Of Doormen, Pencils, and a Prophet’s Secret Talent

By James P. Harris


In late October 1996, I had the privilege of interviewing John Russell Talmage, the last living child of James and May Talmage. At the time he was eighty-five years old. John passed away in 2001.

We spoke for three hours that day, and he allowed me to record the conversation. His long-term memory was very lucid, and he shared family stories and memories of his father (who he referred to as “Father”). Here are three stories from that interview.


James’s First Calling


In England, where the young James E. Talmage and his family lived until they moved to Provo (when James was twelve years old), church meetings were routinely broken up by mobs. In response to this problem, a “doorman” was called, whose responsibility was to stand watch at the entrance of the house or other building where the members were meeting. The doorman would look out for the mobs so he could warn the members in time for them to escape to safety. This was James’s first church calling.


Pencil Stubs

John Talmage was four years old when his father began writing Jesus the Christ. John recalls that the family didn’t see much of Elder Talmage during this time, as he did a large share of the writing in a special room assigned to him in the Salt Lake Temple. Some evenings, Elder Talmage would come home and give the younger children the pencil stubs left over from the day’s writing. The stubs apparently became toys more than treasures for the young children. I asked John if he still had any of the pencil stubs. Unfortunately he didn’t.

Some years later, when I had an opportunity to speak to one of Elder Talmage’s granddaughters, one of the first questions she asked was if I had ever found any of these pencil stubs.


A Secret Talent


As I was finishing up my visit with John, I asked him if he would sign two copies of his biography of his father, The Talmage Story (Bookcraft, 1972). While he was inscribing and signing the books, I commented on how similar his handwriting was to his father’s. My comment prompted the following story—one less about Elder Talmage than about President Heber J. Grant:

John was finishing his three-year mission in France when he received word that his father had passed away. John had planned to bicycle through France for a few weeks before returning home, and his mother sent him a telegram encouraging him to still take his bike tour as there was no way for him to get home in time for the funeral. After John returned home, President Grant invited John to his office “to see if I was okay.”

In the course of their meeting, President Grant asked John to sign a paper (John could not recall what document he signed). John said that President Grant made the same observation I did about his handwriting being similar to his father’s. President Grant then pulled out a piece of paper upon which he signed a perfect copy of Elder Talmage’s signature. He then proceeded to mimic the signatures of all the General Authorities. John chuckled: “He could have been a master forger.” I asked John if he still had the paper with all the signatures, but he said he didn’t. It’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t a fun thing President Grant did from time to time to entertain guests, but my guess is he would never let “evidence” of this hidden talent leave the room.

I n one of the copies of The Talmage Story, John inscribed the following: “Best of luck in your studies of James E. Talmage, whom I sincerely wish you could have known personally. I hope this book will help you to know him better.”

It has. Thank you, John.