blessing and he told them, “You’re going to have to look near and far for a child, but the Lord has a family for you.” They ended up adopting a boy from Taiwan and they named him Spencer after President Monson because he had given them the hope and the confidence that it could happen.
Later, after Spencer was in our family, “President Monson said to me, ‘I need you to bring Spencer in here. I need to meet him.’ So our son and his wife brought Spencer, who was now 18 months old. President Monson, picked him up, put him on his lap, opened his drawer and started to taking things out and handing them to him for the baby to play with as if he had nothing else to do on the face of the earth besides entertain and talk to this 18 month old boy who had just come from Taiwan.
Meridian: What was the hardest thing that you had to deal with writing the biography?
Heidi: The hardest thing I had to deal with was the pressure that I imposed on myself to get it right. I would read the scriptures and imagine I was writing about Nephi and King Benjamin and Abinadi and Alma, all of these great prophets that we revere because we’ve studied their lives. This would be an opportunity for people to get to know President Monson’s life. I felt such a responsibility to get it right. I was just driven. I was up every morning at 4:00 and worked until 11:00 p.m. I didn’t allow distractions. I just focused. In the process of that the words didn’t ever just appear on the screen. I had to work for it.
Meridian: What would he say was the most difficult thing in his life?
Heidi: I don’t think President Monson would gauge things by difficulty. I think President Monson sees hope and faith in everything that he did. The most difficult thing was having Frances die. She had an accident in the 90’s and she was in a coma in the hospital for 17 days. He sat by her bedside for 17 days and prayed that the Lord would restore her to health. There would be people who would say to him, “She may not wake up.”
He would just look at them and say, “She will.”
I think we can’t shortchange how important she was to the work he was doing and how connected he felt to her. She was a support and a strong woman—not loud and out there in front, but right next to him, doing the things that he needed. When she was gone, that was so very difficult for him. If there was a difficulty for him, that was it.
For the most part, he found a reason to celebrate the joy of the atonement and the power of Jesus Christ in everything that he did and looked at and dealt with.
Meridian: Any last thing you want to say?
Heidi: I once asked Elder Richard G. Scott, “If you had to introduce President Monson to a group who didn’t know him, what would you say about him?” He answered, “I would tell them that the Lord made President Monson big because of the size of his heart.”
We can never set aside how close the Savior is to what we do and where we are and what we need. I think President Monson exemplified that willingness to go about doing good, for God was with him. He knew that. The strength and the foresight and the impressions and all the things we attribute to him came from his reliance upon the Lord, Jesus Christ, and his desire to do what his Father in Heaven had in mind. I so respect him for that. I learned so much from him watching that. I have tried to incorporate that. Everywhere I go I take a piece of President Monson with me.