- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

Burke Olsen wasn’t sure anyone would be up at 11 p.m. when he drove up to Southern Virginia University campus in the small Shenandoah Valley town of Buena Vista.

His job was to post the news of the passing of Gordon B. Hinckley, 97, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had died two hours earlier. The changing of the guard is a rare event in the LDS church; the last time its leader had died was in March 1995.

To his surprise, Mr. Burke found students at the overwhelmingly Mormon campus clustered in the main hall of the huge, ornate Victorian house that serves as the administration building. They were reading Scripture, singing hymns and quietly conversing about Mr. Hinckley’s death.

“People started text-messaging each other, and the news spread quickly,” he said.

Marianne Viray, an Alexandria resident, heard about it on the radio the next morning. She had met Mr. Hinckley back in 1991, when she was a 16-year-old living in Portugal. Her father, a supervisor for Mormon missionaries working out of Lisbon, hosted Mr. Hinckley for dinner at the family’s home.

“He gave my mother a blessing [prayer] of health as she was not feeling well at the time,” Mrs. Viray remembered. “Her neck didn’t heal, but we got to have him in our home and hear his good-humored nature and wit. He was extremely spry and had more energy than most people do.

“At the time he was suffering from gout. It was a condition he had had for some time, so he found the largest chair in our home and sat in it. He asked me and my sister about school and friends and the new country we were in. He was good natured.”

Flags are flying at half-staff in Salt Lake City where thousands of mourners are expected to jam the church’s convention center for tomorrow’s funeral. Ceremonies will be broadcast via satellite to more than 6,000 LDS locations around the world, including Southern Virginia University, where students have been instructed to attend wearing their “Sunday best.”

Although there will be no local ceremonies to mourn the president’s death, those wishing to express condolences to the Hinckley family can sign books of condolences at two locations in the local area:

• The Mormon Temple Visitors’ Center, 9900 Stoneybrook Drive, in Kensington. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Monday.

• The Milton A. Barlow Center at 2520 L St. NW in the District. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Monday.

The late president was eulogized this week on the floor of the Senate by Utah Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett, both Republicans.

Erik Rasmussen, chief of staff to Rep. Kenny Hulshof, Missouri Republican, found out about Mr. Hinckley’s death when he arrived on Capitol Hill Monday morning.

“My parents told me I shook his hand when I was 10, but I don’t remember that,” he said of Mr. Hinckley. “Our church is very structured, and we believe God has a prophet on the earth and Mr. Hinckley was it. He was God’s mouthpiece.

“We sustain the president of the church as a prophet and a seer. I remember where I was when every prophet of the church passed away.”

When Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th LDS president, died in 1994, Mr. Rasmussen added, he was a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. When Howard W. Hunter, the 14th president, died in 1995, he was a missionary in Ecuador.

He added, “President Hinckley gave his life to serve his church. He probably passed up some great jobs to help this church to work well.”

Travis Seegmiller, a local lawyer and an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, said the late president inspired him to become a missionary to Australia while a freshman at Yale University.

“He had a recurring mantra of always making the world a little better than when you found it,” he said. “That was enough to make me pack up and leave Yale for two years.”

Mr. Hinckley’s successor, chosen from among the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, its governing entity, could be announced next week. The 14 men who make up this leadership council traditionally select as president the man with the most seniority on the Quorum.

In this case, that would be Thomas Monson, 80, currently first counselor to the president and a former advertising manager for the church-owned Deseret Morning News. He has been on the Quorum since 1963 when he was selected at age 36. Like Mr. Hinckley, he will serve for life.

He will oversee a growing constituency. At April’s annual general LDS conference, church leaders will announce that membership has surged past 13 million worldwide. Some 5.7 million Mormons live in the United States; 1.8 million of them in Utah alone. There are 53,834 in the Baltimore-Washington area.

The LDS church is the third-fastest-growing religious group (1.63 percent annually) in the United States after the Roman Catholic Church (1.94 percent) and the Assemblies of God (1.86 percent), according to the 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

Mrs. Viray plans to attend a broadcast of the funeral tomorrow at the Mount Vernon Stake Center, 6219 Villa St., just off South Van Dorn Street in Alexandria. She said her father e-mailed her and her sister about Mr. Hinckley soon after he died.

“He suggested we focus on our remembrances of him and what we learned of him,” she said, “and what a great spirit he had.”

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