At a time in the 1960s, when Democrats ruled the now reliably red Beehive State — Lyndon Johnson was president, Calvin Rampton was governor, and Dems held the majority in the Utah Senate — Democrat Oscar W. McConkie Jr. enjoyed a key role bridging the party and his church.
McConkie was a titan in the community from a prominent family. His older brother, Bruce R. McConkie, was an influential Latter-day Saint apostle and author of “Mormon Doctrine,” and his father, Oscar Sr., was a state district court judge and Democratic candidate for governor in 1960.
McConkie Jr., who died Monday at 94 of COVID-19 complications, wielded his connections to lift and benefit others. With an affable personality and a hearty laugh, he built friendships across the state, country and party lines, and co-founded a law firm, Kirton McConkie, that would become the legal counsel for Utah’s most powerful institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He belonged to “a breed of tireless men and women who would be of service to their church, country and family, without question,” said his nephew Jim McConkie Jr. “He was a defender of the faith. He was a lawyer who advocated for the ‘Kingdom of God’ in Utah and throughout the world. He believed in programs and policies that were inclusive and designed to help the less fortunate. He was a veteran of World War II.”
His uncle was a “great storyteller, who could hold an audience spellbound,” Jim McConkie said. “When he spoke, people listened.”
In 1960, McConkie was Utah’s point man for John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign. And when Kennedy returned to Utah as president in September 1963, the Latter-day Saint Democrat helped him craft words that would connect with Mormons, Jim McConkie said.
In his conclusion, the Roman Catholic commander in chief paraphrased Section 136 of the church’s Doctrine and Covenants, saying, "I think this country will continue its commitment to support the world of freedom. For as we discharge that commitment, we are heeding the command which Brigham Young heard from the Lord more than a century ago — the command he conveyed to his followers: “Go as pioneers ... to a land of peace.'”
Jim McConkie’s dad died when the boy was 7, and his uncle stepped in “as a second father” — despite having eight children of his own.
Jim’s wife met the surrogate dad as he “juggled a toddler, commented to a teenager running through the house, and asked his wife to come to meet me,” Judy McConkie said. “He laughed, embraced me, and that was that. I was part of the family — always have been after more than a half-century.”
Oscar McConkie “was adored by his daughters,” she said, “who chided him [for some of his views] and brought him into the modern world.”
McConkie “was my hero,” said Utah developer and philanthropist Kem Gardner.
“When I reached the University of Utah, Oscar was my [Latter-day Saint] stake [regional] president and president of the Senate as a Democrat,” Gardner said. “He called Steve Smoot, chairman of the Democratic Party, to be my bishop, who called me into the bishopric. Of course, I was going to be a Democrat.”
But McConkie was more than a partisan, Gardner said. He was a pragmatist.
When Gardner was the chairman of the Utah Board of Regents, which oversaw the state’s colleges, McConkie was chairman of the state Board of Education.
The two formed a “liaison committee” for the two boards, he said, “and were able to solve all the big issues. Oscar had a good vision for the things that needed to be done.”
McConkie also was a spiritual mentor, Gardner said. “He was such a strength for me, particularly in the difficult years of the 1970s. He changed my life.”
As an attorney who grew one of the state’s largest law firms, recalled friend and neighbor George Durham, McConkie “was always on the stand at [Latter-day Saint] General Conference — in case something legal came up.”
He did a lot of international work to help the Utah-based faith be recognized in many nations, including Zaire, Durham said.
As McConkie described his work in Africa or Asia, he talked about “the fulfillment of prophecies” to church founder Joseph Smith, who envisioned his little faith someday filling the globe.
Throughout his life, McConkie served in various church positions, including bishop, stake president, mission president in Arizona and, in his later years, stake patriarch.
The lifelong Democrat always kept a glimmer of individuality in his approach to his religion.
“He drove a red convertible and wore a camel’s hair coat,” Durham recalled. “He didn’t wear the church uniform [dark suit and white shirt] at all.”
But he always, Jim McConkie said, “championed the causes of his faith.”