In Memoriam: Elder Marion Duff Hanks

Last Sunday, I woke my son with the words, “Elder Hanks has died.”
He responded, “Duffy? He died?”

I always called him Elder Hanks, and got upset when some of the aides in the center where he spent his last years called him Duff and handled him like a child. I wanted to yell, “Do you have any idea who this man is?”

I had loved him from my youth. I was still in high school when he spoke about faith and happiness in General Conference. He quoted Yeats. “In a poem of pessimism which he wrote soon after World War I,” Elder Hanks said, “Yeats described the widening circle—the gyre—in which the falcon flew away from the falconer.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

He went on to talk of various reasons people lose faith and joy. “There are those who have lost faith because of personal tragedies or troubles,” he said. “Faced with problems akin to Job’s, they have in effect accepted the invitation to curse God and die rather than to love God and gain the strength to endure their trials. There is, of course, in the promises of God no warrant that we will avoid the very experiences which we came here to undergo and through which we can learn reliance on the Lord. Jesus said, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33.) He had tribulation, and he overcame. And so may we, with his help.”

In the year he gave that talk, 1972, he was young and healthy–younger than I am now. Surely he did not imagine what tribulations lay ahead of him, or envision the only image my son has of him: an old man in bed, straining to move his mind beyond a haze.

He didn’t become my friend until Darius Gray and I were working on our trilogy about black Latter-day Saints. As we began writing about events in the 20th Century, we relied on Elder Hanks’s unparalleled understanding and experience, and were touched by his love for the characters we were writing about. We spent many hours with him before the clouds descended.

Even when he couldn’t remember names or faces, he remembered hymns, poems, and Christ. He never forgot his testimony. Once, in a completely clear moment, he testified to Darius and me that he knew he would be greeted lovingly by Jesus in the next life, because they were friends. He gestured to the various pictures of his family or of himself speaking at Conference; of awards given to him by humanitarian groups; of missionaries (some now General Authorities) who he had loved as their mission president in England; of the picture Darius and I had provided of Len and Mary Hope, black converts he had met during his mission and had served until their deaths. (He had sensed the exact moment when Len died, and had left a meeting to call the Hope family. It was no surprise when the oldest daughter, Rose, told him, “Daddy just died. Just now.”) He gestured to the pictures and certificates and said, “That’s my evidence.”

Sometimes, my husband and I read him poetry. Bruce once began reciting Blake’s “Jerusalem,” but couldn’t remember all of the words. Elder Hanks prompted him. (“And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?”) And we sang hymns as he requested them. We sang “The Spirit of God” vigorously. From his bed, Elder Hanks was conducting it like an energetic angel preparing for a most royal performance.

One of the sweetest moments in my history with Elder Hanks came about six months ago, when Bruce and I visited. I gazed into those old eyes I knew so well and loved so much. I had the thought, “I wish you could bless me,” and even as I thought it, Elder Hanks moved his hand to my head, cupping part of my cheek. He kept it in that position. We looked at each other and I was filled with love. It felt like a blessing to me.

As we prepared to leave, I said, “I love you, Elder Hanks.” He said he loved me too, and then looked at Bruce. “And what about you?” he asked. Bruce answered,“My wife speaks for both of us. I love you too, Elder Hanks.”

Darius Gray and I visited him two months ago. I don’t know what life felt like to him then–if it was like a gyre, turning and turning, with things falling apart. But I know the heart–the center–of him remained faithful.

I sang him the song he himself had penned, and which will extend his testimony through time as others sing it. He knew his Savior. They were friends. And he knew the truth which inspired these words:

That Easter morn, a grave that burst
Proclaimed to man that “Last and First”
Had ris’n again
And conquered pain.

This morn renews for us that day
When Jesus cast the bonds away,
Took living breath
And conquered death.

Thus we in gratitude recall
And give our love and pledge our all,
Shed grateful tear
And conquer fear.

Comments

  1. Beautiful.

  2. He married us in 1995, and gave such eloquent thoughts (which I wish I could remember better). What a wonderful man, thanks for this tribute.

  3. I still remember his voice from the Tabernacle pulpit. He was a mighty man of the Lord.

  4. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute.

  5. As a British member President Hanks looms large and benevolent over our history. I was surprised to learn he was only mission president here for two years. His influence was immense, far beyond 24 months. My parents joined the church in 1955 and were local leaders when president Hanks presided. I have in my posession letters he wrote to my parents expressing appreciation for their service and concern for their troubles. I know men who wore long rain coats with the collar up because they wanted to copy president Hanks. Of course they also wanted to copy his dedication,patience and Christian love. Of all the British mission presidents we knew president Hanks left the longest lasting impression.

  6. Beautiful, Margaret, as always. Thank you for sharing this slice of memory.

    Marion D. Hanks looms as a benevolent (though uncompromising) ghost through my memories of life in the church. He was my father’s mission president. He spoke at my BYU graduation. As I grew older, and learned from others more about the business, the organization, and the tensions and rewards of being a servant of the church, again and again Elder Hanks’s name came up: he’d been there, he’d done that, he’d been everywhere and done everything. No specialist he, but rather one who truly spoke with general authority. He will be missed.

  7. Karen Maxwell says:

    Thank you, Maggie–what an amazing,Christlike relationship to have had with this man of God. I was first introduced to him by my father, and then loved every talk I heard from him, so full of transcendent ideas and of quotable gems, and of a perspective that must be termed an eternal vision. The summer of ’73, those of us who worked at Aspen Grove got to know and love him on a much more personal level as he and his wife and son and other family spent time at their cabin close by, from time to time mingling with the guests and eating with us and talking to us. They invited the staff to a special evening in their mountain home. I will never forget the lessons learned at his knee there–insights into the human character that are timeless. He cared enough to instruct us and to spend his time with us–a man of such a stature and commanding voice and conviction; a man of deep and nurturing love. We truly mourn for the loss of them that die, but are comforted that he will be clasped in the arms of Jesus, whom he followed and testified of.

  8. Thank you, Margaret. You tribute is deeply moving. I, too, remember him from my late teens and college years, the time when I was growing into my own testimony, the one of my choosing. There was no doubting his testimony and he shared that freely. Yes, he is missed.

  9. This is terribly moving, Margaret. I’m the bettter for reading it.

  10. Thank you, Margaret. Nicely done.

    I was in London at the beginning of a three-month European tour when I was 23. On the first Sunday after I arrived, I was invited to the BYU house to hear Elder Hanks speak. Even though unshaven and not especially presentable, I spoke to him briefly after the meeting. He asked me what I was doing. After telling him, he looked deeply into my eyes and said: “Take care of yourself while you are here, Grant. We need you.” It was simple, but the memory of it still touches me more than 30 years later. I’d like to be the kind of influence for comfort and faith Elder Hanks was.

  11. “That Easter Morn” is my favorite hymn of all time. It induces such awe in me. Elder Hanks definitely knew and knows the Savior in such a sublime way that I can only hope someday to experience. Margaret, I envy you and those who had the blessing of being in the presence of such a spiritual giant. Thank you for this post.

    Gerald Smith

  12. Many thanks for this lovely, insightful tribute. A man for all ages and for all good people.

  13. Jim Donaldson says:

    Thanks for this. He was my hero too.

  14. Margaret, your words seem ever more the Balm of Gilead to me. I woke this morning hearing complaints from joints I didn’t know I had, but your shining tribute to Elder Hanks brought warmth and comfort in abundance. Elder Hanks was the “rock star” of the youth of the Church when I joined at 20: everything he said in his talks was fresh, friendly, and full of faith. He walked the talk
    before that glib phrase was current. He encountered thorns along his path, and bore them nobly. Thank you once again, Margaret. p encountered th

  15. As a young child, I had a personal interaction with Elder Hanks when he visited our stake conference, that has stuck with me through the rest of my life. I have always thought of him as a favorite general authority, and loved to hear him speak. Your thoughts and remembrances, beautifully expressed, are much appreciated.

  16. Elder Hanks is probably one of the most under-appreciated men in our history when it comes to the general membership who have no personal memory of his amazing spirit. Thanks for this beautiful tribute.

  17. The thing I really liked about him was the way he led and taught through example.

    Thank you Margaret.

  18. This eloquent and heartfelt tribute is worthy of Elder Hanks.

    Larry

  19. Very touching. I’m a bit better for having read it. Never knew that there was a thread connecting Yeats, Chinua Achebe, Marion D. Hanks, and David Byrne…

  20. Prometheus says:

    What a beautiful tribute. Thank you.

  21. “Duff” was a friend of my mother’s family. In a way, it sometimes seems like those we are close to will go on forever. I wish I had taken the chance to get to know him better. This is a beautiful tribute.

  22. S.P. Bailey says:

    Thanks for this inspiring post.

  23. Gladys C. Farmer says:

    Eloquently expressed. He was a beacon for me. also, during my formative, teenager years. You are fortunate to have had more recent contact with him.

  24. Margaret,

    You need to start giving tissue warnings with these posts, as my mom would say, “this was a real tear jerker.” Thank you soo much for this very personal and touching post.

    I never met Elder Hanks, but he has had a great impact on my life. The first General Conference of my mission (Oct 1992) was his last. His talk at that conference, “A Loving, Communicating God,” (http://lds.org/ensign/1992/11/a-loving-communicating-god?lang=eng) has been a real touchstone in my life. It was so powerful to me that quotes from it are burned in my memory and it is still the talk by which I judge all other conference talks.

    Elder Hanks talks and writings and his ideas on people, agency, and service are/were some of the major influences on my choice of career, my feelings on the Church, politics, and topics like immigration.

    He will be missed,

    Thank you Margaret.

  25. Whizzbang from Winnipeg says:

    Lovely tribute! I too have never had the pleasure of meeting Elder Hanks but his talk, “He Means Me” really touched me as has his talks about the Temple. I can feel his spirit coming through the printed page or hearing his voice. I think Elder Hanks is one of those rare men among the brethren that are almost mystical in their closeness to Heavenly Father, Pres. Howard W. Hunter and Elder F. Enzio Busche also come to mind.

  26. Antonio Parr says:

    Thank you for this post.

    I always viewed Elder Hanks as a kindred spirit of Lowell Bennion, and look to such people as models of what it means to be a Christian in these latter days.

  27. What a lovely tribute. Well written and heartfelt.

  28. Leone K. A. Hatch says:

    Leone K. Atterberry Hatch
    I am so grateful for the year I spent in Duff”s, (that’s what he told us to call him), early morning Book of Mormon Seminary Class. I learned how to mark important passages, write cross refereces, and most importantly, to love the Book of Mormon and the special prophets that wrote it for us to learn by. He will always have a very special place in my heart because of his righteous spirit and the things he taught. He is an important element in my gaining a stronger testimony of The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    He helped me to graduate from seminary even though I only had 7 months of New Testiment in Logan, Utah seminary. We then moved to Colorado where there was no seminary. We moved back to Salt Lake my senior year where I attended school at West High. When I asked Duff how or if I could graduate He said if I took his early morning Book of Mormon class and Brother Wooton’s Church History class during the day that I would be able to graduate with the rest of the seniors. I happily complied and graduated. I will be indebted to Elder Marion Duff Hanks for his caring and in helping me to grow in The Gospel. God bless him and his special family, with my love.

  29. Elder Tim Harris says:

    I was stunned when I heard of his death. He was my mission President for 22 months of my mission. I am heart sick at his passing. Such a loving, caring man to me and to so many others. When I pass through the veil I will be searching for him to once again feel his spirit and love.

    Margaret Blair Young, you have done such a great service to us by writing such a loving heart felt tribute to President Hanks. Thank you.

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