“Remembering Father and Mother, President David O. McKay and Sister Emma Ray Riggs McKay,” Ensign, Aug. 1984, 34
Who can forget President David O. McKay and his devoted wife, Emma Ray? There is much to remember, for his service in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve spanned more than sixty-three years—longer than that of any other General Authority of this dispensation. And through all those years she was at his side, a part of everything he accomplished.
To my brothers and sisters, of course, and to me, they were more than just President and Sister McKay; they were Father and Mother. One of father’s most memorable sayings was “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” Both of them made our home a success through love and happiness and gospel living. We couldn’t have been more blessed.
David O. McKay was born in Huntsville, Utah, on 8 September 1873. His desire for learning became apparent early, when he carried the mail on horseback to La Plata, a mining town north of Huntsville. While he rode, he memorized bits of literature—much of which appeared as colorful parts of his sermons in later life.
He especially loved Shakespeare and quoted him frequently in his ordinary speech. I recall an instance in Stockholm when a reporter met him and asked for an interview. He replied with a quotation from Othello: “Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down ought in malice.” (Act 5, scene 2, line 346–47.)
He loved Robert Burns, too. While in Scotland, it was a delight to visit the Burns’ cottage with him and see the enthusiasm of the keeper of the cottage when he heard Father’s quotations of the bard.
Young David O. went to school in Huntsville and then attended Weber Stake Academy in Ogden. After teaching in the Huntsville school, he went to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah. It was in Salt Lake that he met Emma Ray Riggs, the pretty little daughter of his landlady.
Ray, as she was called, was born in Salt Lake City on 23 June 1877. Her father said she was named for a ray of sunshine, a name which turned out to be fitting. She grew up a quiet, pretty girl, determined and resourceful. One of her teachers at the University of Utah told her she was retiring and shy, and would never be a social success. Soon after that they both attended the same evening party. It started out dismally, so Ray went to the piano, improvised some popular songs, and got the young people there to start singing and then to play games. The evening was a great success. The teacher came to her later and apologized for his poor appraisal of her character.
Mrs. Riggs rented out cottages in the rear of her home. One day Ray and her mother looked out the window at some new tenants who had just arrived with their mother. These were two young prospective students at the university, David O. and Thomas E. McKay, his brother. Mrs. Riggs said, “There are two young men who will make some lucky girls good husbands. See how considerate they are of their mother.”
Ray replied, “I like the dark one.” (This was David O.)
Their first date was Father’s missionary farewell dance. His diary says that he invited “Miss Riggs” to Huntsville: “Went to Ogden to meet Mrs. White and Miss Riggs. … At 6:00 o’clock we started for home. … Farewell party at night. Many friends present and had a delightful time.”
Later, he called her “Ray”: “Sunday, August 1st. Attended Sunday School and meeting. In the evening, took a ride over on South Hills. Low purple mountains at sunset very beautiful. Sunday evening went strolling with Ray. Told each other secrets. A memorable night!”
Mother told us later, “We held hands all the way.”
When Ray got word that David O. was returning from his mission to Scotland, she was on Antelope Island out in the Great Salt Lake—a true island in those days—visiting her cousins, the Whites, who had a cattle ranch there. The regular passenger boat would not get her to the mainland in time to meet David O., so she and her cousin Belle rigged up an old rowboat with a sail, and the two of them rowed across the lake in time for her to be in Salt Lake on his arrival.
After his mission, David O. taught at Weber Stake Academy, becoming principal in 1902. Meanwhile, Ray graduated from the University of Utah and was offered two teaching positions, one in Salt Lake City and the other at the Madison School in Ogden, which was on the other side of Lester Park from Weber Academy. Her home, family, and friends were in Salt Lake City, and there was every reason but one to stay there. She chose Ogden.
Ray and David O. met frequently in the park between their schools. It was there he asked her to marry him. She replied, “Are you sure I’m the right one?”
“I’m sure,” he said.
They were married on 2 January 1901, the first couple to be married in this century in the Salt Lake Temple.
They rented a home in Ogden, and it was there that their first baby was born. When the baby was two weeks old and the nurse had been discharged, David O. kissed Ray good-bye and left to go to a Sunday School stake board meeting. Ray couldn’t believe that the man she loved so much would leave her alone with the baby and the dishes! She started to cry. Then she thought of her mother, who used to say, “Don’t cry before you’re hurt,” and “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”
Ray as a little girl would say, “If I can’t cry before I’m hurt and I can’t cry after I’m hurt, when can I cry?”
“Don’t cry at all,” was the answer.
Remembering this, Ray told herself not to be foolish. And she decided then and there that she would never feel bad when David O. left on Church assignments. It was good that she made the decision, because a life of her husband’s Church service was ahead of her.
Father had many responsibilities at the Weber Stake Academy. The Moench Building, the only building at the academy, was crowded. I remember playing in the wastebasket in Father’s office, which was a space between the two front doors of the building. The board of trustees, who had already mortgaged their homes to build the Moench Building, simply could not finance a further extension. So Principal McKay enlisted the help of his faculty, and he himself solicited contributions. I remember how delighted he was, coming home one evening, when he announced that Samuel Newhouse, a non-Mormon, had just given him five thousand dollars. That was a big sum in those days. The addition was built. It provided space for classrooms, as well as for carpentry and chemistry laboratories.
Early in his career Principal McKay decided that the school needed a band, so he organized one and directed it himself. One day Ernest Nichols, a musician, was passing the school while the band was practicing. The discordant sounds coming out of the window were too much for him, so he went inside and told the principal that he needed a band leader. Brother Nichols was hired on the spot. He was my orchestra leader at the academy from 1915 to 1919.
Father was asked to be an assistant to Thomas B. Evans on the Weber Stake Sunday School Board. Placed in charge of teaching, he instituted lesson outlining, preparation meetings, and uniform lessons. By horse and buggy he took Mother, with me in her arms, to visit Sunday Schools as far away as Hooper and Plain City.
On 9 April 1906, we were in Salt Lake City for general conference, and our family was having luncheon at the White’s, next door to Ray’s childhood home. A telephone call came asking David O. to come immediately to the office of the Council of the Twelve. Father left, thinking he was going to be called to the Church Board of Education. He was met on the way by Elder George Albert Smith, who escorted him to the office of the President of the Quorum, President Francis M. Lyman.
“So you’re David O. McKay,” said President Lyman. “Well, David O. McKay, the Lord wants you to be a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.” Father was astounded and remained silent. “Well, haven’t you anything to say?” President Lyman asked.
Father said, “I am neither worthy nor able to receive such a call.”
“Not worthy? Not worthy? What have you been doing?”
Father explained that he had done nothing in the sense that President Lyman had understood.
“Well then, don’t you have faith that the Lord can make you able?”
“Yes sir, I have that faith.”
“Very well, then, don’t say anything about this until your name is presented in conference this afternoon.”
So Father told no one. Mother didn’t hear a word about this call until they were sitting in conference session and the names of the Twelve were presented for sustaining vote. Ray heard,” … George F. Richards, Orson F. Whitney, David O. McKay,” and burst into tears. Father heard someone behind them say, “There’s one of them. See, his wife is crying.”
Father remained principal of Weber Academy until the addition was finished. He led a busy life between his work at school and his meetings in Salt Lake City. He frequently ran down 24th Street to catch the Bamburger train, which ran between Ogden and Salt Lake City. Once an unknown woman in a car came to his rescue. Another time he hailed a boy on horseback and rode the horse to the terminal. A student saw them, and the annual edition of the Acorn sported a cartoon of Principal McKay on the horse with a boy behind him wearing a broad grin on his face.
Even after he gave up his work at school, his quorum work kept him away from home a great part of the time. It took longer then to go to St. George than it does now to go to South Africa. One day after an extended absence, father complimented mother on the evening dinner. She thanked him, and my four-year-old sister, Lou Jean, said, “Come again sometime.”
So it was Mother who had much of the responsibility for rearing the family. Mother was the one who taught us all to pray at our bedsides and to rely on our Father in Heaven. It was Mother who told us we couldn’t play baseball on Sunday. She was a great companion. There was no generation gap. She went to movies with us; she enjoyed John Bunny and Fatty Arbuckle as much as we did, and finally convinced Father that there was humor in a Mack Sennett comedy. She read good literature to us and told us stories and sang to us at night. Songs from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado were some of our lullabies. She loved games, too. Rook, Pit, and backgammon were popular in our home. Father often joined us in evenings of fun.
Mother would never let us quarrel and would never let us raise our voices. She set the example in this, and never yelled or called out to us from the front or back porch.
Mother not only would not let us quarrel, she and Father never had a disagreement in front of any of the children. I noticed what could have been a difference of opinion one time when I saw an advertisement of a bargain joint subscription of the Youth’s Companion and the Literary Digest, both of which I wanted very much. I asked Mother if we could subscribe, and thought she approved, but she said, “Ask your father.” I did, and he said no. Mother looked at me but didn’t say anything. I don’t know what happened between them, but a few days later Father said, “Lawrence, you were asking about subscribing to the Youth’s Companion and Literary Digest. That will be all right.”
Like nearly all mothers, Mother was self-sacrificing. On a trip to Britain in 1952 with Father, my wife Mildred, and me she exhibited this in her first speech in Glasgow. She said, “Mildred here is representing the Primary General Board; Lawrence is representing the Sunday School; but I’m just here to take care of my husband.” She was completely sincere, and the congregation loved it. And take care of him she always did. At home the meals were served at regular hours. Father, commuting from meetings in Salt Lake City, was often late for dinner. Mother would say to us, “You go ahead and eat. I’ll wait for Papa. He doesn’t like to eat alone.”
Another of her sacrifices involved music. Mother was a musician. Her mother, a teacher of piano, had taught her the fundamentals, and she had spent six months at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She could transpose at will and was very good at accompanying others. I played the violin, and Llewelyn, my younger brother, the clarinet. The three of us spent many enjoyable evenings playing our trios together. Then Lou Jean, our younger sister, became adept on the piano, and she replaced mother. None of us thought to ask Mother to play, and none of us ever thought how much personal pleasure she was sacrificing so that Lou Jean would have the experience. She got a mother’s pleasure in seeing her children enjoy themselves and learn.
I remember telling Mother I wished I could speak German. “Let’s start right now,” she said. I sat in the kitchen struggling over a German primer while she helped me with pronunciation and translation all the while she was cooking dinner.
And grammar! Every English sentence we spoke had to be correct. When she was in her eighties I was visiting her and Father one day. Mother was napping in her chair, and I was talking to Father, who was sitting in his armchair nearby. Suddenly Mother straightened up and said, “Lawrence, that was a grammatical error.” Father laughed and said, “There’s nothing like a grammatical error to wake up your mother!”
Mother disciplined us with praise and smiles. She never spanked or scolded, but always saw that when she spoke she was obeyed. She once said: “Of all the ineffective methods of controlling children, threats are the most futile and harmful. … A mother should make promises rarely, but when she does, she should keep them religiously.”
Father had the same feelings that Mother had about discipline. Once when I was trying to train a mare we had just bought, he said, “Never tell an animal or a child to do something that he can’t do, and never tell him to do something that you don’t see that he does.” He never spanked, but he was always obeyed. He never repeated a command or a request. One statement was sufficient.
We were riding to Huntsville one time in the surrey. Llewelyn and I were scuffling in the back seat. This was dangerous because it would have been easy for a youngster to fall out in front of the rear wheel. Father asked us to stop playing. We kept on. The next thing I knew I was walking, watching the surrey getting farther and farther away up the hill as I trudged along behind. I started running for Huntsville. Fortunately, Father and the surrey were waiting for me at the top of the hill. Llewelyn and I were quiet the rest of the way.
When I was eight years old, Father took his family to Ocean Park, California. I was disappointed in my first view of the Pacific Ocean. The tide was out, and it looked like a big lake. We settled down for the night in an apartment house a few blocks from the beach. I arose early and went out for another look at the ocean. Being a parent now, I can imagine Mother waking up and saying, “Dade, Lawrence is gone.” I’m afraid I would scold my son for going away and crossing the highway without telling me where he was going. But as I stood there on the beach watching the big waves coming in with the tide, I was suddenly conscious of my father standing by me. All he said was, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
That was his way, to teach gently and with love. One of the most impressive lessons I learned from Father came when we were once driving through Ogden Canyon. He said to me, “Lawrence, I never make a decision without asking myself, ‘How will I explain this to the Savior when I meet him?’”
Father was very fond and considerate of animals. Llewelyn had rabbits for pets. Once we all started off for Huntsville on the Fourth of July, and a mile or two from home, Father asked Llewelyn if he had fed his rabbits. He said no, he had forgotten. We turned around. The looks Llewelyn got from his brother and sister were all the punishment he needed.
While Father was president of the European Mission, he instituted some innovations that changed the missionary work in that part of the world.
One innovation was the manner in which he met head-on the antagonism that was being created by false tales about the Mormons. Many of the newspapers were publishing the most astounding stories. We had a drawer full of clippings. I remember one—an affidavit made by a man who swore that he had rowed a boat from San Francisco to Salt Lake City but could not get inside the walls of Salt Lake City. Another told about a chopping block behind the Beehive House which Brigham Young used to get rid of his unwanted wives. People actually believed those stories, and the newspapers would not print rebuttals submitted by the elders.
Instead of writing to the editors, Father wrote to the owners and publishers. He appealed to the British sense of justice and fair play. As a result, one of the worst offenders, a newspaper called John Bull, came out with an editorial entitled “A David Come to Judgment” and printed Father’s letter. The false stories stopped, to a great extent.
Another innovation was the motto Every Member a Missionary. He enlisted the work not only of the full-time missionaries, but of the members as well, and a new enthusiasm prevailed in the mission.
A third innovation was the plea to members to stay where they were. Many of them had been counting on emigrating to America. He urged them to remain and strengthen the Church in their own lands. One man who has since become a stake president told me that Father promised him he would be prosperous if he stayed where he was. He has always been grateful that he stayed in England.
The fourth innovation was a new building program. The Church didn’t own a single building in Great Britain when he arrived, but Father instituted a program which made it possible for chapels to be built. Now scores of chapels dot the British Isles and Europe.
Father experienced many important spiritual manifestations in his life. One of them followed an unfortunate accident that took place one foggy spring day in Ogden. The Ogden River was flooding and had undermined the old steel bridge at the mouth of Ogden Canyon. My uncle, Thomas E., had driven down from Huntsville and left his car on the far side of the bridge, then walked across the bridge and into Ogden. He stayed with us that night, and the next morning Father offered to drive him back to the bridge in our Model T Ford.
As they proceeded up the road, Father had a feeling he should stop, but he didn’t. Suddenly, a rope that had been stretched across the road hit the radiator, then snapped back over the windshield and struck Father across the mouth, breaking his jaw and taking out most of his teeth.
Uncle Thomas E. drove him back to the house. I remember the awful sight of Father standing over the basin spitting out teeth, blood, and bone. He finally permitted his brother to drive him to the hospital. There Bishop Edward A. Olson gave him a blessing and promised him that he would not have any pain. President Heber J. Grant came up as soon as he heard about the accident, and in another blessing promised him that he would not be scarred—although when he had first looked at him President Grant had thought, “Well, he can wear a beard.”
Father had no pain while he was recuperating, and, when he was again able to attend a meeting of the Council of the Twelve, President Grant said, “David, from here I don’t see any scar.”
Father said, “Because there is none, President Grant.”
The following are two random excerpts from Father’s diaries:
“Sunday, January 2, 1955: Our Fifty-fourth Wedding Anniversary! 54 years of harmony and happiness!”
“Tuesday, September 2, 1958: Mama Ray thought it best not to attempt going to the airport, so we said ‘Good-bye’ at home. This is the first official trip since April 1951 on which my Sweetheart has failed to accompany me. … Plane took off promptly at 8:40 A.M. Missed my Sweetheart’s pressure on my arm, which indicated the tension that she always experienced when the plane began its flight.”
Mother was his constant companion, and theirs was a mutual love. When Father was chosen as counselor to President Grant in October 1934, we wrote our congratulations to him. He replied that he wanted his family to realize that any honor to him was equally deserved by our mother. Then Father wrote:
“Aptly it has been said that, ‘Often a woman shapes the career of her husband, or brother, or son.’ A man succeeds and reaps the honors of public applause, when in truth a quiet little woman has made it all possible—has by her tact and encouragement held him to his best, has had faith in him when his own faith has languished, has cheered him with the unfailing assurance ‘you can, you must, you will.’
“I need not tell you children how fittingly this tribute applies to your mother. …”
Emma Ray McKay was for her husband and children everything a wife and mother should be. She passed away in November 1970, ten months after Father’s death.
I would like to conclude these reminiscences with an account of a great blessing that came to Father in connection with the dedication of the Oakland Temple in 1964, when he had been President of the Church for some thirteen years and was in very poor health. He had planned for the building and financing of the temple and had named President O. Leslie Stone of the Oakland-Berkeley Stake as chairman of the finance committee. He was there to break ground in 1962. The committee kept in touch with him during the construction. He was looking forward to its completion and dedication.
Then the blow came. Father was hit by a stroke. We got him to the hospital in Salt Lake City, and he was finally released to go to his apartment in the Hotel Utah.
But what a change there was! He was weak and could hardly stand. His fluency of speech was gone. When we had dinner with him and Mother in the apartment, the wit and sparkle of the conversation of the old days were gone. He hated to talk because nearly always we could not understand him the first time and had to ask him to repeat what he had said. This embarrassed him, and his communications to us became a series of terse statements.
Few people outside the family and the General Authorities realized the seriousness and extent of this stroke. His mind was not affected, but his speech was halting. He conducted his First Presidency meetings in his office at the apartment. I read his talk at the priesthood session of general conference, and my brother Robert read his opening and closing addresses. We both began to worry that he might ask one of us to read the dedicatory prayer for the Oakland Temple, because 17 November 1964 had been set for that event. “Has he asked you, Bob?”
“No, has he asked you?”
One day President Hugh B. Brown, Father’s first counselor, asked, “Lawrence, has your father said anything about who is going to dedicate the Oakland Temple?”
“No, he hasn’t, President Brown.”
November approached, and still no one was appointed. It became evident that Father was planning to attend the dedication, and the doctors said he would be able to do so if my brother, Dr. Edward McKay, went along with him. President Stone met us at the Oakland airport and drove us to the motel where Father slept, undisturbed, under the watchful eyes of three of his sons who took turns during the night.
The next morning President Brown came to the door and said, “President McKay, have you any message for me?”
“No, President Brown.”
We drove with President Stone to the temple, where Father was wheeled into the assembly room in a wheelchair. He asked President Stone that morning to conduct the exercises, and we listened with interest as each part of the services progressed.
Then President Stone electrified us all by announcing, “We shall all now have the pleasure of hearing from President McKay.”
My wife, Mildred, looked at me and I at her in disbelief. Father was helped over to the pulpit, which he grasped as he stood. Then he began to talk. His enunciation became as clear as it had been ten years before. Mildred, with tears running down her cheeks, turned to me and whispered, “Lawrence, we’re witnessing a miracle.” I nodded in agreement. Members of the Council of the Twelve were crying. Father finished his talk and, still standing, dedicated the building.
After the services were over, I asked Dr. J. Louis Schricker, “Can he do all this again this afternoon?”
Dr. Schricker answered, “Lawrence, this is out of our hands. If I hadn’t been here to see it I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Father did repeat the dedication that afternoon and the next morning and afternoon. The whole event was a demonstration of what can happen when the Lord answers the plea of a man who feels his duty, proceeds to perform it, and relies on his Savior to see that he does it.
It is my testimony that he was a prophet of the Lord.