In Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robison wrote, "I don't know if it's an Aspregian trait, or it it's just me, but I was never affected by celebrity." I don't know either, but me too. Celebrities mean nothing to me. I've never understood, for example, what could possibly motivate someone to wait for hours just to see somebody famous pass by. What's the point of that? Certainly, I'm interested in people who are talented and do interesting things -- which describes many celebrities -- but I just don't get what fame has to do with anything. To me, it doesn't make anyone more interesting.
So this brings me to the time I met my first Mormon "celebrity." I joined the LDS Church when I was 20. There were lots of activities for singles my age, and I made lots of new friends in the "Young Single Adults" program, or YSA as it was called. A few months after I joined, there was a giant YSA conference for all the young LDS singles from San Diego and Imperial Counties. That meant several hundred people would show up. It was a very big deal.
It was such a big deal that one of the LDS Apostles was going to speak at it. To Mormons, an Apostle is a very important person, considered equivalent to one of the old-time Apostles like Peter, James, John, Andrew, and those guys. So he was a very big deal too. The Apostle who was going to speak was (the late) Elder Neal A. Maxwell.
All my new friends were very excited to see him. I wasn't. In my typical way, I thought, "Some famous dude is coming. BFD." (Although actually, as a newly-minted Mormon, I probably omitted the F and just thought, "BD.") I was looking forward to the conference though. It sounded like fun -- driving from San Diego out to Imperial County, going to workshops and a dance, staying overnight, and then all going to church together the next morning. Above all, I would be spending the time with my new friends, who I already felt pretty comfortable around. That was what I was looking forward to most.
I went on Saturday, enjoyed being with my friends, learned some stuff in the workshops, danced a lot at the dance, met some cute girls I was too shy to pursue, and generally had a nice time. Sunday morning, I ended up getting to the church way early, probably more than 20 minutes before the services were to start. I walked into the foyer, and there he was: Neal A. Maxwell in all his conservative-business-attire glory. And it was just the two of us. Nobody else seemed to be around. He approached me with a friendly "Good Morning!" and his hand outstretched for a handshake.
As I realized later, to a typical Mormon, this would have been a great moment. A chance not just to shake hands with an Apostle but to chat one-on-one with him for probably 5 or 10 minutes is a once in a lifetime experience if you don't live in Utah or something. It's the sort of story Mormons pass on to their grandkids. For a Catholic, it would be better than talking to a Cardinal (although not as good as talking to the Pope). It would be like a Buddhist meeting -- well not quite like meeting the Dalai Lama, but maybe like meeting the Panchen Lama. It would be a seriously big deal.
But not to me. To me he was just "some famous dude." Of course, I said, "Good morning" and shook his hand -- I wasn't that rude -- but I kept walking and didn't even fake being interested in talking to him. Feigning interest in someone I'm not interested in is something that I have to work at, and I wasn't very good at it back then. My social skills weren't so poor, though, that I didn't notice that he seemed kind of startled, and I thought, "Oops, I guess he expected me to talk with him. I wonder if that was rude," but I didn't stop or anything. I wasn't interested in him; I wanted to see if any of my friends were already inside the chapel.
After a moment, I realized I had been pretty rude -- I didn't actually say, "Yeah, whatever" out loud to him, but my body language might as well have -- but I also thought it was kind of funny. "I guess Elder Famous Dude is used to people fawning all over him. It must have been a bit of a shock to have somebody blow him off like that. Oh well." So I got a chuckle out of that as I went in to look for my friends.
And that's how I snubbed Neal A. Maxwell.
There's also an epilogue to this story. During the actual meeting, Elder Maxwell impressed me. He gave a sermon, or "talk" as we call it in the LDS Church, and not surprisingly was a skilled public speaker. But that's not what impressed me. Church that morning included a testimony meeting, where any member of the congregation who wants to can get up and go to the pulpit to talk for a couple minutes.
All kinds of people got up and spoke that morning. Some of them obviously hadn't been to church for a long time -- they weren't dressed "properly," or they didn't know the "proper" words LDS use when bearing a testimony. I watched Elder Maxwell as he watched them, and I saw something. I saw that he loved them and didn't judge them. I'm sure he knew, as even I did, that a lot of us were caught up in the moment and wouldn't come close to living up to the idealized feelings we were expressing in the meeting.
But I could see that that didn't really matter to Elder Maxwell. He just seemed to radiate love for the people who were speaking, and especially for the ones who were a little "off." And maybe that love, I thought, makes this man someone special, and not just "some famous dude."