The week before every General Conference, the Herald publishes an "LDS Week" section, with news articles and other features having to do with conference and the church.
I helped on four different articles, but one of them will end up in the paper later this week and isn't part of the LDS Week section.
What is your favorite part of conference weekend?
For this one, I went with Karen Hoag to find people on the street to stop and ask about conference. We went to the corner in Orem where there's a Distribution Center and a Deseret Book, where there would likely be a lot of members of the church. It's been a while since I got to talk to people out and about, which is something I've always loved with the news reporting business. (I took photos of each person we talked to, but those aren't online I guess.)
Time, talents and tech are focus of Riverton conference
This is just a brief about the annual LDSTech Conference, where tech experts in the church talk about new technology and how it can be applied in the work of the church.
|Photo by Spenser Heaps of The Daily Herald|
105 and counting: Emeritus general authority 'still breathing'
This one was my favorite. One of my assignments was to interview Eldred G. Smith, who is 1) the oldest living man in Utah, 2) the oldest living general authority, and 3) the last man to hold the general patriarch calling in the church. I visited him and his son Gary at his home in Salt Lake City.
For those of you who don't know, there used to be a general authority position for a presiding patriarch or general patriarch of the church. The first patriarch in modern times was Joseph Smith, Sr., and then Hyrum Smith. At Hyrum's time, the patriarch was considered second to only the prophet. But in 1979, Eldred Smith was released from his calling and no one else was called to take his place.
My original story was super long, like 70 inches. I included all these stories he told, and I also gave more details as to why the calling was done away with. Part of the reason was, with the expansion of the church, stakes had their own patriarchs and a general one wasn't as necessary. But also, it turns out there was some disagreement among church leaders. Even though there was scriptural precedence for a general patriarch, some prophets weren't comfortable with an authoritative position being hereditary. Very interesting.
Here is the "director's cut" version of my story. The parts that weren't published are italicized.
Eldred Smith, 105 years old and considered the oldest living man in Utah, has some handy advice for anyone who wants to achieve similar longevity.
“Just keep breathing,” Smith said with a laugh. “Nothing special I know.”
He moves and talks slower than he used to, and has become hard of hearing. But Smith can make you chuckle just as well as he ever could.
When asked about his status as Utah’s oldest man, Smith shrugs it off.
“Well, the governor says so,” Smith said.
Besides living to 105 with his sense of humor intact, Smith also has the record for oldest general authority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he was the church’s eighth and final presiding patriarch. He actively served 32 years as patriarch for the church, until the office was done away with in 1979 and Smith was granted “emeritus” status.
Smith was born in Lehi in 1907, though he has lived in Salt Lake City since becoming a patriarch in 1947. And he has lived long enough to watch five children, 24 grandchildren, 45 great-grandchildren and 19 great-great-grandchildren grow up.
The former presiding patriarch was recently interviewed by the Daily Herald, dressed in a gray suit and sitting in his one-story but spacious 1970s-era home, part of an old neighborhood on the mountainside overlooking Salt Lake City. His home is filled with figures of Joseph Smith and Church pioneers, and he prominently displays a painted of portrait of himself above the fireplace.
Buddy Youngreen, a friend and drama teacher from Orem, said even at his age Smith and his 92-year-old wife Hortense drive to Utah Valley (yes, he still has his driver’s license) to go out to dinner with him and see his plays, as well as take in a BYU football game once in a while.
“They’ve become second parents to me,” Youngreen said. “They’re still my most avid fans and give me support whenever I need it. ...I’ve loved them dearly. There’s not two better people on the earth.”
Youngreen said the best way to recognize Smith’s warmth and kindness is through the eyes of a child.
“The way to judge his character is when he goes into a room full of people, and children gravitate to him,” Youngreen said. “They’re just drawn to him, it’s magic.”
In his elder years and with a hearing aid, Smith still finds ways to have fun with his grandchildren.
A few years ago, during a visit from his triplet grandsons, Smith heard a racket coming from the den where his grandsons were playing.
“The patriarch walked in there and said, ‘What’s going on in here?’ And the boys said, ‘Nothing, Grandpa. Nothing,’ ” Youngreen said. “And Eldred said, ‘Well, how do you know when you’re done?’ They looked puzzled and walked out.”
Blessings around the world
In the church, a patriarch is tasked with giving patriarchal blessings, which are personal and sacred words of comfort and counsel for worthy church members. As presiding patriarch, Smith’s assignment was to give blessings in areas where there were no organized stakes and therefore no local patriarchs.
Smith checked off a list of the parts of the world he visited to give patriarchal blessings, often accompanied by his first wife Jeanne until she died in 1977.
“I traveled in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Alaska, Canada, Puerto Rico, England, France, Belgium, all the Scandinavian countries, all four of them, and Italy,” Smith said. “I got to know Italy about as well as I knew the state of Utah. I’d go to Italy every other year.”
According to Smith’s estimation, he gave over 18,000 blessings.
Of course, with so many encounters with church members, Smith could not know every recipient well enough to provide individualized blessings completely on his own.
“I didn’t know them at all,” Smith said. “Total strangers.”
He needed some divine assistance. And so, his method for preparing to give a blessing was as simple as his method for living to 105.
“Just get on your knees,” Smith said.
When asked if he did receive the inspiration he prayed for, Smith answered, “I hope so.”
“A lot of them tell me so,” Smith said, of the people who still thank him for his wise words.
At general conferences, he was sustained as a “prophet, seer and revelator” just like the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, and he spoke in every conference until he was granted emeritus status.
“One time, when President [David O.] McKay was the president, in a meeting before conference he read off a list of those who would be called on to speak and then a list of those who would not be called on. My name wasn’t on either list,” Smith said.
Smith asked N. Eldon Tanner, then the second counselor in the First Presidency, if that meant he wasn’t expected to speak. President Tanner checked with President McKay and returned.
“He motioned me over and said, ‘President says he’ll give you notice enough,’ ” Smith said.
No word came, but Smith prepared some notes just in case, and brought them to conference in his pocket.
“First thing I heard was my name announced over the pulpit,” Smith said. “That was the notice that I got.”
While other general authorities were chosen based on rank in the priesthood, experience serving in the church and inspiration, choosing a presiding patriarch was unique in that it also included a hereditary factor.
The church’s first patriarch was Joseph Smith, Sr., the father of the church’s first prophet, in 1833. Before his death, Joseph Sr. ordained his son Hyrum to take his place. Since Hyrum was martyred in 1842, successive patriarchs have been as close as possible to direct descendants of Joseph, Sr. and Hyrum. Eldred Smith is Hyrum’s great-great grandson.
Smith said even generations later, he still felt the influence of the prophet Joseph in his family and tried to follow his example.
“I didn’t do much good. He did it all,” Smith humbly said of his famous ancestor.
Youngreen first met Smith in the 1960s, through his interest in church history and the Smith family. He later had a desire to reunite as many living descendants of Joseph Smith, Sr., as he could, and Youngreen received the First Presidency’s blessing and hoped to receive the patriarch’s support as well.
But Smith was skeptical that Youngreen could pull off such a feat.
“I decided to requote President [David O.] McKay’s statement to him,” Youngreen said. “I said, ... ‘I can’t imagine any success in life compensating for failure with this family reunion.’ And he laughed, and gave me his support.”
Smith and his wife joined Youngreen in traveling around the country visiting Smith descendants.
Smith was close to who he called “uncle George” Albert Smith and “cousin Joseph” Fielding Smith, who both served as prophets for the Church.
But not all members of the Smith family were as exemplary as George Albert and Joseph Fielding. William Smith, the church’s third patriarch, attempted to take over the Church in 1845 in the wake of Joseph’s and Hyrum’s martyrdom. And the fifth patriarch, John Smith, was publicly reprimanded by President Wilford Woodruff for not obeying the Church’s Word of Wisdom.
Such problems caused many church prophets and leaders to be uncomfortable with a general authority position being passed from father to son, and they deliberated and disagreed for years on the patriarch’s role in church government. Though Eldred’s father Hyrum G. Smith died in 1932, the church waited 15 years before naming Eldred to take his place.
Eldred’s son, E. Gary Smith, has done research on the history of the patriarchal office, and has written articles and a co-wrote a book with Irene Bates, “Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch.”
“It is not surprising that the office of Church Patriarch was retired,” Bates and Smith wrote in their book. “In fact, its elimination was probably inevitable.”
Bates and Smith said the Weberian theory, that “familial charisma” and “office charisma” cannot coexist in any institution for long, applied to the church’s organization as well.
In any case, in 1979 the role of a presiding patriarch was determined by President Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors to be outdated, because the church was quickly establishing more and more stakes — and more and more stake patriarchs. Smith was officially relieved of his duties that year.
“Because of the large increase in the number of stake patriarchs and the availability of patriarchal service throughout the world, we now designate Elder Eldred G. Smith as a patriarch emeritus, which means that he is honorably relieved of all duties and responsibilities pertaining to the office of Patriarch to the Church,” President Tanner announced over the pulpit in the October 1979 general conference.
The church did not respond to requests by the Daily Herald to comment for this article.
Youngreen said Smith described to him good-naturedly what the emeritus designation meant.
“He told me he’s obtained the terminal disease of general authorities,” Youngreen said. “He said it’s pronounced ‘em-er-I-tus,’ and there’s no known cause and there’s no known cure.”
Though he was stunned, Smith said he was grateful to have a break from his global excursions.
“Traveling a month, two months at a time was hard work,” Smith said. “It takes something out of you.”
He may have been relieved of duties, but that didn’t mean Smith got a vacation.
“Patriarch Smith’s emeritus status is totally different from any other emeriti,” Smith’s son Gary wrote in a 2006 article. “He was being ‘relieved,’ not ‘released.’ ... Thus, the office was being emeritized, but the holder of the office was not.”
Smith continued to occupy an office at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, and to renew his temple recommend directly from the prophet like other active general authorities do. And, since he still held the rank of patriarch in the Melchizedek Priesthood, he also gave a few hundred more patriarchal blessings at his downtown office.
“Before they built all these temples, out-of-town people would come to Salt Lake for the temple,” Smith said, and their trip would include coming to Smith for a patriarchal blessing. “So that would keep me busy.”
One of the main roles that developed for Smith was to share his collection of Smith family artifacts. Eldred and Hortense gave firesides and displayed items like a trunk Hyrum Smith loaned to his brother Joseph to hide the golden plates that were translated into the Book of Mormon, the watch Hyrum was wearing when he was killed (mashed and dented from a bullet that struck him) and the clothes Hyrum wore when he died.
“We made a full lecture out of them,” Smith said. “We put them all together and made a full-time talk out of them.”
The talks became so popular, the Smiths were making two stops a week on their circuit. Youngreen, as a friend and a fellow Smith family history enthusiast, often joined them.
“We went from Massachusetts to California,” Youngreen said.
Now as a centenarian, Smith no longer gives patriarchal blessings or firesides. But, in another distinction among emeriti, he still comes to a monthly meeting at the Salt Lake City Temple with President Thomas S. Monson and the rest of the current general authorities.
“They’re gone on Sundays all the time, so they never get the sacrament,” Smith said. “So this is their fast and testimony meeting, where they bear testimonies and serve the sacrament, same as they would in a ward. The general authorities become deacons, teachers and priests.”
With more than a century in the church, Smith has seen plenty of changes.
“The biggest change was to start building temples,” Smith said. Membership in the church has “just ballooned. Just exploded.”
In 1907, when Smith was born, there were almost 358,000 members of the Church. When he became the patriarch in 1947, the church finally hit the million-member mark. Now, the church is rapidly approaching 15 million.
Smith’s son Gary points out the expansion was predicted by his father decades ago.
“In the 1972 general conference talk that he gave, he predicted that the time will come when temples will be found all over the earth and many nations,” Smith said.
At the time of that talk, there were only 15 temples, and 11 of them were in the United States. Now, there are 136 temples and counting, less than half in the U.S.
“Patriarch Smith is indeed a prophet, seer and revelator,” Youngreen said.
Smith was born in Lehi on January 9, 1907. Soon after, his father Hyrum G. Smith took his family to the University of Southern California where he studied dentistry.
But two months after his 1911 graduation, church headquarters came calling. The office of presiding patriarch became vacant when Hyrum G.’s grandfather had died, and Hyrum G.’s father was not worthy to take his place. So the mantle fell on him, and he and his family were summoned to Salt Lake City.
“Of course we had no place to go in Salt Lake,” Eldred Smith said. “So we moved into [then Apostle] George Albert Smith’s home on West Temple, across the street from the Tabernacle. George Albert Smith was in England at that time.”
They later bought a home east of the state capitol, on Ninth Avenue. Hyrum G. brought in his dental equipment from California, borrowed electricity from the LDS Hospital across the street, and opened up a practice and laboratory.
Eldred was a typical, active boy around the neighborhood.
“I grew up on a bicycle,” Smith said.
Smith had a great curiosity when it came to the laboratory, but the actual dentistry not so much. His father asked him one day if he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“And I said, ‘Well, I don’t mind dentistry, but I don’t like prying into somebody else’s dirty mouth,’ ” Smith said. “But I like the laboratory work, I like the mechanics.”
That love of mechanics and engineering motivated Smith to a career in drafting and engineering.
At age 19 he spent 33 months as a missionary in the Swiss-German Mission (two of those months were spent traveling across North America and the Atlantic Ocean) and at age 25 he married Jeanne and the two eventually had five children.
He worked at a service station, but then put his skills to good use in helping to paint the ceiling of the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1935. He was helping the main painter, Mack, on the scaffold one day when the paint spray gun jammed.
“I was not an official painter, I never used a spray gun to paint with,” Smith said. “And it kept sticking on him. So I said, ‘Let me try.’ So I picked up the gun, took it apart, I had cleaning fluid right on the scaffold, so I cleaned the gun, put it back together and said, ‘Now, try it out.’ ”
The boss saw what Smith had done and called him over. Smith said he thought he was in trouble.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Do you see what I see?’ I said, ‘Well, I think so,’ ” Smith said. “He said, ‘From now on you take the gun.’ Mack didn’t want to be my helper, so he quit on the job. And I manned the scaffold alone. ... I painted the entire ceiling of the Salt Lake Tabernacle.”
When World War II broke, Smith got a job with an arms company which eventually led him to Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Manhattan Project. In the research and experiments with uranium and the atom bomb, Smith contributed a few inventions.
“I got my name in the patent office, designing special valves,” Smith said.
When Smith was called to be the patriarch, he gave up his job but continued his life as an engineer by building his family’s first home in Salt Lake City.
Youngreen said he also tinkered around Church Headquarters.
“He has incredible hands,” Youngreen said. “He can fix a small watch or a giant clock ... I’ve seen him many times in his coveralls in the lobby of the high-rise church office building, fixing their clocks. And people walk by and have no idea that that’s a general authority.”
Smith’s fascination with engineering also gives him a perspective on how the world has changed in his 105 years. He described with a hint of sarcasm the modern conveniences he didn’t have when he was younger.
“We have such a hard time today. We live in an automatically heated home, we don’t have to shovel the coal and tend to the furnace anymore,” Smith said. “It’s all automatic. You just set a gauge with your fingers, and push a button to open the garage door. ... It’s a tough life to have to push a button to open the door and push a button to close the door.”
Even with all the good and bad that comes with the progress of history, Smith said he wouldn’t trade it for anything.“It’s a wonderful world to live in,” Smith said.
And at age 105, he should know.