Who is Frances Monson? You may not have heard of the wife of the LDS Church's new president

Published February 8, 2008 9:27 am
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Posted: 9:28 AM- Frances Johnson was just 16 when she met a tall, gregarious, 17-year-old looker named Tom Monson during their first week in college.

Frances, the daughter of Swedish converts to the LDS Church, took math and science classes at Salt Lake City's East High School hoping to meet a cute guy. Tom, son of hard-working Mormon parents, took shorthand and typing across town at West High hoping to meet a cute girl.

Neither found what they were looking for until they arrived at the University of Utah in 1944, according to daughter Ann Dibb. It seemed like destiny.

Frances and Tom were married a mere four years later; within a year, Tom was asked to serve as an LDS bishop. Soon he was a mission president for the church in Toronto, and by 36, he was named an apostle.

This week, Thomas Spencer Monson became the 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Frances the first lady of Mormonism.

Like Emma Ray Riggs McKay, Camilla Eyring Kimball and Marjorie Pay Hinckley, Frances will be seen by many as an exemplar of Mormon virtues. Younger women in the church will look to her relationship with Tom for clues on being a good wife and mother.

Unlike those earlier presidential wives, Frances is reserved and quiet. Uncomfortable in the spotlight, she is less likely to take the podium along with her husband than to take a chrysanthemum to a longtime friend in need of cheering. Her outreach is expected to be more personal and private.

Frances was pregnant with their third child when Tom was called to preside over the Toronto mission. She had only three weeks to pack up and plan for the move. When they arrived, the mission home needed serious renovations, yet was the center of activity for the Mormons in the area. Overnight she became the "mission mom" to more than 100 19-year-old boys far from their home. New ones arrived every week and she would cook meals for them.

Yet Frances loved it, Dibb says.

Last year for their 80th birthdays, Frances and Tom met with eastern Canadians gathered in Salt Lake City.

"My mother told them how grateful she was to be part of something important," Dibb says. "She enjoyed serving them all."

Back in Utah, Tom's extensive church involvement often took him away from home for hours, if not weeks at a time. Frances shouldered the burdens of child care, music lessons and housework. At church, she wrestled with the children in the pews while Tom conducted meetings or visited other LDS wards. Though Tom passed his love for animals on to the children, it was Frances who sometimes found herself caring for the menagerie of springer spaniels, chickens, rabbits, pigeons and the occasional snake or hawk.

"Where's Herman?" young Clark, their youngest, would ask about the snake.

"I saw him in the utensil drawer," Frances would calmly answer.

When Frances accompanied Tom on church trips abroad, she had to arrange for her mother to stay with the children. On one occasion, they were gone for five weeks - four on business and one for Frances to recuperate from salmonella poisoning.

Through it all, Tom never stopped talking. He was the last one out at church every week, had to shake every hand and greet every missionary. Once he went to Primary Children's Medical Center to give a healing blessing to one child and ended up visiting nearly every sickbed on the floor, while Frances waited patiently in the lobby.

She never complained, Dibb says.

"My father was bigger than life and she appreciated him," Dibb says. "She was all right with waiting. She has done so with grace and dignity all her life."

Frances was the youngest child and only daughter of Franz and Hildur Johnson. She was a devoted child who, after her father died, stopped in to see her mother every single day for the rest of Hildur's life.

When the Monsons built their home in Holladay, they made sure to find a lot near a bus route since Frances' mother didn't drive and they only had one car.

Frances loved to accompany Tom on long drives up to Brighton ski resort or down to Utah's redrock country. While Tom was in meetings in southern Utah, Frances took Clark, along to explore ghost towns with her.

A child of the Depression, she developed a habit of frugality. Even today, she reads both The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News, looking for coupons.

As they have aged, Frances and Tom have become even more solicitous of each other's health. It was Frances who insisted Tom see a doctor before going on a trip to Arizona; he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

A few years ago, Frances fell and hit her head. She was in a coma for three weeks. Tom moved his office to the hospital so he could do his work without leaving her for a moment. Eventually, she came out of it and was able to resume her normal life.

"They are very sweet friends," Dibb says. "[Her recovery] was a miracle."

-- PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at pstack@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">pstack@sltrib.com or 801-257-8725. Send comments about this story to religioneditor@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">religioneditor@sltrib.com.



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