10 questions with Clark Monson

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Clark Monson teaches at BYU and is the son of the late President Thomas S. Monson. His essay in BYU Studies Quarterly, Rod Tip Up, recalls his fishing adventures with his father.

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in 1959 in Toronto, Canada, when my father served there as mission president. I’m the youngest of three children. When I was two-and-a-half years old my family left Toronto and returned home to Utah. I was too young, of course, to have formed any lasting memories of Canada. I grew up in the Holladay area of Salt Lake City and attended Olympus High School.

My parents were also raised in Salt Lake City. My mother’s parents were converts to the Church from Sweden. They didn’t meet, however, until they had immigrated to Utah. My father’s parents descended from converts who joined the Church in the British Isles and Sweden.

Professionally, I teach geography at BYU. I discovered geography as an academic discipline and profession many years after I graduated from BYU with a communications degree. I earned my doctorate degree in Geography at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. My wife and I adopted our two children while we lived in Hawaii.

What are some of your non-academic hobbies?

I enjoy fishing and falconry. Falconry isn’t a sport that very many people know about, but it’s essentially the practice of training and hunting with birds of prey. I’ve fished since I was four years old and I’ve trained falcons since I was 10. I currently have a beautiful arctic gyrfalcon that I acquired over a year ago. I also have a new nestling sharp-shinned hawk that I’ll be training this summer.

For those living in Utah, where is a good place to see peregrine falcons in the wild?

Peregrines generally nest on very tall cliffs, so it can be difficult for the average person to see them up close. For example, each spring they nest on huge cliffs in Provo Canyon and behind the Provo Temple in Rock Canyon. But if you don’t know exactly where to look, it can be a challenge to see them.

For many years Peregrine falcons nested on a ledge of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, and it was easy for a casual observer to see them there. Falcons haven’t nested there for a number of years.

Peregrine falcons gather atop the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2015. Credit: Salt Lake City Falcons.

Aside from birding and fishing, what are some other traits from your father’s life you have made part of your own?

My dad wasn’t actually a birder, but he was president of his elementary school’s Audubon Club. As a boy he learned to recognize a few species of birds that the average person isn’t familiar with such as barn swallows, Steller’s jays, belted kingfishers, dippers and cedar waxwings. He taught me to identify those species in Provo Canyon when I was a child.

My father’s life of visiting the aged and infirm help remind me to do the same. I don’t reach out to dozens of elderly people like he did, but his example has helped me to think of those that I do know and to visit them. Sometimes I think of an elderly friend and realize that I should get around to paying them a visit. Then I think of what my father would do, and I go see or call them immediately—not later.

You served your mission in New Zealand. What is something you admired about the people that you incorporated into your life?

In New Zealand I got to know and teach Polynesian people from many different Island groups. I love the faith, warmth and humility of the Polynesians.

My mission experience was the reason I chose to pursue geography at the University of Hawaii. I not only wanted to learn more about the Pacific region, but I wanted to live in a Polynesian cultural environment again.

I love Utah, but if I had to be anywhere else, I’d choose Polynesia. I’ve endeavored to develop the faith and humility for which Polynesians are known.

You were born about five years after Matthew Cowley died. Was his influence still felt when you served your mission?

I served in New Zealand more than 30 years after Matthew Cowley was mission president there, so I only met one man who had known him. Matthew Cowley was legendary among the Maori people, but most of the wards where I served were comprised of non-Maori Polynesians.

I was amazed, however, at the number of people I met on my mission who had received a blessing, a calling or an ordination by my father in the 1960s when the South Pacific region was his area of responsibility.

Introduce your essay, Rod Tip Up!, in the latest issue of BYU Studies.

When I was young, my family and relatives spent considerable time during summers at the family cabin in Vivian Park, Provo Canyon. Dad spent mornings and evenings fishing the Provo River. If we wanted to know where he was, we just walked the short distance from our cabin to the Vivian Park bridge. We could almost always see him fishing, mid-river, within a few hundred yards upstream or downstream of the bridge.

It became a habit for my family and relatives to look for Dad whenever we happened to walk or drive across the bridge.

If he was within shouting distance of the bridge, we’d call out to him and wave. He’d wave back. If we were driving across the bridge, we’d honk, and he’d look, recognize the car and wave to us.

His figure was a regular presence on the river.

Tom Monson (right) and his brother Bob Monson (left) in waders at Vivian Park, Provo Canyon, 1964. Bob’s son, also named Bob, is behind his father’s arm. Credit: Clark Monson.

When age prevented Dad from fishing the river and, especially, when he passed away, I realized how much of a habit I had developed through the years of looking for him from the bridge. I had always been able to see him on the stream and now he wasn’t there.

Although I felt a bit melancholy knowing I’d never see him again on the river we both loved, I started thinking about all the wonderful fishing memories I shared with my father, especially on the Provo River. I wrote the essay about some of these memories, and a friend of mine suggested I publish it.

What section of the Provo River did your dad most love to fish?

The half-mile of water bisected by the bridge at Vivian Park.

What is your most memorable fishing trip—and where is the fish your father mounted for you after that adventure?

As I wrote in the essay, one of my most memorable fishing experiences took place on the Provo River one summer night with my dad and brother, Tom.

It was memorable because as a 14-year-old boy, I caught a really nice-sized brown trout. It was 19 inches long. The largest brown I’d ever caught prior to that night was perhaps 13 or 14 inches long. Back then I mainly caught hatchery-raised rainbow trout on the river, so this big brown was a huge deal for me. It made me feel like I was an accomplished fisherman.

Clark Monson holding trout in front of family cabin in Vivian Park, Provo Canyon, 1969. Credit: Clark Monson.

I was excited, too, because I could tell my father was proud of me.

Dad asked if I’d like to get the fish mounted. I gulped a bit because I knew it would be expensive, and kids in my neighborhood never received expensive gifts from their parents unless it was Christmas. Still, the thought of having the fish preserved and hanging on my wall was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I know it cost my father $57 to have the fish mounted because I remember the taxidermist told us his rate was $3 per inch of fish.

The fish today hangs above our family room door that leads out to our front yard. I walk out that door many times each day, so the fish is a constant reminder of a fond memory with my father and brother, Tom.

The prized brown trout Clark Monson caught as a 14-year-old was mounted by his father and now hangs above his family room door. Credit: Clark Monson.

A beautiful line in your essay reads, “Dad didn’t mind a pause from fishing to change a life. He was less inclined to leave the river when it was time to eat.” Would you share the story? 

I had started writing down some fishing memories with my Dad that I wanted to include in an essay. And 18 days after Dad died one of my former BYU geography professors, Alan Grey, passed away.

Following Alan’s funeral, I was introduced to a friend of the Grey family. I shook his hand and he asked me if Thomas Monson was my father. When I said “yes,” he briefly told me how he had met my dad on the Provo River many years previously.

He said he wasn’t a member of the Church at the time, but he must have been very familiar with the Church in order to recognize my dad in waders and fishing clothes. He said he had some questions about the church he was hoping Dad could answer.

Whatever my dad told him must have made an impression because he said that afterwards he knew he needed to be baptized. “That conversation with your father on the Provo River,” he said, “changed my life.”

I knew bits and pieces of similar stories people had experienced with my dad on the river, but when I heard this one, I knew I needed to include it in my essay.

My comment that Dad didn’t mind a pause from fishing to change a life but that he was reluctant to stop fishing when it was time to eat was based on many experiences.

Dad was almost always late to return from the river to the cabin when breakfast was ready to be served. And it wasn’t just my family that was waiting for him. Usually my dad’s brother’s family was also with us at the cabin. So, a lot of people would be waiting for his return, but it was hard for him to leave the river unless he had caught his limit of eight fish.

He just loved being on the river.

And part of the attraction of the river was that it connected Dad to his youth, when he was able to fish every day during the summer.

If you could go back in time and relive any fishing moment with your dad, what would it be?

There are many fishing moments I’d like to relive with my dad.

One experience was one of our fishing trips to Strawberry Reservoir. It was unusual and memorable because my mother came along with my father and me. Dad and I caught our combined limit of 16 fish fairly early in the day. Dad was happy with our success but disheartened that he had fished less than three hours during a rare day away from his office.

With our limit of fish already in the ice chest, Dad figured there was no alternative but to return home early.

Then, my mother got a brilliant idea. “Do they sell fishing licenses at the boat rental house?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dad said. “Well, what if we row back to shore and buy a fishing license for me? Then you’d be allowed to have another eight fish in your possession.”

Dad loved it that my mother had come up with such a perfect solution to extend his fishing experience. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t personally catch any of the fish. With three license holders in the boat we were allowed to have 24 fish.

So, we pulled up anchor, rowed to shore, bought Mom a fishing license, and rowed back out to our spot and resumed fishing.

Tom and Frances Monson at Vivian Park, Provo Canyon, about one year after their marriage. Credit: Clark Monson.

Dad was happy not only because we got to fish longer, but because Mom, who had never had a fishing license in her life, came up with the unique plan. She was thinking of her husband who wanted to keep fishing even though she would personally have preferred to head home early.

In an hour-and-a-half, we achieved our new limit of 24 fish.

Another memorable fishing experience with my father occurred at a small reservoir east of Bear Lake near the Idaho border. Dad and I had the whole reservoir to ourselves. The date was October 15, 1977. I know the date because BYU was playing a football game against Colorado State University in Fort Collins. BYU quarterback Gifford Nielsen had experienced a season-ending injury the previous week, and Marc Wilson was making his first start as a BYU quarterback against the undefeated CSU Rams.

At a point during the game, I had my dad row our boat to shore so that I could turn on the radio in our truck to find out how BYU was doing. BYU was playing well, and Marc Wilson would eventually throw a total of seven touchdown passes during the game.

With the good news, I returned to the boat and happily informed Dad that BYU was slaughtering CSU! Dad rowed the boat back out and we resumed fishing.

In the late afternoon we started catching rainbow trout on virtually every cast. These weren’t ordinary 9-inch hatchery fish released the previous week. These were big, strong four-pound trout that fought with all their might. When one took your fly, you’d feel its power run up your line, down your fishing rod and into your hand like an electrical current. Other fishermen will understand the feeling I’m talking about.

After several minutes a fish would begin to tire, and we’d reel it up near the boat. Then, with renewed vigor, it would make another run, stripping out line and making the spools of our fishing reels hum. A gusty wind blew through our taught lines and made an audible, eerie whine.

Dad was beaming with the fast action. “Boy, this is fishing!” he exclaimed.

When we got back to the truck, I turned on the radio to learn that Marc Wilson had led BYU to a 63-17 victory. It had been a perfect day for two fishermen (that were also BYU fans) who now had a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Salt Lake City.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies. 

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