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Gordan B. Hinckley and Railroads

This page was last updated on April 11, 2008

Taken from Go Forward With Faith, The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, Sheri L. Drew, Deseret Book, 1996.

Gordon B. Hinckley was working for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when on March 23, 1942 the church announced that it would severely curtail its missionary activities for the duration of the war. Hinckley saw that his position within the church, creating missionary materials, would also be greatly reduced and sought enlistment as a officer candidate in the U. S. Navy. But he was rejected due to his allergies and hay fever. By May 1942 he became determined to contribute to the war effort, and at age 32, with a wife and two children, he sought employment in an important war related company. He was able to obtain a position with Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, with his railroad employment lasting from 1943 through late August 1945.

Sheri Dew, as Hinckley's biographer writes:

As it happened, Salt Lake City had been identified by the War Manpower Commission as a city where there was a critical need for more laborers. (According to the April 1940 census, 149,000 people were employed in the state of Utah; by late 1942 at least 65,000 additional workers had jobs.) So finding such work shouldn't be difficult.

He was still stinging from the Navy's rejection when, feeling he must somehow become involved in the war effort, he got an introduction to a manager at the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. In a stroke of fortuitous timing, he inquired about a job the very day an opening for an assistant stationmaster in its Salt Lake City yard became available. Though he had no experience in the transportation industry, he applied for and landed the job as assistant superintendent of the Salt Lake City Union Depot and Railroad Company, owned and operated jointly by the D&RG and Western Pacific Railroads. The year was 1943.

He had spent more than seven years in a pressure-packed job at Church headquarters, but Gordon now faced what he called the "fearsome" responsibility of keeping rail traffic moving through Salt Lake City during a time when trains were cycling in and out of the train yard like streetcars. Although he didn't know much about the railroad business, he wasn't afraid of hard work, and he attacked his responsibilities with energy, common sense, and a resolve to learn everything he could as quickly as possible. The first lesson of the rail yard was simple but imperative: Keep the trains moving, on schedule, and out of each other's way.

Though Gordon now went to work just a few blocks from Church headquarters, life at the D&RG yard seemed a galaxy away. Activity at the yard was frenzied and fast-paced, there was little room for error, and the environment was uncivilized. The contrast between his work at the Church, where even the slightest off-color remark would have been unthinkable, and his post at the railroad was vivid and startling at times. Among other irritations, many of the men he worked with had made profanity an art form. One day he handed written instructions to a switchman who, upon reading the directions, flew into a tantrum. The scene that followed disgusted Gordon: "He was a fifty-year-old man, but he acted like a spoiled child. He threw his cap on the ground and jumped on it and let forth such a string of expletives as to seem to cause the air to turn blue around him. Every third or fourth word was the name of Deity spoken in vain. I thought, how childish can a grown man be? The very idea of a man acting and speaking like that was totally repugnant. I could never again give him my full respect."

As though the strain of coping with a new job and other consequences of war weren't enough, the era brought other worries and even heartaches.

The Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific seemed to hold the upper hand, though U.S. citizens supporting the war at home and abroad were mobilizing as never before. Meanwhile, the railroad was under pressure to operate faster, smarter, and more efficiently. The wartime economy notwithstanding, the remarkable growth of the railroad created constant demand for more and better-trained supervisors and stationmasters. Accordingly, Gordon was one of those invited to attend a school sponsored by the railroad for up-and-coming management in Denver in the summer of 1944.

Though the railroad industry was a new arena for him, some of his native abilities were crucial in overseeing the D&RG yard. He was resourceful and productive, a born administrator who improved efficiency and got things done with a minimum of motion. Eager to grasp the intricacies of his new position, he asked more questions during the supervisors' seminar in Denver than all the other participants combined. "Because I hadn't grown up in the railroad business, there was much I didn't know," he said. "I was anxious to learn, and those fellows didn't scare me. I figured I had worked for better men than they would ever be, and it didn't bother me in the least to speak up.

D&RG officials took note of the assistant supervisor from Salt Lake City, and two weeks later he received a call from railroad headquarters. Would he consider accepting a job as assistant manager of mail, baggage, and express for the entire D&RG system? The promotion would bring an increase in salary and opportunity but would require him to move his family to Denver. He realized that the "decision" essentially lay outside his control, for the railroad expected him to make the move. Marjorie [his wife] was willing. She felt confident that they wouldn't be gone forever, so the thought of being separated from family and friends was bearable, though she was once again expecting a child, their third, due in February 1945. She saw the opportunity to live somewhere other than Utah's capital as an adventure, however. Both she and Gordon regretted leaving their comfortable new home behind, but they knew they would have no difficulty renting it during those days of acute housing shortage. [Their two children] Kathy and Dick were young, so moving wouldn't be hard on them. After weighing the important factors, the Hinckleys concluded there was nothing to do but relocate in Colorado.

Gordon left almost immediately for Denver to assume his new responsibilities and look for housing, and Marjorie remained behind to find a renter for their home. Housing was at a premium in Denver, even converted garages and attics were renting for top dollar and he found it more difficult than he had expected to locate something suitable. As the weeks rolled by, Marjorie became increasingly anxious. She was eager to join her husband in Denver before her pregnancy became so advanced that it was not feasible to make the move, and she did not want to have her baby alone.

While he waited for something to open up, Gordon lived in a small hotel and worked nearly around the clock. With severe labor shortages caused by the huge number of men recruited for military service, those left behind had to pick up the slack. There was no such thing as a forty-hour work week. After putting in a long day at the railroad yard, he rode trains at night to learn the ropes. Many a night found him riding out to Grand Junction, Colorado, and back in baggage cars filled not only with luggage but with coffins and other vivid reminders of war. The setting provided many hours to contemplate the horrors of such conflict, and often his mind wandered back to the day he had learned of Stanford's death, then raced forward to consider families who were receiving similar telegrams now. What an indictment on men's abilities to live in peace one with another.

Gordon and Marjorie disliked their separation from each other, which stretched to nearly six months. She began one letter to her husband: "This is a terrible life. I've been away from you enough during the last year to last me for the duration of this existence and I hope Heaven is a small place or travel is by instant atomic force." Gordon alleviated the situation somewhat by using his Pullman pass to make the twelve-hour trip home on weekends, catching a train west as early Friday as he could get away and returning on a late-night express Sunday evening. The pattern wasn't convenient, but it made the separation more tolerable. By year's end, Gordon had finally located a small home in downtown Denver, and in January 1945 he moved his family to Colorado's capital city.

Marjorie was relieved to have their family living under the same roof again, though the transition to life in Denver was difficult for a young woman who had never spent more than a few days away from Salt Lake City and her extended family. "The first three days lasted for about six weeks apiece, but this week has been a little better," she wrote her parents shortly after her arrival. "Of all the mumps and measles I have had, homesickness is the worst. If you've never had it, you don't know what you've missed."

Gordon assumed that after the war he would return to his behind-the-scenes public relations work at the Church. But for now, he was doing his part to keep the railroad running. Several major railroads crossed the United States: the Northern Pacific and Southern Pacific, the Great Northern, the Union Pacific, the Santa Fe, and the Denver and Rio Grande in conjunction with the Rock Island and the Missouri Pacific on the east, and the Western Pacific on the west. Denver was a crucial hub, and the train yard bustled with activity night and day. It was not uncommon for every track in the station to be filled and other trains down the line waiting for the signal to pull in and unload. "At all cost," Gordon explained, "we had to keep the line clear and the rail traffic moving, because if anything caused traffic to stop, problems rippled throughout the entire system."

One day there was a wreck on the line in a canyon some distance from Denver. Gordon was sent to troubleshoot, with instructions to resolve the problem quickly. He found five cars tipped over and the line blocked. There was only one solution, and he immediately ordered three loaded freight cars dumped into the Colorado River. That bold decision cleared the line and opened it to traffic backed up for miles. The incident impressed itself upon his mind. "I learned the importance of keeping the traffic moving, of doing whatever is necessary to keep the line open," he said. The principle had many applications that embedded themselves in his subconscious.

[Their new daugher] Virginia's birth came at a momentous time in world history, occurring as it did on the brink of several landmark international events. Three months later, on May 7, the Germans surrendered, and the following day the welcome news was announced on what became the official VE Day. The exhilaration of victory in Europe was tempered by word of the death of President Heber J. Grant on May 14 at the age of eighty-eight. Though President Grant had been frail since suffering a stroke several years earlier, Gordon had hoped to see him again. He had tender feelings for the prophet whose compelling testimony had stirred him as a boy sitting in the Tabernacle balcony, who had received his report as a young returned missionary, and who subsequently had brought him to work for the Church. President Grant had been President of the Church since Gordon was eight, and he couldn't remember any other prophet. He wished he were in Salt Lake City where he could pay his respects to a leader who had influenced him profoundly.

Less than three months later circumstances developed that brought Gordon and Marjorie home for good. When Japan ignored an ultimatum from President Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin to surrender or suffer "complete and utter destruction," the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima the morning of August 6 and another on Nagasaki three days later. Japan subsequently surrendered, and for some 140,000,000 Americans, there could have been no sweeter news. The war was over, the troops would start coming home, and civilians who had taken jobs dependent on the wartime economy--Gordon among them--could return to normalcy. The owners of the home the Hinckleys were renting in Denver announced their intention to return immediately, so without delay Gordon submitted his resignation. By the last weekend in August, Marjorie and the children had moved back to Salt Lake City, leaving him behind to ease the transition for his replacement at the railroad.

Gordon had left his employment at the Church without the promise of a job at war's end, but he presumed that something would be available. During the summer of 1945 Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards had written him with the offer of employment in the Presiding Bishop's office, but Gordon had felt too committed to the railroad to consider it seriously. And throughout the war he and Elder Stephen L Richards had stayed in close contact. As soon as Elder Richards learned that he was free to come home, he offered him his old job back. But the Denver and Rio Grande liked what they saw in the manager from Utah, and they countered by offering a promotion with a salary greater than he could ever expect to make working for the Church.

The offer was tempting. His young family was growing, and no one knew quite what to expect of the postwar economy. With Marjorie already back in Utah, Gordon wrote her about the duel between his current and former employers. She responded by return mail: "I will be glad when we are together, as this setup just does not suit me at all. Grumble, grumble. . . . I miss you and long for you." From that point, however, her reply was practical, accommodating, and to the point: "As for the job you had just better make up your mind to do the one which you enjoy the most, as you will spend quite a bit of your life working at it. As for me, I can make myself reasonably happy wherever you are, and as for the children, it is a question either way and is something we can not possibly foretell, no matter how we speculate and wonder and worry." She concluded with her only stipulation: "Let's hurry and take up life together again. I like it better that way."

The railroad had been good to Gordon and appeared to offer the best potential for advancement as well as the greater challenge to his capitalistic instincts. But his heart was back at 47 East South Temple, and he felt that he belonged there--if, that is, he could modify his old job. He told Elder Richards that he would come back if he could "bake a cake without having to do the dishes all the time." When Elder Richards assured him that he could hire some help, Gordon informed railroad officials that he was returning to Salt Lake City. "Don't make a decision yet," they urged. "Take a ninety-day leave of absence, and then decide. We'll hold the position for you until then." Gordon agreed and left for Utah.

When Gordon walked back into Church headquarters, it felt as though he had never left. It was so good to return to an environment more suited to his nature, and to concentrate on issues he felt passionate about. After thirty days, he called D&RG officials and explained that he would not be coming back. Still the railroad didn't give up; in the spring of 1947 they approached him with an even better offer. Elder Harold B. Lee noted in his journal: "Gordon B. Hinckley came to discuss with me the offer of the D&RG Railway Company at Denver, to become a department head at $510 per month." Despite what would have been a generous raise, Gordon found this decision relatively easy to make. He explained to a friend: "This is the Lord's work. I feel I will make my best contribution in life by continuing to do my humble part to further the cause." Though the Denver experience had been a positive diversion, it was wonderful to be back among friends and family.

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