A Day in the Life of President Joseph Fielding Smith
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“A Day in the Life of President Joseph Fielding Smith,” Ensign, July 1972, 2

A Day in the Life of President Joseph Fielding Smith

On July 19, President Joseph Fielding Smith turns ninety-six years of age. If this birthday is observed as have been many others, it will be, first of all, a day of work at the office, followed by a family gathering and enjoyment with loved ones, a day of peace and love.

It will also surely be a day on which members throughout the Church will turn their thoughts and hearts toward the prophet of God on earth. For as he begins his ninety-seventh year, President Joseph Fielding Smith will continue to lead with the same dignity, strength, and inspiration that he has manifested in the councils of the Church for sixty-two years.

At a time when most men his age would have been retired thirty years or more, President Smith is still enthusiastically involved in the labors of his calling.

What is an average day for the President of the Church? There is probably no average day—each day differs from the previous, yet each day finds the President actively engaged in the responsibilities of the office of the President and the First Presidency.

But if an average day did exist, it could well be represented by the following report, gathered, in the interest of variety, over a two-day period.

There are numerous stories about the President’s love for children and youth. Recently as he descended the steps of the Church Office Building, a young boy of apparently eight or nine years, quite emaciated and handicapped, saw him and hobbled over and threw his arms around him and began to sob. The President held the boy close, put his head down, and consoled the boy for some time, completely oblivious to what any passing stranger might have thought. “It was a tremendous lesson in love and compassion,” said a secretary.

His thoroughly genuine kindness and unstinted love have made him a legend, even among his associates the General Authorities. Said one, “If I ever had to be judged, I’d want it to be by Joseph Fielding Smith.” The President’s great sense of fairness and justice tempered with mercy have been a lifelong trademark. Early in life he attempted to pattern his behavior after the Savior’s—to look upon sin without even the least degree of allowance, but to love to the depth of his soul the sinner. His gentleness and concern for people are as much a part of him as is his full head of beautiful white hair.

In this sample day in the life of President Joseph Fielding Smith, as is typical of so many others, the President’s day ended (as also many begin) by turning to the scriptures, drawing from them the strength and inspiration sufficient for the needs of the day.

At ninety-six, President Joseph Fielding Smith’s very lifestyle is the source of numerous lessons for all of us.

1. The day begins early. Throughout his life, President Smith has followed the scriptural counsel: “… retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.” (D&C 88:124.) He is usually up by 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. and retires around 9:30 or 10:00 P.M. He arrives at the Church Office Building between 7:30 and 8:30 A.M. First stop will be in the parking lot, from which it is a short walk to his office. After having spent most of his weekends during the past sixty-two years attending stake conferences somewhere in the Church, President Smith now generally puts in a five-day week, as far as his attendance at the office is concerned, but generally he is doing some kind of “homework” on many Saturdays and attending church on Sunday.

2. Consulting with his counselors. President Smith meets in regularly scheduled meetings several times a week with his counselors, President Harold B. Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner. But, as occasion demands, in any given day he may be in constant contact with them through frequent impromptu meetings and conferences.

3. Meeting visitors. Hardly a day goes by without visits from national and international dignitaries and official visitors who come to pay their respects. President Smith particularly enjoys these visits when they are from the youth of the Church. Pictured here are some students from Brigham Young University who came to make a presentation to the President. Said one prominent American businessman, “This visit is a highlight of my life.” Recently two brethren from Tonga called. As they shook hands with President Smith, one said, “I feel as though I have just shaken hands with the Lord.” President Smith quietly replied, “No, my brother; I am but a servant of the Lord.” “It made a tremendous impression on us all,” said a secretary in the office. “How quiet and modest, even shy, the President really is.”

4. Committee meetings. The President and his counselors meet with the Presiding Bishopric each Friday morning. Committee reports and meetings, whether with the committee on expenditures, the board of education, or an interim committee such as the one on the upcoming Mexico City area conference, are a daily staple of the President’s life. In addition, there are meetings on Thursdays in the temple for the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve and monthly meetings with all other General Authorities. “He enjoys these meetings very much,” says an acquaintance. “You must remember that these are the men—the Brethren—with whom he has spent his life. This is his life! And he loves his associates dearly and loves to clasp their hands warmly and enjoy their fellowship.”

5. Signing letters and giving approvals. Official letters from the President and the First Presidency are personally signed by President Smith. In addition, he signs calls to full-time missionaries, letters approving appropriations for properties and building projects, letters to stake presidents and bishops; answers questions on points of doctrine and policy; signs and directs disposition of letters dealing with sealing cancellations and approvals for the divorced to reenter the temple. To all such matters, as well as many others, the President of the Church gives his personal attention.

6. Sundry duties. Each day brings its own concerns. Here the President’s personal secretary, Elder Arthur Haycock, presents a matter needing his attention. Two additional secretaries assist in the processing of items related to the President. A daily status report by Brother Haycock keeps President Smith up to date on matters needing his attention and direction.

7. Reacquaintance with an old friend. Though he does not now type much, until he became president, President Smith used this typewriter to type conference addresses and some of his books. His own unique typing system—one he developed himself without lessons—is privately called by him the “biblical system”: seek and ye shall find.

8. Research. “Frequently, when there is a lull,” says Elder Haycock, “I’ll walk in and he’ll have the scriptures open or be reading a book. The other day he said, ‘Here’s a good book.’ It was his father’s Gospel Doctrine.” (His father was President Joseph F. Smith, sixth president of the Church.) The President’s own productivity is now up to twenty-four books, nearly all of them involving original and creative research. Some of the titles have long been classics, such as Essentials in Church History and The Way to Perfection. It has been suggested that no other President of the Church except the Prophet Joseph Smith has made such a contribution to Church literature as has Joseph Fielding Smith.

9. Home. By mid- or late afternoon President Smith returns home, where a stroll through the garden is a welcome experience. He loves nature—from flowers to birds to animals of all kinds. In early years he had a cabin in the mountains where he enjoyed writing an occasional poem about the animals and birds that lived nearby.

10. Playing Grampa. The President loves nothing more than being with his great-grandchildren, and his face lights up as he embraces lovingly one of the infants, or when in another moment he gives each child a special hug or tells a story or has his lap full of all who can climb aboard. To see his grandchildren run to him, calling him “Grampa, Grampa!” is a joyful sight. What constant pleasure his children, grandchildren (59 presently), and great-grandchildren (96 presently) are to him!

11. Visiting his children. The President has ten living children. One is in California, one is in Idaho, and the other eight are in and around Salt Lake City. One or more always visit him each evening. This evening it was his son Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. On weekends, the President visits one or another of his children, as well as attends church services in his own ward. In such a personal environment, his children will see frequent display of his ready wit. “He really has a tremendous sense of humor,” said one of his children, “yet he never consciously in a sermon attempts to make people laugh. He believes his purposes deserve all the earnestness he can give.” Not only family members but visitors to his office frequently comment on his quick repartee and the twinkle in his eyes, much-loved traits among fellow associates in the councils of the Church.

12. Personal study. During his lifetime, President Smith has read probably dozens of times the complete set of standard works. Here he sits in his favorite chair, reading an article in the Ensign. Earlier in his life, he might well have spent several hours in study. Recently a young girl in California wrote him asking which was his favorite scripture. “I love them all,” he responded, then suggested that James 1:5, 1 Nephi 3:7 [1 Ne. 3:7], and Alma 41:10 were some of his favorites. His response was somewhat the same when queried similarly by an academician concerning his favorite book in scripture: “I love them all.”

Photographs by Eldon Linschoten