(Compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Mission President Matthew Cowley (Part 1)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dave was an outstanding missionary. But over the years, he has not changed a
great deal from the way he was as a missionary.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”