My first bout of graduate school was at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City (the U!). We quickly realized that our little family wouldn’t make the rent on my stipend, so like many job-free Mormons without marketable skills, I went down to the local Church welfare office and found me a job. A week later I found myself in a bow tie and a polyester cummerbund (what is the etymology of that word, anyway?) serving badly cooked chicken to LDS bigwigs in the former Hotel Utah and newly rechristened Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Many great Remy tales come from this period, including the time I ripped about 18 inches of seam in the seat of my trousers and managed to cross a crowded lobby and ride an elevator to the catering office, where I repaired my pants in a cubicle with a box of safety pins. Maybe I’ll share a few other stories with you some time.
Besides being mostly white, the demographics of the catering crew differed from many of the other SLC hotel waitstaff in one major way: perhaps half were children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces of Church leaders and were also students at the U. (In retrospect, this may just be indicative of the population of Salt Lake City.) I also got to meet every Apostle and most of the Seventies at the time.
My affection for the late James E. Faust dates from this time. In spite of my once accidentally calling him Dr. Faustus (I was reading Goethe at the time), whenever I captained one of his banquets or ran into him in an elevator, he would put a grandfatherly hand on my shoulder and take a few minutes to ask about my studies and my family. It wasn’t until after he died that I learned he was one of the couple of open Democrats in the Church hierarchy.
While serving the current #2 guy, Henry B. Eyring, at a wedding reception on the top floor one evening, by way of small talk I mentioned something about his legendary father who taught chemistry at the U. for many years. Eyring looked out towards the mountains, seemed to forget about me for a second, and said, “Dad was a hard man.” (Talk about awkward!) Feeling like I had intruded on a private moment, I retreated.
The most surprising things I learned were about Thomas Monson. My perception of him was founded mostly on his General Conference talks, in which he regularly followed the Holy Spirit and single-handedly served the Church’s elderly widows. If you’re a Mo and your mom or granny lost her husband, President Monson is probably sitting in her front parlor drinking (herbal) tea right this moment. But at the Smith Building and the Church offices, Monson had a different reputation.
They say that you can tell a lot about the character of a person by how they treat those who serve them. Monson was nitpicky and critical. His skim milk had to be cold enough that ice crystals just formed on the surface. He was the only church leader who came into the service kitchens and berated the caterers. He railed on a custodian who didn’t adequately polish the baseboards in his office. There were many such tales.
So with this background, I was not at all surprised to learn that of all the fights that his new administration could throw its mighty political weight behind–reducing domestic violence (considered by some a threat to the traditional family), signing on to the National Religious Campaign to Abolish Torture, joining evangelical churches on recent initiatives to reduce global poverty and to fight the AIDS epidemic–he instead chose to exacerbate division in America at a moment of historical crisis. This was a risky move from a political, historical and even a missionary/PR perspective. It tells us a lot about the character of the Mormon prophet that he decided that one of his historical legacies would be to bully a minority group out of their rights.