Looking Back: A Fond Friendship with Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley
Contributed By Gerry Avant, Church News senior contributing editor
In the mid-1970s I wrote a series of articles about the wives of members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I learned a lot from those women of great faith. There are some stories that I remember vividly and have woven into lessons and talks I’ve given in various Church settings.
I’d met Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley on several occasions, but the first time I had a long conversation with her was during an interview for an article in the February 8, 1975, issue of the Church News.
Wife of then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who later became the 15th President of the Church, Sister Hinckley told me she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t have a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
During the interview, I learned that her family history contained many examples of dedication to the principles of the gospel, which helped shape her own testimony. I felt as though I was touching history as I listened to her relate some family stories, some of which I had read about years earlier.
“I grew up on pioneer stories,” she said as she told me of her paternal grandmother, Mary Goble Pay, who figures greatly in the stories of the handcart pioneers. “I was 10 months old when my grandmother died, but my father often told me stories about her,” Sister Hinckley said.
Mary Goble was 11 years old when her family undertook the long trek to Utah from Iowa in September of 1856, her father driving one of the escort wagons for a handcart company. During one part of the trek, Mary’s feet were frozen, and her toes had to be amputated. She suffered the heartbreak of seeing her mother, sister, and brother die on the journey. Mary rode in a wagon with her mother’s body as they entered the Salt Lake Valley shortly before midnight on December 11, 1856.
Mary grew up to become a woman of strength who knew the meaning of sacrifice for the gospel. Sister Hinckley’s parents, Leroy and Georgetta Paxman Pay, not only told their son and five daughters stories about the pioneers but they also made portions of Church history a part of their lives.
“On the 24th of July [the anniversary of the day the first pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley], our father would take us up on the mountain where our grandmother’s handcart company entered the valley,” Sister Hinckley told me. “He’d have us sit down, and then he would tell us the story of those pioneers. It gave us a feeling of reality, and it was something for us to live up to.”
Over the years, I became better acquainted with Sister Hinckley. I associated with her and President Hinckley on numerous assignments in the United States, Europe, Asia (including a brief visit to mainland China), the Philippines and other Pacific islands, Africa, and Mexico. President and Sister Hinckley always treated me with kindness. I felt a special bond with Sister Hinckley and always felt I was with a friend when we were together. The last time I saw her was on January 12, 2004, the day after President Hinckley dedicated the Accra Ghana Temple in West Africa.
During the closing moments of the 174th Annual General Conference of the Church on April 4, 2004, President Hinckley told the worldwide Church of how Sister Hinckley had collapsed from weariness while returning from the dedication of the temple in Ghana and visits with members on the barren island of Sal in the Atlantic and on St. Thomas in the Caribbean. She died two days later, on April 6, at the age of 92.
I stood in a long line of mourners at her viewing in the Relief Society Building. As I approached her casket, President Hinckley rose from the stool where he was seated and took my hand in a tender grasp. As we stood holding hands, he told me that Sister Hinckley loved me. My heart was filled with gratitude for such a wonderful friendship and pierced with sorrow for having lost that great association in this life.
Sister Marjorie P. Hinckley, center, with a daughter, Kathleen H. Barnes (now Walker), at the dedication of the Accra Ghana Temple on January 11, 2004, followed by President Gordon B. Hinckley and then-Elder Russell M. Nelson. Sister Hinckley missed April 2004 general conference due to illness and passed away two days later. Photo by Gerry Avant.