Pres. Benson dies at age 94; life marked by constancy

President Ezra Taft Benson, 13th president of the Church, died Monday, May 30, at 2:35 p.m. MDT in his apartment in Salt Lake City of congestive heart failure.

The 94-year-old leader had served as Church president for 8 1/2 years, succeeding President Spencer W. Kimball on Nov. 10, 1985. President Benson had served in the highest councils of the Church for more than 50 years. He was called to the Council of the Twelve in 1943 and served as president of that quorum for 12 years during the time that President Kimball served as Church president.With the death of President Benson, the Council of the Twelve, according to established procedure, became the governing body of the Church, with President Howard W. Hunter, 86, as quorum president.

President Benson served eight years as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration from 1953-1961. He was originally asked to serve for one term, but he served two terms. He was the first clergyman in more than 100 years to serve in a Presidential Cabinet post. He returned to full-time Church service in 1961, at the end of his Cabinet years.

Funeral service for President Benson was scheduled for Saturday, June 4, at 10 a.m. in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. A public viewing was scheduled for Friday, June 3, in the Administration Building. Burial will be in the Benson family plot in the cemetery in the town where he was born, Whitney, Idaho.

President Benson's death came after several years of frail health. Despite illness and weakening conditions during his last years, he met regularly with his counselors, President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson. Occasionally, he met with his counselors and other General Authorities in regularly scheduled meetings in the Salt Lake Temple. Nearly two months ago, on April 7, he joined his counselors in the temple and participated in the ordination and setting apart of Elder Robert D. Hales as a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles.

President Benson was taken to LDS Hospital Monday evening, May 23, for outpatient treatment. He was given "minor medical treatment" and was taken back to his apartment that same evening, said Church spokesman Don LeFevre. President Benson's condition worsened during the next week, but he remained at home.

In November 1986, President Benson underwent surgery for a pacemaker implant. In June 1990, he was hospitalized and treated for a subdural hematoma and a bacterial infection. In May 1992, he was admitted to the hospital for medical treatment, and was hospitalized with pneumonia in December 1992.

His last public appearance was at the funeral of his wife, Flora Amussen Benson, who died at age 91 on Aug. 14, 1992. Four months earlier, on May 2, he attended the groundbreaking of the Bountiful Temple, at which he was assisted in ceremoniously turning over the first shovelful of earth. The last time he attended general conference was in April 1992.

From time to time during his later years, President Benson enjoyed personal outings, such as going to the homes of family members for dinner, or drives to his hometown, located in southern Idaho just over the Utah border. After Sister Benson's death, he visited her grave several times in the family plot in the Whitney cemetery.

President Benson's life was marked by constancy. During a satellite broadcast on July 30, 1989, commemorating President Benson's 90th birthday, President Hinckley said: "There has been a constancy about President Benson's life. From the days of his boyhood he has been consistently faithful to every calling in the Church. There have been no excuses or alibis, no rationalizations to escape responsibility. He has accepted each call, prayed for the ability to fulfill it and enthusiastically gone to work."

On that same occasion, President Monson spoke of the high esteem in which President Benson was held by people of all walks of life. He described the scene in a hotel ballroom, which was filled with corporate leaders of America and professional men and women of accomplishment: "When President and Sister Benson entered the ballroom, every eye instantly turned toward him. In unison all present stood and applauded. Such was and is the respect which others have for our own beloved prophet and president. . . . How fitting that Ezra Taft Benson, like the Master, `increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.' "

Within hours after President Benson's death was announced, expressions of condolence and admiration began arriving at Church headquarters from political, religious and service organization leaders. Following are typical responses:

President Bill Clinton: "It was with sadness that I learned today of the passing of Ezra Taft Benson, who served our country and his church with ceaseless dedication over a long life productively lived. It is no accident that one of Mr. Benson's most famous books emphasized in its words and thoughts the three values his life best represented: Church, God and country. He was a leader of his church for five decades, he preached with passion for unity, solidarity and responsibility within the family, and he served ably in the Eisenhower administration as Agriculture Secretary.

"As we celebrate D-Day and the liberation of Europe, it is important to remember that Mr. Benson was the first representative of his church to re-enter post-war Europe, where he distributed aid and lifted the spirits of thousands of survivors.

"His friends and fellow believers remind us tonight that Ezra Taft Benson was a lifelong Scouter, a strong defender of the Constitution, the creator of the soil bank, a religious man who expanded the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and someone who believed and preached the idea that families come first. We rejoice in his service, we remember his life and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family, his church and his admirers worldwide."

Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt: "The loss of this great man will be felt all over the world. His personal devotion and spiritual strength have impacted millions of lives, including my own. He had the unusual distinction of providing significant leadership, not only in religion, but in government, shaping important public policy for the nation in his duties as a Presidential Cabinet member. My thoughts are with his family as they deal with this personal loss."

Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, administrator of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese: "On behalf of the Catholic people of the State of Utah, I offer heartfelt sympathy to the members of the First Presidency and faithful of the LDS Church on the death of their beloved President Ezra Taft Benson. We hold them and his family in our hearts in this time of loss.

"President Benson served his church, this community and indeed the country with single-hearted dedication and devotion. His commitment to a better world motivated him to use his many talents on behalf of others. His concern for family life moved him to preach those fundamental values so essential for success: honesty, fidelity, perseverance and devotion. May God grant peace to all who revered President Benson."

Rabbi Frederick Wenger of the Congregation Kol Ami: "On behalf of the Jewish community, we extend our deepest sympathy to our LDS friends. President Benson was a great religious leader for his church and we mourn his passing."

C. Michael Hoover, Irving, Texas, assistant chief Scout executive of the Boy Scouts of America: "We were very saddened to hear of the passing of President Benson, who was a great supporter of Scouting. He was a member of our National Advisory Council at the time of his death and had been a long-time member of the National Executive Board. A number of years ago he was Western Region president of the BSA. Every time we met with him he encouraged boys to be involved in Scouting and particularly to reach their Eagle rank. He was a holder of the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest award given by the Boy Scouts of America, and he also was very involved in our international committees, encouraging worldwide Scouting. The Boy Scouts of America is saddened by his passing."

President Benson's life spanned most of the 20th century, and began during the waning months of the 19th century. He was born Aug. 4, 1899, on the family farm in Whitney, Idaho, to George T. Benson Jr. and Sarah Dunkley Benson. He was the eldest of 11 children.

From exploring the little farming community's dusty roads, he went on to walk the halls of government service, travel the broad avenues of the world's great cities, stroll the narrow streets and passages of small villages, and traverse ground made sacred by his apostolic and prophetic callings.

After he graduated from the Oneida Stake Academy in nearby Preston, Idaho, he left Whitney to attend Utah State Agricultural College (later named Utah State University) in Logan, Utah, in 1919.

He interrupted his studies to serve a mission in England from 1921-23. On Sept. 10, 1926, he married Flora Smith Amussen in the Salt Lake Temple.

He graduated from BYU shortly before the wedding. He received a master's degree from Iowa State College at Ames, Iowa, in 1927. In 1929, after he had done some graduate work at the University of California, he began a career in agriculture as Franklin County agricultural agent for the University of Idaho Extension Service in Preston.

Later, upon being appointed to head the Department of Agricultural Economics and Marketing, he moved his family to Boise, Idaho, in 1931. From 1933-38, he served as executive secretary of the Idaho Cooperative Council. In 1939, he was named executive secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a federation of 4,600 cooperative groups, and moved his family to Washington, D.C. His life abruptly changed when, on Oct. 7, 1943, he was called to the Council of the Twelve by President Heber J. Grant. With that call, he moved his family to Salt Lake City and turned his focus from agricultural to spiritual concerns. Yet, at the end of World War II, the two concerns were fused as he spent 11 months in Europe, traveling 61,236 miles by plane, train, ship, automobile, bus and Jeep to coordinate relief efforts among Church members. During that time, some 92 boxcars full of food, clothing and bedding arrived to aid European Latter-day Saints.

After becoming president of the Church, President Benson continually exhorted members to study the Book of Mormon and to incorporate into their lives the principles and teachings of Jesus Christ and the prophets.

President Benson is survived by sons and daughters Reed A. Benson, Provo, Utah; Mark A. Benson, Salt Lake City; Barbara (Mrs. Robert H.) Walker, Calgary, Alberta; Beverly (Mrs. James M.) Parker, Salt Lake City; Bonnie (Mrs. Lowell L.) Madsen, Littleton, Colo.; and Beth (Mrs. David A.) Burton, Salt Lake City, serving in the Germany Frankfurt Mission where her husband is mission president; 34 grandchildren and 67 great-grandchildren.

President Benson is survived also by sisters Lera Whittle, Orem, Utah; Louise Greenwood, Salt Lake City; Margaret Keller, Nampa, Idaho; and Sally Eveleth, Redding, Calif.

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