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Soft-spoken vet likely next Mormon chief

/ Source: The Associated Press

If leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold with tradition, the next president of the church will be a soft-spoken World War II veteran with a love for telling stories.

Succession to the presidency is historically based on seniority, and Thomas S. Monson, 80, is in line to succeed Gordon B. Hinckley. Hinckley, 97, died Sunday. Monson was one of Hinckley's closest advisers.

Officially, the next leader of the 13 million-member church won't be elevated until after Hinckley is laid to rest at 11 a.m. Saturday at the church conference center in Salt Lake City.

Church presidents serve for life. The title usually passes to the senior-most member of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles when a president dies.

Blue collar background

Like Hinckley, Monson was one of the youngest men ever called to the highest levels of church leadership when named a church apostle in 1963 at age 36. Before that he spent three years in Toronto, overseeing church missionary work.

Prior to serving as Hinckley's first counselor, Monson was second counselor to two previous presidents.

LDS author Grant Palmer described Monson as a down-to-earth person who differs from others who have ascended to the highest rungs of church leadership.

"He's not blood-related like many of the others," said Palmer, whose church membership was suspended in 2004 after writing a book that was critical of church history and its founder, Joseph Smith.

"He's got more of a blue collar-background. He came from a blue-collar neighborhood and had no ties to church royalty."

Monson is known among Latter-day Saints for his folksy humor, delivered in speeches and parable-like stories during the twice-yearly church conferences in Salt Lake City that draw tens of thousands of people.

He's also known for his ministerial concern for widows and the infirm. Both church folklore and Monson's own self-published autobiography — "On the Lord's Errand" — are filled with tales of his visits as a young church bishop to widows of his congregation.

"He's affable, open and approachable," Ed Firmage, a former Mormon and an emeritus professor of law at the University of Utah, told The Associated Press in an interview last year. "He's just a very good man. He's not pompous. He's very concerned with others and makes himself available. He's not an ideologue."

Rare interviews

Despite Monson's age, Firmage believes he will be a forward-thinking, "creature of this century" leader for the church.

Monson rarely gives interviews. The AP has made a request through the church to talk to him if he is named president.

A 1948 cum laude graduate of the University of Utah, Monson holds a master's degree in business administration from the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo.

His professional life has included stints in newspaper advertising for the church-owned Deseret Morning News and as general manager of the Deseret News Press, one of the West's largest commercial printing companies.

He has served on the Deseret News board of directors and the University of Utah's Alumni Association board and as a trustee at BYU. For many years he was a member of Utah's higher education board of regents. Since 1969, he has been a member of the National Association of Boy Scouts of America.

One thing Monson won't forget or forgive was the decision by the Scouts to abandon a pigeon-raising badge, said Roy Williams, chief executive officer of the Scout's national council.

A lover of pigeons since his youth, Monson fretted a great deal over the decision.

"I keep telling him the world's changed, and we try to keep up with the times," Williams said.

Williams called Monson pragmatic and frank. "He doesn't give you his opinion unless you ask for it," Williams said. "He has a very personally commanding presence, and people naturally like him. He's got a remarkable memory."