Emma Ray Riggs McKay

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Emma Ray Riggs McKay was the wife of David O. McKay, ninth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was also a music patron and humanitarian.

Ray, named for a ray of sunshine, was born on June 23, 1877, in Salt Lake City, to Obadiah H. Riggs and Emma Louise Robbins, both of whom taught at the University of Utah. She studied piano performance for six months at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the University of Utah. She was one of six students to be awarded a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in 1898. After graduating, she taught at Madison Elementary School in Ogden, Utah.

Ray met David O. McKay when he and two of his siblings rented a house from Ray’s mother while they attended the University of Utah.

One day, the mother and daughter stood at the window and watched as David O. and Thomas E. McKay arrived with their mother. Emma Ray’s mother commented: “There are two young men who will make some lucky girls good husbands. See how considerate they are of their mother.” Emma Ray then remarked, “I like the dark one,” who was David O. McKay.”[1]

They did not become serious with each other until a few years later. Their first date was his missionary farewell dance. He records about a subsequent date: “Sunday, August 1st. Attended Sunday School and meeting. In the evening, took a ride over on South Hills. Low purple mountains at sunset very beautiful. Sunday evening went strolling with Ray. Told each other secrets. A memorable night!”[2]

They corresponded while he served a mission to Great Britain. When she received word that he was returning from his mission, she was visiting her cousins on Antelope Island out in the Great Salt Lake “a true island in those days. The regular passenger boat would not get her to the mainland in time to meet David O., so she and her cousin Belle rigged up an old rowboat with a sail, and the two of them rowed across the lake in time for her to be in Salt Lake on his arrival.”[3]

He taught at Weber Stake Academy, across the park from the school where she taught. They met often at the park, and he asked her to marry him there. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on January 2, 1901. They had seven children.

When he was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on April 9, 1906, he had been told to say nothing until his name was announced, so Ray didn’t know until that moment, and she burst into tears. He was very busy with both work and his Church duties, so she bore most of the responsibilities of rearing the children. They revered each other and are still remembered for their love and devotion to each other. She died on November 14, 1977, ten months after his passing.

In the course of her life, she was recognized publicly in a number of ways. The McKay Music Library at the University of Utah is named in her honor; she was named Utah Mother of the Year; she received an honorary doctorate in humanities from Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State University) as well as the Eternal Quest of Womanhood Award. Ricks College honored her with the Distinguished Achievement Award and Brigham Young University gave her the Outstanding Woman Award.