(Compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Mission President Matthew Cowley (Part 1)
On Friday morning about 7:30 A.M. on November 25th, 1938, the Mariposa sailed into Auckland, New Zealand Harbor and came to a stop. There were four of us in our room. As we were gathering our coats and other things together we heard a man say, “Are there any Mormon’s anywhere around here?” We turned and there standing in the door of our room was President Matthew Cowley.
This was the first time that any of us had ever seen him. I remember that morning as if it was yesterday. He had on a coat that didn’t match his pants. He had a pair of crepe soled shoes on and a nice tie with a big knot. I was twenty and he was forty-one years of age. This was a great moment in my life because it was the beginning of a special friendship that lasted for the next fifteen years and beyond.
Matthew Cowley was a most unusual and marvelous individual. His personality was excellent. He seemed to love everybody. He seemed to be patient with everybody and particularly with the faults of young missionaries. He never seemed to lose patience with the saints or elders. He had the ability to use the English language in such a way that every missionary understood who he was, what he was, and what he wanted us to be. His Maori language was so correct and pure that all of the Saints and many non-members gave attention when he spoke.
We missionaries knew from day one that Matthew Cowley was an ideal man to be our mission president. The longer we were in the mission, the more convinced we were that we had been especially called and assigned to work with him in the great old New Zealand Mission.
As the mission president, he was not organized like the mission presidents of today with a two-month schedule of meetings that controlled his activities. He was ready, willing, and able to go wherever the Spirit of the Lord prompted him to go. Sometimes he did not know when he left mission headquarters where he was really going, but he just drove until he received some inspiration that would tell him what direction to head. A good part of New Zealand is north of Auckland, and to get there President Cowley would cross Auckland Harbor on a ferry and then continue to drive north. (Almost 100% of that northern part of New Zealand was Maori. All the missionaries who la bored in that area became excellent Maori speakers because they had to.) This part of the mission was divided into two large districts Kaikohe and Whangarei and lots of little branches. Some of the strongest and best branches of the whole Church were in that part of the mission.
Traveling south from the city of Auckland, President Cowley would go about 35 miles before the road would fork to the east or carry on to the south. Sometimes President Cowley would go right to that turn off before he would decide where he was supposed to go.
The road to the east went to the city of Thames and then on over to the east coast to Gisborne, Nuhaka, and so forth. The road to the south went to Hamilton and then to Rotorua and on to the southern part of the east coast to Napier and Hastings. If he went straight down south, he would go down to ward New Plymouth, Wanganui, Palmerston North, and all the way to Wellington which was the south end of the North Island.
About every three months, President Cowley would make a trip to the South Island where there were two elders in Nelson, three in Christchurch, and two in Dunedin. These elders were pretty much working among the white (pakeha) people. President Cowley could keep in touch with them through telegrams and letters, but they did not see him often.
Incidentally, there was a quota on the number of missionaries who could be in New Zealand during our time. The quota was 65, which included President and Sister Cowley and their daughter, Jewell, who was 11 or 12 years old when they arrived. The most missionaries we ever had at one time was 62. There were about 20 different locations on the North Island where the missionaries were actually headquartered. Sometimes there were two or four missionaries in one location. Everyone traveled on bicycles, and we were allowed to hitchhike during the first year and a half of our mission, and then the Church passed a rule against that.
President Cowley had the only car in the mission and had no trouble until war restrictions curtailed the amount of gasoline he could use. He had a special amount given to him, but still had to resort to traveling somewhat on the train—in those days there were no airplanes.
It is amazing how President Cowley took everything in stride. Nothing seemed to ever distress him-not even missionaries who did not do what they should. He enjoyed the elders, and he enjoyed those who did not always obey mission rules as they should have. Somehow or other he did not have it in his system the ability to be very critical, and sometimes we thought he loved the missionaries who did not work as hard more than the others.
President Cowley might have been a little heavy for his height, but he was a very careful eater. He had a little difficulty with his heart, but was always on guard and really took good care of himself. During the many months I was with him I learned that he did not sleep very long. He would not go to sleep until about midnight and then always woke up exactly at 4:00 a.m. It seemed that his system only required 4 hours of sleep. He would read a book every evening. He was the finest and fastest speed reader that I have ever known. He did not buy new books, but would go to bookstores and buy anything and everything that was for sale at a low cost. He would return from the book store with an armful of books.
President Cowley was almost worshiped by the good Saints in New Zealand. They had a number of wonderful mission presidents over the years, but few like him and none that had been with them so long. The 5 years on his first mission and then his 8 years on his second mission gave him well over 13 years among them. They were all sure that someday he would be one of the leaders of the Church, and one or two of them even prophesied that someday he would be in the Quorum of the Twelve. He was called to that office just three weeks after he got home.
President Cowley was a great story teller. Everything that happened to him was interesting. He could take any little event and make it into a fine story. However he never exaggerated. He just told excellent details about every wonderful thing that happened, and everything in his life was exciting.
Dealing with the missionaries, he was not inclined in any way to belittle or chastise a wayward missionary. He found good in everyone, even those who deserved to be chastised. He had a way of making everyone feel welcome and needed—that was a great gift. President Cowley blessed the lives of all the missionaries even years after he was home and had passed away.
When the missionaries arrived in the mission home, President Cowley asked each one who he was, who his parents were, and when his birthday was. He never forgot the birthday of a missionary, not only in New Zealand but until the day he died. Frequently he said, “Oh, it’s Elder So-and-so’s birthday today; I better phone him.” He never wrote any dates down; he just remembered them.
President Cowley was always interested in missionaries who were filled with life and a little mischief. In fact, after we (six missionaries) had been in the mission home for some months, he called us together and said he thought he would transfer all of us back out into the districts and bring some missionaries in who could create a little move havoc and bring a little more activity into the home. That was all we needed, and that particular little problem ended.
Brother Cowley was a wonderful husband to his wife Elva. He always called her Sue. She was a great companion, a wonderful mission mother, good and kind and very supportive of her splendid husband. They made an ideal missionary team.
When they arrived in the mission, their daughter Jewel was about twelve years old. She believed everything the missionaries told her, even when they deliberately told her falsehoods to tease her. She was a lovely girl and in a real sense became our younger sister. And their adopted son Toni was still a little boy, learning to walk and get around when we left.
The six of us living in the mission home had a basketball team (we invited one New Zealander to play with us as a sub). On occasion, President Cowley walked to the YMCA to watch the missionaries play. One night, he was sitting up in the balcony, heckling the missionaries rather vigorously. “Throw the ball to Elder So-and-so, he’ll fumble it,” or “Don’t give it to Elder So-and-so, he won’t know what to do.” After he had enjoyed heckling for a period of time, a couple of young, but large, Maori men walked over to him and said, “Mr., we don’t know who you are, but don’t you talk like that to those young men anymore. They’re Mormon missionaries out here performing missionary work and they’re ministers. We’re not going to sit here and allow you to ridicule them or talk like that to them anymore!” President Cowley immediately quit heckling and returned home. He told us later that he didn’t think he would attend anymore basketball games, that they were too dangerous for him.
President Cowley rarely slept more than about four hours a night. Consequently, he often took a walk down Queen Street to the theater to have a good snooze. All the theater employees knew him and rarely charged him. Sometimes he saw the same show two times a week, but his purpose was not to see the show but to get a rest.
We engaged in a rather extensive project, painting the second floor of the mission home. One of the missionaries was not too bright and painted a couple of doorknobs. As we continued our project down the hall, we suddenly heard President Cowley yell out in a loud voice, “Somebody owes me a new suit. I just got paint all over it!” Immediately, the missionaries cleaned up the doorknobs and repented of that particular senseless mistake.
Another project we were given was that of tiling the one bathroom in the mission home, which was also on the second floor. Elder Bodell had been a tile setter prior to his mission and supervised the project. It was decided that all the missionaries, under his direction, would put tile on the walls around the entire bathroom. He was by far the largest and strongest missionary physically; however, all he did was put the tile up one or two at a time while the rest of us mixed the mud outside, carried it through the house and up the stairs for his use. We had a great time doing all the tile work and the Cowley’s were delighted at how well it turned out.
President Cowley loved to cook, especially breakfast, while we held our early morning study class. We read out loud so that he could participate. If we said a word wrong or misinterpreted something, he would correct us from the kitchen and thus add to our study.
One morning, which we shall never forget, was the morning we slept in. It was the only time I recall Matthew Cowley ever getting angry. He went into the bedroom of two elders and shook the bed to wake them up. Those of us in the two other bedrooms needed no further warning. We were downstairs ready for study class in less than a minute. Brother Cowley had a very even temperament and rarely showed anger, but that morning, he was distressed for some reason and let us know he was capable of getting very upset.
President Cowley had an interesting way of telling jokes and stories. During the course of the day, he told us stories in which the end was always unusual and maybe not very proper in Sunday School. Of course, they were nothing vulgar, but a little different than what people were used to. Then at the supper table in the evenings, he would tell the same stories and change the ending to something a little more appropriate and less humorous. We laughed because we knew what he was telling us, even though Sister Cowley always said she didn’t see anything funny with them and why did he tell those crazy stories? It was his unique way of carrying on our supper table conversations.
President Cowley loved to read. He often walked down the main street of Auckland to the bookstores that sold used books and buy a dozen or more books; and I doubt he ever paid more than a schilling for any book or magazine. His reading habits were wonderful. He was the first and best speed reader I ever knew and he retained almost everything he read. He often gave us a book report on a rather fascinating book he felt we should know about and understand.
On one occasion, while traveling with President Cowley to Tahoraiti (Dannevirke), we stopped in Palmerston North to see one of our Maori brothers who taught music. When he heard where we were going, Brother Wi Pere Amaru asked to go along. Before leaving the city, President Cowley went to the post office and sent a telegram to Sister Polly Duncan which said, “Kill the fatted calf; we’ll be there for supper — signed Cowley, Rudd, and Amaru.” When we arrived, she had a great banquet prepared with chop suey and about five other things that she knew Tumuaki enjoyed. He never refused to let people do things for him; as a result, everybody loved him. Later on that same trip, we arrived at the home of Stuart Meha, where we had an interesting and wonderful afternoon and evening.
President Cowley had to perform a rather unfortunate and sad duty regarding a wayward missionary. By invitation, I grabbed my briefcase, which was always ready, and rushed to the car. President Cowley seemed very pensive on that occasion. He hardly spoke during the first full day of driving over the mountains to Hawkes Bay. I wondered what was wrong but didn’t say very much. We traveled over a very dangerous, winding highway known as the Taupo Road over the mountains between Taupo and Napier. As we drove along the rather narrow road and rounded a curve, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the road; and before President Cowley could switch back into the proper lane, we were hit by another car.
The only thing President Cowley said was, “Don’t say a word!” So I said nothing. Our car was still on the wrong side of the road, and it was obvious that it was our fault. The other driver was really upset and began to chew us out, call us names, threaten us, and say a lot of dumb things.
Finally, President Cowley was able to say something, and the man recognized that he was an American. He began to spout off about Americans. He said, “You come over here to our country; and when someone like me wants to drive around and see the scenery, we have to worry about people getting in our way.”
Immediately, President Cowley said, “You mean you weren’t looking where you were going, you were looking at the scenery? At least I looked where I was going. I admit I was wrong, but I knew where I was. Evidently, you were sight-seeing and were just lucky to have someone to hit into.”
The poor guy just wilted. He knew he was completely beaten. He looked our car over and said, “Well, I guess we were both wrong, so I’ll go on my way and pay for my own, and you pay for yours.” We got back in the car and drove away.
Nothing more was said for several minutes. Finally, President Cowley said, “Well, we got out of that pretty good, didn’t we?” The car wasn’t hurt too badly but still needed to be repaired.
The next morning, as we continued on toward Wellington about six hours away, President Cowley began talking more than he had the previous day. He had prayed, when he was made a mission president, that he would never have to dishonorably release a missionary and he had been successful so far. But this morning, because of a serious infraction of mission and Church rules, his sad duty was to dishonorably release a missionary and send him home.
When we arrived at the elders’ home in Wellington, I spent an hour with the other elders while the elder in trouble drove away with President Cowley. When they returned about an hour later, President Cowley was visibly distressed. I was told to contact headquarters and get a ticket on the next boat for the elder to return home. We all loved the missionary and felt sorrowful with what happened. To ease the strain of such a painful duty, President Cowley said to me, “Let’s go fishing.” We made our way to the wharf and got tickets to sail over to D’Urville Island.
One of President Cowley’s “favorite” missionaries was Elder David M. Evans, who had a very interesting personality. He was assigned as the senior elder in an area with headquarters in Huntley, about a hundred miles south of Auckland. For some reason, Dave had a hard time staying in his district. Quite frequently he showed up in Auckland to visit the mission home. Every time he walked in, President Cowley’s blood pressure went up. He would continually get after Dave about leaving the district and would hear the usual alibi as to why Dave was there. Despite the constant instruction not to leave his district, it never did a bit of good. Dave continued to show up and Brother Cowley finally gave up trying to change him.
Incidentally, Dave was an outstanding missionary. But over the years, he has not changed a great deal from the way he was as a missionary.
Brother Cowley had some special gifts. He had a magnificent memory. He hardly ever forgot anything. [Editorial Note: In one of his talks at BYU-Idaho, Elder Rudd acknowledged that Matthew Cowley had a photographic memory.] He was a speed-reader. He read a book of three hundred pages every single day that I know of. In the mission home, when we lived in Auckland, he would buy all the old books he could get, anything, and he would wake up at four o’clock in the morning and then read a book before he got out of bed. Then he’d come down, get all of us out of bed, and he’d cook breakfast for us. I thought he was a great cook.
Brother Cowley could spell anything. We tried, the elders (there were six of us), to find a word that he couldn’t define or spell. We never did. His vocabulary was magnificent. There was never any slang in it. None of us ever heard him cuss or say a swear word of any kind. He was wonderful.
He was a humorous person. Everything that happened had a humorous side to it. He was gifted that way.
My first mission was an exceptionally interesting mission which lasted only 23 months because we were called home due to World War II and released at that time.
Living with President Cowley was a special experience for all of us. He was the most interesting person we had ever known. As I have said, President Cowley loved shows, but did not go with us often. He allowed us to use our own judgment which sometimes was not very good. He was more interesting than any show in the world, and when he was willing to sit around and talk, we spent many evenings in the mission home just having him talk to us. because he was constantly reading books and other articles, he always had something to tell us. The greatest of all was when he would tell us about the history of the Church.
While I was in high school, I had a teacher in a library class who was the most unusual teacher I ever had. She never could remember any of our names. She always called the roll. She did not look up much, she just called off our names, and we would yell "present" or "here," and she would mark it. Because she did not pay much attention, sometimes when she called my name, someone else would answer "here." Then I would answer for someone else. During the class someone was always absent, but, since someone else would report "here" for them, the roll always showed everyone present.
I had come to think she was one of the dumbest people I had ever known in my life. She was, however, a sweet, lovely lady who was very kind to us. Years later while in the mission field, my mission president, Matthew Cowley, asked me if I remembered a Mrs. Harker in high school. I said, "Yes, she was our library teacher." I started to tell him that she was the dumbest teacher I ever had. However, he promptly told me that she was his sister, and that she had never forgotten anything in her life. He said, "She writes me every month and asks about you and the other high school students who are here in the mission." There were probably six or eight of us who had classes from her. He said, "You know, she was a widow, but she was absolutely brilliant. I believe she could tell you the name of every student she ever had. When I got to know the president better, I really believed that because he had an unbelievable memory, and he told me of the rest of his family who were blessed with remarkable powers to remember. That was a close call when he and I were on a trip and he spoke of his lovable sister, Mrs. Harker. [Editorial Note: Elder Rudd told a devotional audience at BYU-Idaho that President Cowley had a photographic memory. From comments like these, it would seem the whole family did.]
One Sunday night in Auckland, New Zealand, 1940, President Cowley and three or four of us missionaries went to hear a debate between a confirmed atheist and an ordained minister from one of the big churches. It was an interesting debate, focused on the Savior. When it was over, everyone agreed that the atheist had won the debate entirely. He had won every argument. The poor minister was completely beaten. When we got out on the street, we said, “Boy that was interesting!” President Cowley said, “You know, the minister was at a bad disadvantage. He was teaching the Christian doctrine of the Savior, but not the true doctrine. If he had known what we know, he would have won every round. He was on the defensive because all he knew was what the other churches teach, which is really not the religion of Christ.” He said, “The real religion of Christ is what we teach, but the Churches of the world don‘t.”