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How President McKay Met and Proposed to His Wife

During David O. McKay’s second year at the University of Utah, he and his siblings made arrangements with Emma Louisa Riggs to rent a cottage in the back of her house on Second West in Salt Lake City. As David and his brother, Thomas, walked up on the first day, Mrs. Riggs called her daughter to the window and observed, “Look, Emma Ray, here there are two young men who will make some lucky girls good husbands. See how considerate they are.”

Though engaged to another young man, Emma Ray replied, “I like the dark one.” The dark one was David.1

As the McKay siblings—David, Tommy, Annie, and Jeanette—settled into their cottage, David announced to his siblings that Emma Ray Riggs possessed every virtue with which he thought a sweetheart and wife should be endowed. David’s siblings roared with laughter, and his sister Jeanette adamantly told David he was a poor country lad and “there was no chance.”2 It was then and there that he decided, despite what he had been told, that he would make Emma Ray Riggs his wife.

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However, President McKay only admired Emma Ray from afar. And it wasn't until one fateful afternoon that Emma Ray found she had feelings for President McKay as well. 

Because Emma Ray was not taking the Normal (teaching) course, she didn’t have any classes with David. The only time she saw him was when she came for the rent or accidentally ran into him. At the end of the 1896 school year, she heard David address an audience for the first time as she walked past Room 28 of the Normal Society. As Emma Ray passed the door, she stopped and realized it was David speaking. She stayed and listened to what she felt was the most beautiful talk. When David closed his remarks, Emma Ray thought, “Well, there is a young man who is going to amount to something someday.” She had loved every word. Emma Ray wanted so badly to go up to David, shake hands with him, and congratulate him on what he had said, but it was as if her feet were fixed in concrete—and, as usual, David was surrounded by beautiful girls. Emma Ray could not make herself do it. As the students started to come out of the room, she ran down the stairs, hoping David would not discover her eavesdropping.3 Some months later she broke off her engagement.4

But even as it looked like the two might begin dating, President McKay received a letter from Salt Lake City that would put their budding courtship on hold. 

Why had he waited so long? Now, right before graduation and just as he intended to start courting Emma Ray, that letter came. He was no longer just thinking about a mission; now it was an official call from Box B, and he was going on a mission.

As friends in Huntsville learned of his call, they planned a going-away party for him on July 2. When David learned of the party, he did what he should have done long before. Deciding it was better late than never, he wrote and invited Emma Ray on a date—or a kind of date. Writing several drafts, he finally settled on these words:

Dear Friend Ray:

A “Farewell Party” will be given in the second ward to-morrow (Fri.) night, at which, if you have no objection, I would be much pleased to have your company. . . .

I write this because it was too late to call to see you tonight after Board meeting.

This invitation is late, I know,

but avoided it cannot be;

With tardy people, it’s always so—

That’s why it is so with me.

But late is better than never: they say—

I’m glad this saying was made

So please overlook my tardiness, Ray,

and accompany your true friend.

Dade5

David wondered about signing the invitation Dade. He worried it might be too personal, too familiar. He had told Emma Ray about this nickname, though everyone else called him David O. to distinguish him from his father. Dade had been his own version of “David” when he was a toddler, and it was a name he now encouraged from no one’s lips but Emma Ray’s.6 He loved it when she called him by his nickname.

What a relief it was when Emma Ray appeared in the foyer of the Huntsville Second Ward chapel. There were so many people to talk to, so many well-wishers, but David could not help but keep his attention focused on Emma Ray. Throughout the night, they caught each other’s eyes and then quickly averted their attention. At the end of the evening David asked Emma Ray if she would come back to Huntsville for his farewell address in sacrament meeting, and she seemed eager to accept the invitation.

David’s farewell was to be held on August 1, 1897. On July 28, he wrote a few lines to Emma Ray explaining train schedules from Salt Lake to Huntsville. David closed the letter, “Hoping that nothing will prevent you from enjoying your visit here.” This time he did not dare sign “Dade.” Instead, he wrote, “I remain very respectfully, Your sincere friend, David O. McKay.”7

David met Emma Ray at the train depot two days later, the night before his farewell. Just before sunset, he asked Emma Ray if she would like to take a ride. The sunset that night was more vibrant than most, and the mountains of Ogden Canyon seemed bathed in purple. As they rode, David found himself taking Emma Ray’s hand and telling her things he had not told anyone else.8 Thoughts of leaving in two weeks became even more poignant. That night he felt that Emma Ray and he had turned a corner in their feelings for each other and now he was leaving. What timing! At least she had promised to write him. Maybe her letters would get him through the next two years of waiting and longing, but two years seemed forever.

The next week was filled with good-byes and a whirlwind of preparations. One of the saddest days of David’s life was surely August 5, 1897, when twenty-one elders destined for Great Britain, including David, left for Salt Lake together. As he sat on the train he recorded in his new missionary journal: “Saddest morning ever spent in Huntsville or anywhere else! At eleven o’clock, bid my home, dear ones, relatives, & friends ‘good-bye.’ Sobbed.”9

While on his mission, President McKay wrote to Emma Ray. Though he might have hinted too strongly in his letters that he hoped to begin courting Emma Ray in earnest when he came home, causing a year-long silence between him and Emma Ray, whose mother had since passed away. 

It was on February 28, 1899—a year since Emma Ray had last written him—that relief on the subject of Miss Riggs finally arrived. He had come home that Saturday night “at the close of a busy and somewhat discouraging week” and looked at the mail.10 As David saw the return address on the letter, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The letter was from Cincinnati, Ohio. After her mother’s death, Emma Ray had graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor of arts degree and had moved to Cincinnati to live with her father and study piano at the Cincinnati College of Music. (Her father and mother had been divorced prior to her mother’s death.11)

There had been a twelve-month gap since he had written that stupid letter and offended her.12 He could not believe the words he was reading. It was obvious from Emma Ray’s letter that she had misunderstood him, but she had felt an “irresistible something” that had prompted her to write him.13

Suddenly, David didn’t feel discouraged or tired at all as he sat down and wrote her a reply:

As the first spring flowers are refreshed and strengthened by the rays of sunshine immediately following a cold blighting storm, so I was strengthened and encouraged by your cheerful interesting letter. Its warm congenial rays seemed to dissipate the cold dismal clouds of discouragement, and I basked in the sunlight of Happy Memory! Could you have read my thoughts as I read your letter, you would have changed that opinion quickly, “that you for a long time have held that I cared not for further correspondence.” Why you have been entertaining such an idea as that, I know not; unless the knowledge that I was corresponding with another young lady friend made you think that such an idea was exactly a correct one.

No, Ray, you were wrong in your “opinion.” Your letters, as your company are appreciated and esteemed more highly than you evidently have thought; and it gives me pleasure to read in your letter that this esteem is mutual.14

From the moment he saw that Cincinnati address, his worries about Emma Ray Riggs dissipated, and during the closing months of his mission, letters back and forth across the Atlantic became “warmer and warmer.”15

Emma Ray returned to Salt Lake City from Cincinnati in the summer of 1899 and immediately started looking for a job. Though offered several positions in Salt Lake City, Emma Ray took a position in Ogden at Madison Elementary School. When friends and relatives teased her about teaching in Ogden rather than in her hometown of Salt Lake City, she answered sheepishly, “Well, Ogden pays more!”16

The real reason for her teaching in Ogden came home in August 1899. Emma Ray had wondered when David would arrive. His letters were vague: no date, no time, no specific train. When Emma Ray received word that David was arriving, she found herself in a most inopportune location: on Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake attending a family reunion.17 When one of her cousins casually informed her David was scheduled to arrive on a train that day, she convinced her relatives to rig up an old rowboat with a sail so that she could reach the station in time to meet David’s train.

After a two-year separation, the reunion of Dade and Ray was sweet. Through letters across the Atlantic, their relationship had deepened and changed, and since David and Emma Ray were both teaching that fall in Ogden, they would be able to see each other frequently.

But doubts still occasionally arose between the two about each other's true feelings. 

David became worried that the “irresistible something” that had caused Emma Ray to write him on his mission had ceased to urge her so strongly. He was extremely concerned that the Salt Lake air and old associations had cooled her feelings toward him and made her think of her associations in Ogden only as a dream. David begged her, “I shall only ask, that when you think of the dream—I was going to say ‘just give a passing thought of Dade,’ but I shall not say it; for if you remember it only as a dream, thoughts of Dade will give you the nightmare; so I shall save you this unpleasantness.”18

Two weeks later, the couple had a date at the Saltair Pavilion, a dance hall located on the banks of the Great Salt Lake. After spending the evening together, David quickly sent her a letter after they parted:

We were together at beautiful Saltair; tonight, there are forty miles between us; yet I feel that our thoughts and feelings cover the distance and still keep us in touch with each other. I wonder if, in so short a time, anything more obstructive than distance could ever come between us so as to sever the happy feeling now existing? I shall dismiss this thought, though, say “good night,” and ask you to ever remember.19

It was in early August when Emma Ray finally showed her true feelings in response to David’s ardor. There had been another dance at Saltair. David had decided to attend to some work at the McKay’s Dry Hollow farm in Huntsville instead of going to the dance. Emma Ray had gone to the dance anticipating seeing David. Instead, another girl with coquettish eyes and her heart on her sleeve informed Emma Ray that she had written David a letter. Emma Ray became jealous and the very next day wrote a letter to David also expressing concern with the competition and finally telling David she had feelings for him. As soon as he read Emma Ray’s long-awaited disclosure of feelings, David quickly scribbled a letter of reassurance, telling her that the other woman’s letter had influenced him no more than “rippling waves affect the movement of a great vessel.” Indeed, he confided, the letter from the other woman had made him only more determined than ever to continue on his “love course.”20

By the end of August, David had gone to see the superintendent of Ogden City Schools, William Addison, and requested that Emma Ray be allowed to come back to her position at Madison School, which she did.21 During one of their lunch hour dates that fall, under one of Lester Park’s artistic umbrella trees, David popped the question. Emma Ray replied, “Dade, are you sure I’m the right one?” “I’m sure,” he said, and the couple became engaged.22

When the term ended in December 1900, Emma Ray left her job in Ogden for Salt Lake City to prepare for her upcoming marriage. David then asked her father for her hand. Not being able to do it in person, since Emma’s father was in Cincinnati, David penned a letter to his future father-in-law, Dr. O.H. Riggs, on December 9.23

Dr. Riggs was pleased with what David had written. He knew the relationship with David was for keeps, though he accused Emma of being sly, keeping her love a secret for four years, and not saying a word to him about it. However, he divulged that the last time his daughter had visited him, he had seen “which way her romantic needle pointed.”24

David Oman McKay and Emma Ray Riggs were sealed for time and all eternity on January 2, 1901, in the Salt Lake Temple by Apostle John Henry Smith. They were the first couple married in that temple in the twentieth century. Little did they know they would later be considered the first couple of the LDS Church and that their marriage would be watched and emulated by Church members worldwide.

Lead image from ChurchofJesusChrist.org

1. David Lawrence McKay, My Father, David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993),1– 2 (hereafter cited as My Father).

2. David O. McKay to Emma Ray McKay, 2 January 1921, found in The David Oman McKay Papers, MS 668, Manuscripts Division, University of Utah Marriott Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, box 1, fld. 4 (hereafter cited as McKay Papers).

3. See Emma Ray Riggs, 8 September 1957, Quarterly Conference, Salt Lake City, David O. McKay Scrapbooks, compiled by Clare Middlemiss, no. 131, not paginated, LDS Church Archives, MS 4640.

4. International Society of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, “Tribute to Emma Ray McKay” (Salt Lake City: International Society of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers).

5. Invitation found in McKay Papers, box 3, fld. 1.

6. My Father, 2.

7. David O. McKay Missionary Journal, 30 July 1897, “No. 1,” McKay Papers, box 3, fld. 1; and My Father, 2.

8. Ibid.

9. David O. McKay Missionary Journal, 5 August 1897, McKay Papers, box 3, fld. 1.

10. David O. McKay to Emma Ray Riggs, 4 March 1899, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 1.

11. Emma Ray McKay Asthon, “Emma Ray Riggs McKay,” The Relief Society Magazine 47 (June 1960): 351.

12. In 1952, President McKay dedicated the Edinburgh chapel and was boarding a night train at the Waverley Railroad Station when he talked about this occurrence. After he boarded the train, he opened his window and addressed the missionaries present. Frederick S. Buchanan recorded in his journal, “He told us not to worry about our girls. ‘I stopped writing to Ray for 12 months because she had gone out with another lad sleigh riding. But, she wrote and said after 12 months, “Some undefinable something prompts me to write you.”’ He sure got a kick out of that.” (Frederick S. Buchanan Mission Journal, 4 June 1952, Salt Lake City, Utah.)

13. David O. McKay to Emma Ray Riggs, 15 June 1900, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 2.

14. David O. McKay to Emma Ray Riggs, 4 March 1899, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 1.

15. Edward and Lottie McKay, oral history interview by Mary Jane Woodger for the Brigham Young University College of Education McKay Research Project, 30 July 1995, Salt Lake City, Utah; taped transcription of interview in author’s possession.

16. My Father, 4–5.

17. Susan Arrington Madsen, The Lord Needed a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 139.

18. Ibid.

19. David O. McKay to Emma Ray Riggs, 24 June 1900, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 2.

20. David O. McKay to Emma Ray Riggs McKay, 15 September 1921, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 6.

21. A later note from William Addison, superintendent of Ogden City Schools, to Emma Ray Riggs, dated 31 August 1900, reads, “I saw Mr. McKay yesterday. We are holding your old place at the Madison School for you. I am glad to know that you have decided to be with us.” (McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 2.)

22. My Father, 6.

23. David O. McKay to Obediah H. Riggs, 9 December 1900, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 2.

24. Obadiah H. Riggs to Emma Ray Riggs, 13 December 1900, McKay Papers, box 1, fld. 2.


It's an age-old story: boy meets girl, love blossoms, and they live happily ever after. Nowhere is this timeless tale more beautifully depicted than in the lives of the Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Courtships of the Prophets allows readers a captivating look into some of the most cherished memories of the prophets—the earliest moments of romances that endured a lifetime. From the sweet recollections of first encounters to the tender love letters of youth, this volume portrays the histories of some of our latter-day prophets as never before in a heartwarming collection of reminiscences that truly evokes the magic of happy endings.

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