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Harold B. Lee: Hard work, service to others characterized life of 11th president

Growing up on a farm in southeastern Idaho taught Harold B. Lee many valuable character traits and provided experiences from which he would draw in his later life.

"We began to do chores shortly after daybreak so we could start with the day's work by sunup," he recalled. "When the day's work was finished we had yet to do our evening chores, usually by the aid of a lantern."As a boy, young Harold mastered many tasks, wrote his older brother, S. Perry Lee. "Harold graduated from riding the derrick horse that was used to lift the huge forkful of hay onto the growing hay stack, to pitching the hay onto the wagon from the cured haycocks. He also learned to mow and rake the ripened alfalfa and other fodder grasses. He became adept at driving the four-in-hand team that hauled the lumbering wagonload of sugarbeets to the loading dock."

As a young boy, while gaining an appreciation for hard work, young Harold learned an even more important lesson. One day he had the urge to explore an old broken-down shed, but he heard a voice warning: "Harold, don't go over there." Elder Lee later recalled: "I looked about to see who was speaking my name. My father was way up at the other end of the field. He could not see what I was doing. There was no speaker in sight. Then I realized that someone that I could not see was warning me not to go over there. What was over there, I shall never know, but I learned early that there are those beyond our sight that could talk to us."

After attending the Church-operated Oneida Stake Academy and the Albion State Normal School, he began his teaching career at age 17 in the small, rural one-room Silver Star School near Weston, Idaho. A year later he became principal of the district school, some of whose students were older than he was.

Harold's interests were varied. While in school he had played basketball and participated in debates. He also played the trombone and piano in dance bands in and around his community.

He completed a mission in the Western States Mission, and then moved to Salt Lake City. He soon began courting Fern Lucinda Tanner, a young woman of considerable talents. After a brief courtship, they were married Nov. 14, 1923, in the Salt Lake Temple. Two daughters, Maurine and Helen, were born to them.

While working, he completed his college education by attending summer sessions at the University of Utah and by taking extension and home study courses. He became successively principal of two schools and then district manager of a library supplies company. In 1932 he was appointed a member of the Salt Lake City Commission with responsibility for streets and public properties.

The activities and contributions for which Harold B. Lee is remembered, however, lay in a different area. In 1930 he became president of the Pioneer Stake at the young age of 31. He presided during the Great Depression, and the members of his stake, located on the west side of Salt Lake City, were particularly hard hit.

Under his leadership, the stake developed a series of innovative projects to produce and preserve needed food and other supplies for the destitute. President Lee was also concerned about the social and recreational needs of his stake members. The stake constructed a gymnasium, using materials from a demolished business building, and then set up a stakewide budget plan to provide wholesome Church-sponsored activities for all, regardless of their financial status.

It was because of this background that the First Presidency in 1935 called him to an interview to discuss what might be done for the multitude of members Churchwide who were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. At that interview, they appointed Harold B. Lee to develop the Church's welfare plan.

He sought inspiration through prayer to fulfill their charge. "As I kneeled down, my petition was, What kind of an organization should be set up to accomplish what the presidency has assigned?' And there came to me on that glorious morning one of the most heavenly realizations of the power of the priesthood of God. It was as though something were saying to me,There is no new organization necessary to take care of the needs of this people. All that is necessary is to put the priesthood of God to work. There is nothing else you need as a substitute.' "

He became the originator of a series of projects called the Church "Security Program" that, the following year, became know as the Welfare Program. During the next several years he traveled widely, counseling with local leaders concerning the implementation of the welfare program. Thus, he was already widely known and respected when he received his next significant calling.

On April 6, 1941, Harold B. Lee was sustained as a member of the Council of the Twelve. He later related a sacred experience he had during the following week:

"It was on the day or so following conference that President Stephen L Richards, who was then chairman of the Church radio and publicity committee, approached me and said, `Brother Lee, next Sunday is Easter, and we have decided to ask you to give the Sunday night radio talk, the Easter talk, on the resurrection of the Lord.

"And then he added, `You understand now, of course, that as a member of the Council of the Twelve, you are to be one of the special witnesses of the life and mission of the Savior and of that great event.' The most overwhelming of all the things that have happened to me was to begin to realize what a call into the Council of the Twelve meant.

"During the days which followed, I locked myself in one of the rooms over in the Church Office Building, and there I read the story of the life of the Savior. As I read the events of His life, and particularly the events leading up to and of the crucifixion, and then of the resurrection, I discovered that something was happening to me. I was not just reading a story; it seemed actually as though I was living the events; and I was reading them with a reality the like of which I had never before experienced. And when, on the Sunday night following, after I had delivered my brief talk and then declared, simply, "As one of the humblest among you, I, too, know that these things are true, that Jesus died and was resurrected for the sins of the world," I was speaking from a full heart, because I had come to know that week, with a certainty which I never before had known."

Visits to stake conferences, tours of missions, and assignments to advise auxiliary organizations all broadened Elder Lee's experience. As World War II broke out, he was called as the first chairman of the Church's Servicemen's Committee.

Elder Lee was also particularly responsive to the challenges and needs of the younger members of the Church. In 1945 he gave a series of radio addresses.

"My sister and I were then in our late teens," recalled his daughter Helen, now married to L. Brent Goates. "So Father was very much interested in our reactions. He was very much aware of the kind of problems we were facing at that particular time in the history of the world, and we regularly discussed the things that he was going to talk about . . . in a free exchange of ideas. We'd say, Oh, no, Dad, you can't say that. It just isn't like that,' or else,You'll have to say that differently. . . .' Such experiences drew us closely together."

The addresses were subsequently published in a book, Youth and the Church. A revised version of this volume, Decisions for Successful Living, appeared in 1973.

By 1960 Elder Lee had become chairman of the General Priesthood Committee of the Twelve. It was in that year that the First Presidency directed him and his committee to conduct an exhaustive review of the Church's programs and curriculum. The result of this study was the Priesthood Correlation effort of the 1960s. In the priesthood session of several successive general conferences Elder Lee introduced and explained such significant developments as ward correlation councils and priesthood executive committees, home teaching and family home evenings.

There was another dimension to Elder Lee's preparation. During the Great Depression he had learned empathy as he shared the suffering of those over whom he presided. Then, in 1962, he personally experienced deep sorrow as he lost his wife, Fern. Four years later his daughter Maureen, then the wife of Ernest J. Wilkins, died.

In 1963 he married Freda Joan Jensen, an accomplished educator.

Reflecting on the tragic experiences of losing loved ones and on the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Lee concluded:

"These thoughts now running through my mind begin to give greater meaning to some of the experiences in my life, things that have happened which have been difficult for me to understand. At times it seemed as though I, too, was like a rough stone rolling down from a high mountainside, being buffeted and polished, I suppose, by experiences, that I too might overcome and become a polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty."

What Elder Lee was being prepared for became obvious when President Joseph Fielding Smith passed away on July 2, 1972, and Elder Lee became the 11th president of the Church. At a press conference, he declared that the Church's greatest challenge was to keep up with the worldwide growth in its membership.

President Lee declared on this occasion that his most important message to the Saints was that they should keep the commandments of God. "The safety of the Church lies in the members keeping the commandments. There is nothing more important that I could say. As they keep the commandments, blessings will come."

Though brief, his administration continued the important trends that had been inaugurated by his predecessors. A consolidation at Church headquarters included the formation of departments bringing together formerly separate but related activities. For example, the Welfare Services Department consolidated the Church's Welfare, Social Services, and Health programs.

President Lee and his counselors directed local leaders to give special attention to the unique needs of individual Church members. For example, separate branches, classes and improved translation facilities were provided for minority groups. Similarly, the Church revitalized activities for both older and younger single adults.

President Lee led the Church for only a year and a half before his unexpected death on Dec. 26, 1973.

A comment he made shortly before his 74th birthday illuminates the motivation behind his zeal, a zeal that characterized his entire life.

"I would only wish that the members of the Church, the world over, could know my heart and know my love as it reaches out to everyone of them to whom I feel a special kinship. My love and blessing goes out to all."

President Lee always relied on a greater power to assist him. In his final remarks at his last conference in October 1973, he observed:

"Sometimes when the veil has been very thin, I have thought that if the struggle had been still greater, that maybe then there would have been no veil at all. I stand by, not asking anything more than the Lord wants to give me, but I know that He is up there and He is guiding and directing."

For many years to come Church members would feel the far-reaching impact and appreciate the contributions of Harold B. Lee.

(Additional information)

Highlights in life of Harold B. Lee

March 28, 1899: Born in Clifton, Idaho.

1916: Began teaching school at age 17; became principal the following year.

1920: Called to Western States Mission.

1923-28: Served as school principal in Salt Lake City.

1930: Became president of Pioneer Stake at age 31.

1932: Appointed a member of Salt Lake City Commission.

1935: Called to direct Churchwide implementation of the welfare plan.

April 10, 1941: Ordained to the Council of the Twelve.

1962: Directed development of the priesthood correlation program.

Jan. 23, 1970: Sustained as president of the Council of the Twelve.

Jan. 23, 1970: Set apart as first counselor in the First Presidency.

July 7, 1972: Became president of the Church at age 73.

Dec. 26, 1973: Died in Salt Lake City at age 74.

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