“Primary Days,” Ensign, Apr. 1994, 65–68
Children, President Ezra Taft Benson loves you. Every one of us General Authorities knows this. He never permits us to refer to you as kids, not in his presence. I’ve even heard him correct the Argentine ambassador to the United States on that particular subject. And, children, you’ve improved in your singing since my generation, for the boys knew the words and sang with enthusiasm to the same extent as the girls. This is a miracle! Sister Grassli, we’re so proud of you and your counselors. You do a terrific job in leading the Primary Association, and likewise in your great leadership in the Scouting program. We love you and we appreciate you.
Personally, I’m very thankful for the opportunity to stand before you this evening. After a serious bout with a foot infection, I wish to express my appreciation to you for your faith and prayers, for blessings received, and for the skill of faithful doctors and those in the health care professions. But above all, I am particularly grateful for the blessings of our Heavenly Father.
Tonight, inspiration has flowed to all of us from those who have participated in this beautiful meeting, bringing us closer to children, making us more aware of their needs, and filling us with an inspired determination to do our part and more to ensure each child achieves his or her divine potential.
All of us—teachers, parents, and, of course, priesthood leaders—take for our guide the inspiration of the Lord’s statement when He declared: “And now, verily I say unto you, and what I say unto one I say unto all, be of good cheer, little children; for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you.”1
The program this evening has prompted me to reflect on my own Primary days of long ago. The words of the poet have coursed through my mind:
Backward, turn backward, O time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for to-night.2
I was a boy of the Great Depression. I remember children wearing galoshes because they had no shoes and going hungry because they had no food. These were difficult times. My father was a craftsman—a printer—and he always had enough employment, although others were not so fortunate during that period. I remember some boys with whom I went to school who had clothing bought only at rummage sales. In one family the same size jacket was to fit four boys of different ages. Occasionally when I would call upon the boys, that we might walk to school together, I observed that they would be having a breakfast of cornflakes with warm water. There was no milk; there was no cream; there was no sugar—only cornflakes and water. On every hand were empty purses, bare cupboards, shattered dreams, and hopeless hearts.
As a bright light of hope shining amidst the pervading gloom of despair was Primary each Wednesday afternoon. I was ten years old. I had a marvelous Trekker teacher. She was newly married; she was young; she was vivacious. We ten-year-old boys looked upon her as an ideal. She knew how to motivate boys. She talked to us about our bandolos which we wore about our neck, representing our Trail Builder classification and our accomplishments and our objectives. We were dedicated to that teacher. I look back upon that year as my finest in Primary, and I must say it was because of my wonderful teacher. It wasn’t the old chapel; it had inadequate classrooms. I think we met in the kitchen and used a dilapidated chalkboard. It wasn’t necessarily that our teacher was well educated or had a lot of degrees after her name; she had none of those. It wasn’t because the boys in the class were particularly enlightened or unusually well motivated and well behaved; on the contrary. But that which cemented the relationship between the teacher and her boys was the fact that she loved us, and she taught us the gospel.
With youthful gusto, we would sing the Primary Trail Builder song. I still remember the words:
Oh we are the boy trail builders,
Out west where the sunsets glow;
Where the brooks flow down like silver
From the heights of the virgin snow. …
Our light is the light of virtue,
Our strength is the strength of youth;
Our trails are the trails of honor,
For we build with the stones of truth.3
During our Primary years, there were those occasional disappointments which would leave us a little bruised—but never in a state of despair. At that time the Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City was located in a remodeled house on North Temple, but a new hospital was soon to be constructed on the Avenues in Salt Lake City. Each Wednesday afternoon in Primary, we would talk about the future Primary Children’s Hospital, where little children could be cared for and where skilled physicians could mend broken limbs and ease the effects of sickness.
In our ward we had a cardboard replica of the hospital. It formed a bank with a little slot in the top of it. Each Wednesday we would sing and march to the tune, “‘Give,’ said the little stream; ‘Give, oh! give, give, oh! give.’ ‘Give,’ said the little stream, As it hurried down the hill.”4 To its cadence we would walk by the bank and put our pennies in it. I recall sitting next to a dear friend of mine and saying, “Jack, I’ve got a good idea. I’ve got in my pocket a dime and a penny. When we march by and put that penny in the little bank, let’s just march right out the front door. We won’t go to class at all, but I’ll take you over to the Hatch Dairy, and there we’ll buy two of those delicious five-cent fudgesicles.”
Jack snuggled up to me and said, “Let’s see the dime.” He was doubting. Financial depression did that to boys. I reached in my pocket, produced the dime, and then carefully returned it to its safe place. Suddenly we heard the strains of the music and stood and marched by the little bank as we sang “‘Give,’ said the little stream.” I reached in my pocket and dropped my coin in the bank, walked out the front door with Jack, and headed for the Hatch Dairy. Just then he said, “Let’s see the dime again.” I reached into my pocket to show him the dime and produced the penny. The dime had gone to the Primary Children’s Hospital. As a disappointed boy, I walked back and put the penny in the bank also. For a long while I felt that I, perhaps, had the most substantial investment in the Primary Children’s Hospital—more so than any boy in the entire ward.
At home in a hidden-away corner, I have a small black cane with an imitation silver handle. It once belonged to a distant relative. Why do I keep it for a period now spanning sixty years? There’s a special reason. You see, as a Primary boy I participated in a Christmas pageant in our ward. I was privileged to be one of the three wise men. With a bandanna about my head, Mother’s precious Chickering piano bench cover draped over my shoulder, and the black cane in my hand, I spoke my assigned lines: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”5 I don’t recall all of the words in that pageant, but I vividly remember the feelings of my heart as the three of us wise men looked up, saw the star, journeyed across the stage, found Mary with the young child, Jesus, then fell down and worshipped Him and opened our treasures and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I especially liked the fact that we did not return to the evil Herod to betray the baby Jesus, but we obeyed God and departed another way.
The years have flown by. The events of a busy life take their proper places in the hallowed halls of memory, but the Christmas cane continues to occupy its special place in my home—and in my heart is a commitment to Christ.
President David O. McKay counseled: “Three influences in home life awaken reverence in children and contribute to its development in their souls. These are: first, firm but Gentle Guidance; second, Courtesy shown by parents to each other, and to children; and third, Prayer in which children participate.”6
Some years ago, in reporting his visit to a six-stake youth conference in the Montpelier, Idaho, area, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone said, “There was a beautiful spirit in the meetings, and it reached a climax in the afternoon as the meeting was turned over to the youth for testimony bearing.
“One girl about sixteen stood up and said she knew the Church was true, and she could do the greatest missionary work right in her home. She said her father had become very inactive during the past several years, and her mother had compromised into inactivity with him. This girl was working on a way to approach her parents to activate them but hadn’t done anything. One day her eight-year-old brother came home from Primary and declared the family was going to have family prayer. That evening all of the family except the father knelt and had family prayer. She said that finally, after four or five nights of family prayer, the father came and knelt down with the rest of the family and had continued to do so.”
Reading the New Testament, each parent can appreciate the feelings of Jairus as he sought the Lord Jesus Christ and, upon finding Him, fell at His feet and pleaded, “My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed; and she shall live.”7
“While he yet spake, there cometh one from the [ruler’s] house, saying to him, Thy daughter is dead; trouble not the Master.
“But when Jesus heard it, he answered him, saying, Fear not: believe only, and she shall be made whole.” Parents wept. Others mourned. Jesus declared: “Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.” He “took her by the hand, and called, saying, Maid, arise.
“And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway.”8 Once again, the Lord had stretched forth His hand to take the hand of another—even the hand of a child.
Within the past year I received a letter from an old friend, a printer, Sharman Hummell. Some years ago I had worked with him in the printing business in Salt Lake City, and during that long-ago period, I once gave Sharman a ride home from work and asked him how he came to receive his testimony of the gospel. He responded, “It’s interesting, Tom, that you asked me that question, for this very week my wife, my children, and I are going to the Manti Temple, there to be sealed for all eternity.” He continued his account, “We lived in the East. I was journeying by bus to San Francisco to establish myself in a new printing company, and then I was going to send for my wife and children. All the way from New York City to Salt Lake City the bus trip was uneventful. But in Salt Lake City there entered the bus a girl—a Primary girl—who sat next to me. She was going to Reno, Nevada, there to have a visit with her dear aunt. As we journeyed westward, I noticed a road sign which read, ‘Visit the Mormon Sunday School this week.’ I said to the little girl, ‘I guess there are a lot of Mormons in Utah, aren’t there?’ She replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ Then I said to her, ‘Are you a Mormon?’ Again, ‘Yes, sir.’”
He countered: “What do Mormons believe?” And that little girl recited the first article of faith, and then she talked about it. Continuing, she gave him the second article of faith and talked about it. Then she gave him the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth, and all of the Articles of Faith and talked about all of them. She knew them consecutively.
Sharman Hummell said, “When we got to Reno, and we let that little girl off into the arms of her aunt, I was profoundly impressed.” He said, “All the way to San Francisco I thought, ‘What is it that prompts that little girl to know her doctrine so well?’ When I arrived in San Francisco, the very first thing I did was to look through the yellow pages for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; I called the mission president, J. Leonard Love, and he sent two missionaries to where I was staying. I became a member of the Church, my wife became a member, all of our children became members, in part because a Primary girl knew her Articles of Faith.” I think of the words of the Apostle Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation.”9 Sharman said, “I have but one regret. I never asked for her name. I’ve never been able to properly thank her.”
From Alma we learn, “And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned.”10
The love our Savior has for children knows no bounds. When we as parents, as priesthood leaders, as officers and teachers in the Primary follow His example and heed His words, “Feed my lambs,”11 boys and girls blossom before our very eyes and grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”12
President Harold B. Lee was fond of the inspired statement, “When you are on the Lord’s errand, you are entitled to the Lord’s help.” Remember that, parents. Remember it, Primary officers and teachers.
Everything wasn’t bliss in our ward Primary, for boys will be boys. The laughter of the boys and the chatter of the girls at times must have been most disconcerting to our Primary leaders.
One day as we left the chapel for our classrooms, I noted that our Primary president remained behind. I paused and observed her. She sat all alone on the front row of the benches, took out her handkerchief, and began to weep. I walked up to her and said, “Sister Georgell, don’t cry.”
She said, “I’m sad.”
I responded, “What’s the matter?”
She said, “I can’t control the Trail Builders. Will you help me?”
Of course I answered, “Yes.”
She said, “Oh, that would be wonderful, Tommy, if you would.”
What I didn’t know then is that I was the source of her tears. She had effectively enlisted me to aid in achieving reverence in our Primary. And we did.
The years flew by. When Melissa Georgell was in her nineties, she lived in a nursing facility in the northwest part of Salt Lake City. One year just before Christmas, I determined to visit my beloved Primary president. Over the car radio I heard the music of familiar Christmas carols: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and many others. I reflected on the visit made by wise men those long years ago and the visit made by us boys when we portrayed the wise men in the pageant. The wise men brought precious gifts to the Christ child. I brought to Melissa only the gift of love and a desire to say “Thank you.”
I found her in the lunch room. She was staring at her plate of food, teasing it with the fork she held in her aged hand. Not a bite did she eat. As I spoke to her, my words were met by a benign but blank stare. I gently took her fork from her and began to feed her, talking all the time I did so about her service to boys and girls as a Primary worker and the joy which was mine to have later served as her bishop. You know, there wasn’t even a glimmer of recognition, far less a spoken word. Two other residents of the nursing home gazed at me with puzzled expressions. At last they spoke, saying, “She doesn’t know anyone—even her own family. She hasn’t said a word for a long, long time.”
Luncheon ended. My one-sided conversation wound down. I stood to leave. I held her frail hand in mine and gazed into her wrinkled but beautiful countenance and said, “God bless you, Melissa, and merry Christmas.”
Without warning, she spoke the words, “I know you. You’re Tommy Monson, my Primary boy. How I love you.”
She pressed my hand to her lips and bestowed on it the kiss of love. Tears coursed down her cheeks and bathed our clasped hands. Those hands, that day, were hallowed by heaven and graced by God. The herald angels did sing, for I heard them in my heart.
The words of the Master seemed to have a personal meaning never before fully felt: “Woman, behold thy son!” And to his disciple, “Behold thy mother!”13
The words of the poet came to my heart and provided my Christmas gift. James Barrie wrote, “God gave us memories, that we might have June roses in the December of our lives.”14 Memories of Primary days are such beautiful roses. Such a priceless gift will come to each of us as we serve His precious children. May we follow him and do so is my humble prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.