Valiant servant of the Lord: Boy from Boise gained greatness a step at a time

There is no such thing as instant greatness, President Howard W. Hunter told a congregation at BYU on Feb. 10, 1987.

"The achievement of true greatness is a long-term process. It may involve occasional setbacks. The end result may not always be clearly visible, but it seems that it always requires regular, consistent, small, and sometimes ordinary and mundane steps over a long period of time."President Hunter's life illustrates his sermon. His challenges, setbacks and successes as a youth in Boise, Idaho; a young adult, banker and attorney in California; one of the Lord's anointed and ultimately His valiant spokesman, perhaps have instilled within him empathy for those who strive to build character one brick at a time.

"We should remember that it was the Lord who said, `Out of small things proceedeth that which is great,' " he reminded the congregation.

The 14th president of the Church was born Nov. 14, 1907, in Boise, Idaho, at the home of his parents, John William Hunter and Nellie Marie Rasmussen Hunter. His father was descended from immigrants who joined the Church in Scotland and came to Utah. But President Hunter's great-grandfather, John Hunter, became disenchanted after coming to Salt Lake City and left the Church.

Thus, President Hunter was in his early adulthood before his father, Will, joined the Church, although his mother, Nellie, was active in the Boise Branch. Occasionally, Will attended Sunday evening sacrament meetings with his family, when his work schedule allowed. (He was a motorman with the Boise Valley Traction Co., an inter-urban railway.)

Will felt that his two children (President Hunter's sister, Dorothy Elaine, was born Nov. 1, 1909) should be mature enough to decide for themselves about religion; thus Howard was 12 before he was baptized. He implored his father to allow his baptism so he could become a deacon and pass the sacrament with the other boys in the branch. His father finally consented. Howard was baptized April 4, 1920, and ordained a deacon five months later.

"I remember the first time I passed the sacrament," he said in a 1974 interview. "I was frightened, but thrilled to have the privilege. After the meeting the bishop complimented me on the way I had conducted myself." (Church News, Nov. 16, 1974.)

In many ways, his was a happy childhood. Howard and Dorothy maintained a close relationship. A diary he kept for a few months around his 11th birthday, quoted in a recent biography by Eleanor Knowles, describes a fascination with animals and birds, and he swam frequently, particularly while visiting his uncle's ranch.

The Scouting movement was only a decade old when Howard was 12, but he was deeply immersed in it. "There were two of us vying to be the first Eagle Scout in Boise," he said in a 1985 interview. "The other boy beat me by one court of honor, so I was the second Eagle Scout." (Church News, May 19, 1985.)

He may have been the second Scout in all of Idaho to attain that honor, but according to the Knowles biography, the Church had strong wards and stakes in southeastern Idaho, and he believes it is possible one or more Scouts from the area achieved the rank before he did.

A diverse assortment of after-school and summer jobs nurtured within the boy a profound work ethic, possibly fostering his attitude in later life toward laboring in the Kingdom of God, which he spoke of as putting one's "hand to the plow." (Conference Report, April 1961.)

In the 1974 Church News interview, he told of being "cash boy" at a store, delivering magazines, selling newspapers, delivering telegrams, caddying at a golf course, and working for a picture frame and art store. He also worked at a drugstore preparing syrup for ice cream sodas and delivering prescriptions, and was a bellboy at a hotel.

One of his keen interests that proved profitable was music. It stemmed from the day in 1919 when a player piano was delivered at the Hunter household for Dorothy's birthday, although the instrument was for both children. Later he won a marimba in a contest and learned to play that instrument.

Through his youth, he fostered a natural talent and learned to play the violin, drums, saxophone and clarinet. He played in a number of orchestras, forming his own after graduating from high school, "Hunter's Croonaders." That led to a contract to provide a five-piece orchestra for a two-month cruise to the orient on a passenger liner the SS President Jackson. The schedule included playing popular music during the lunch hour, classical music during dinner, dance music in the ballroom and theater music to accompany silent movies. It was a memorable trip for a 19-year-old. As an apostle traveling with the BYU folk dancers in 1984, he visited one of the hotels in China where his band had played, he said in the 1985 interview. (See Church News, May 19, 1985.)

Later, after he moved to Los Angeles, Calif., he continued his musical career, but abruptly and deliberately ended it shortly before his marriage, and put away his instruments permanently. Biographer Knowles quoted him as saying, "It was glamorous in some respects, and I made good money, but the association with many of the musicians was not enjoyable because of their drinking and moral standards."

He did form some edifying associations in California, however, as he actively participated in Church young adult activities. On one such occasion, he met his wife-to-be, Clara May (Claire) Jeffs. After a three-year courtship, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple on June 10, 1931. The advice the newlyweds received on that occasion, to stay out of debt, they followed throughout their marriage.

While still single in California, he developed his interest in gospel doctrine through young adult Sunday School classes. One day, after a lesson on patriarchal blessings, he made an appointment and received his blessing the following Sunday. He was promised that if he remained faithful he would receive "intelligence from on high," he would "be a master of worldly skill and a teacher of worldly wisdom as well as a priest of the most high God," that he would use his talents in serving the Church, would sit in its councils and would be known for his wisdom and righteous judgments. (Eleanor Knowles, Howard W. Hunter, page 71.)

The blessing proved prophetic in many ways. It might have been a basis for his October 1988 conference sermon, in which he reflected: "God knows and loves us all. We are, every one of us, his daughters and his sons, and whatever life's lessons may have brought us, the promise is still true: `If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.' " (James 1:5.)

Howard Hunter's promising career as a banker was interrupted by the Great Depression of the 1930s, when he, like so many others, lost his job. He later found work in the title department of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. There, he developed an interest in legal matters, and later attended the Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles.

"He maintained a rigorous schedule," a 1985 Church News story recounted, "working days and attending classes five nights a week. Each morning he got up at 5 o'clock and studied before he went to work. On Saturdays, he sometimes studied 15 hours." He received a juris doctorate in 1939, graduating with honors, just two-tenths of a point below the highest grade in his graduating class. He took the state bar examination, and was one of only a third of the group that took it who passed.

In 1941, he was called as bishop of the El Sereno Ward, and he became president of the Pasadena Stake in 1950. Then, in 1959, while at general conference in Salt Lake City with his counselors in the stake presidency, President David O. McKay invited him to his office.

"President McKay greeted me with a pleasant smile and a warm handshake and then said to me: `Sit down, President Hunter, I want to talk with you. The Lord has spoken. You are called to be one of his special witnesses, and tomorrow you will be sustained as a member of the Council of the Twelve.'

"I cannot attempt to explain the feeling that came over me. Tears came to my eyes and I could not speak. I have never felt so completely humbled as when I sat in the presence of this great, sweet, kindly man - the prophet of the Lord." (Knowles, page 144.)

Early in their marriage, the Hunters experienced one of life's "setbacks." Their first child, just seven months after his birth, developed an intestinal ulcer. At a hospital following surgery, on Oct. 11, 1934, "he slipped quietly away as we sat by his bed," President Hunter related. "We were grief-stricken and numb as we left the hospital into the night." (Knowles, page 88.)

Two other children, John and Louine were later born to the Hunters.

"We will all have some adversity in our lives," he reflected at general conference in October 1984. "I think we can be reasonably sure of that. Some of it will have the potential to be violent and damaging and destructive. Some of it may even strain our faith in a loving God who has the power to administer relief in our behalf. To those anxieties I think the Father of us all would say, `Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?' And of course that has to be faith for the whole journey, the entire experience, the fulness of our life, not simply around the bits and pieces of tempestuous moments . . . ."

Adversity was to touch President Hunter again. In the early 1970s, his wife Claire was afflicted with a cerebral ailment. Her husband cared for her devotedly as her health declined. She died Oct. 9, 1983.

On April 10, 1990, President Hunter married Inis Bernice Egan Stanton in the Salt Lake Temple. He had known her years earlier when she was a member of the El Sereno Ward in California when he was bishop. Their paths crossed later as she served in the 1970s as a receptionist in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.

As a member and ultimately president of the Council of the Twelve, President Hunter has had other hardships to endure. In October 1986, he underwent surgery for blockages in his coronary arteries. That was followed in April 1987 by surgery for a bleeding ulcer, and back surgery in June. His back healed well, but nerves in his legs deteriorated, a complication of diabetes. Four months later, he delivered his general conference sermon from a wheelchair.

After what some regard as a miraculous recovery, he stood at the pulpit in general conference of April 1988 with the aid of a walker. He lost his balance for a moment and fell backward, landing on his back on the podium of the choir conductor. He was quickly lifted up by President Thomas S. Monson, Elder Boyd K. Packer, and Dale Springer, a Church security guard, and despite breaking three ribs in the fall, he continued his sermon without missing a word.

He also showed calm courage during a BYU address Feb. 7, 1993. A man approached the podium during President Hunter's talk and threatened to detonate a bomb unless the apostle read a statement. President Hunter refused. After about 10 minutes, congregation members subdued the man, whose "bomb" was not real, and President Hunter continued his address.

In a 1988 Church News interview, President Hunter reflected: "Adversity touches many, many lives. What makes the difference is how we accept it. It's important to know it's all within the purposes of the Lord, whatever they are for us. If we can submit ourselves to that, we can go forward in faith and understanding." (Church News, June 25, 1988.)


President Howard W. Hunter

Born Nov. 14, 1907, in Boise, Idaho.

Married Clara May (Claire) Jeffs in Salt Lake Temple, June 1931. She died Oct. 9, 1983.

Received juris doctorate and graduated cum laude from Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles in 1939.

Called as bishop of the El Sereno Ward in Los Angeles in 1940; called as president of the Pasadena Stake in 1950.

Ordained an apostle Oct. 10, 1959.

Set apart as acting president of the Council of the Twelve Nov. 10, 1985, and as president June 2, 1988.

Married Inis Bernice Egan Stanton in Salt Lake Temple April 10, 1990.

Set apart and ordained as president of the Church June 5, 1994.

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