Barely a year after ascending to the helm of the LDS Church, Thomas S. Monson found himself standing on a float boat, having snagged what he believed was the largest rainbow trout he had ever hooked. Maybe 10 pounds.
The whopper fish snapped Monson’s pole in half and nearly dragged the Mormon prophet into the Idaho lake, but the determined — and, some say, supercompetitive Monson — wouldn’t let go.
He took hold of the line and yanked as hard as he could, but he felt himself slipping with each tug.
So his fishing buddy, Jon Huntsman Sr., grabbed Monson’s belt loop in an attempt to steady his pal and retrieve the trout. It worked. The aquatic prize was photographed and later became the centerpiece of a scrumptious meal.
The two may have looked comical to onlookers, Huntsman joked Wednesday night as he remembered that lakeside rescue and his other outings with Monson, who died Tuesday at 90. But the willingness to help each other was no laughing matter.
Every Mormon prophet needs a friend outside the LDS hierarchy to confide in, someone he can trust, and bounce ideas off of, Huntsman said, and he has been honored to provide that service for the past three church presidents.
The Salt Lake City billionaire-philanthropist offered his private jet, for example, to fly LDS leaders around the world and to provide a listening ear as they traveled for hours to dedicate far-flung temples, meet with missionaries, and address the faithful.
But Huntsman did more than circumnavigate the globe with Monson, who became “prophet, seer and revelator” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008.
They were fast friends for nearly four decades, starting with their work on Ronald Reagan’s task force for religious leaders — Monson was an LDS apostle and Huntsman, at the time, was a Mormon mission president in Washington D.C.
The friendship then moved from a political arena to a sports one as the pair spent endless hours watching Utah Jazz games in the Huntsman suite.
The affable Monson typically allowed others to take selfies or chat with him, Huntsman recalled, but there were limits.
“Don’t ever interrupt Tom during a basketball game,” his friend said. “He was so focused on the game, he hated to be distracted.”
Most of the time, though, Monson’s focus was on people — whether rich or poor, hurting or healthy, lonely or jubilant.
Mark, the youngest child in the Huntsman clan and who suffered brain damage at birth, is a favorite of Monson, who never missed one of the young man’s birthday parties — even when the LDS leader’s wife, Frances, was dying.
“When you’re a friend of Markie’s,” Monson explained, “you’re a friend of the savior.”
During their excursions, Huntsman and Monson often found themselves discussing religion.
On one such occasion, the wealthy industrialist asked the faith leader at what point Jesus fully realized his role in what Christians call the “atonement”?
When Christ said, “Not my will, but thine, be done,” was the LDS president’s reply, Huntsman recounts. “That’s when he turned himself over to the Father.”
To the businessman, Monson seemed most at home in his fishing duds, with tattered jeans, a plaid shirt, 35-year-old boots that went out of style around World War II — and no church security or phones in sight.
Still in that attire, the longtime LDS leader often would drop by small-town Idaho hospitals and give healing blessings to patients, Huntsman said. “And it didn’t matter whether they were Latter-day Saints or not.”
Indeed, that combination of his beloved outdoor sport and his religious calling was how the Mormon prophet pictured heaven, Huntsman said. “Scriptures in one hand and a fishing pole in the other.”
Now, he may have a chance to find out.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, is a son of Jon Huntsman Sr.