Opinion researcher knows gospel values are strong motivators

As a nationally known opinion researcher, Richard B. Wirthlin has studied the role that religious values play in motivating people's behavior. Now, as a new member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy sustained April 6, Elder Wirthlin has the opportunity to promulgate such values from a different position.

Elder Wirthlin, 65, was steeped in gospel principles throughout his childhood, being a son of Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin, who was Presiding Bishop of the Church from 1952 to 1961, and before that, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric."In those days, General Authorities traveled more often by automobile," he remembered, "and on many occasions I would travel with my dad just to keep him company."

Some of the most influential sermons he remembers came in father-son chats during those automobile trips.

His mother, Madeline, also influenced the development of his testimony, he explained. "She was very devoted to the Church, and with Dad traveling so much, she gave us some good gospel lessons. We always ate together as a family, and there weren't many dinners when we didn't discuss some aspect or another of the gospel."

The impact of those teachings is evident in another prominent family member, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"Joseph was the eldest, and I was second to youngest," he said. "He and I didn't have a lot of interaction when I was younger. But as time has gone on, the age difference of 14 years has virtually disappeared, and he's been a wonderful brother and a guide. He provides a real spiritual boost to our extended family, as you can imagine."

Richard was popular in school with broad interests. He was a high school student body officer, excelled scholastically and lettered in football and track. The family owned a ranch in Murray, Utah, south of Salt Lake City, where Richard milked cows, cared for chickens, hoed sugar beets and cut, hauled and stacked hay. He loved horses.

Richard's faith in the gospel was established early. "But it was my mission that crystalized, strengthened and added depth to my testimony, because I could see how the gospel message worked in people's lives and how those who lived its precepts changed for the better," he said.

He served in the Swiss-Austria Mission from January 1951 to August 1953, spending the whole time in the city of Basel, Switzerland, on the Rhine River. "So I had an opportunity to see the progress that occurs when someone accepts the gospel," he reflected.

In those days, a missionary served as second counselor in the mission presidency and visited other missionaries. As such, Elder Wirthlin traveled often to Vienna. At the time, west Austria was under U.S. control and east Austria under the control of the Soviet Union. "The difference in the way people prospered or didn't prosper was so evident as we would go from west to east, that it piqued my interest," he remarked. "I wanted to learn all I could about economic and political systems because of the stark contrast I saw between those two systems."

Thus, an inclination before his mission to pursue a business degree broadened into an interest in economics after his mission. He eventually received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Utah in that discipline, and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.

It was after his mission that he met Jeralie Mae Chandler on a blind date. Stationed in the U.S. Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, he knew another Latter-day Saint there who had been a BYU student. They combined their social networks at BYU and the University of Utah, and that was how he came in contact with Jeralie.

They were married in the Salt Lake Temple Nov. 23, 1956, and have reared eight children. Over the years, he has been a high councilor, bishop, stake president's counselor and regional representative.

He taught at BYU and became chairman of the Economics Department. On a sabbatical, he satisfied an interest in marketing research by establishing an opinion research firm.

"I always intended to go back to teaching, and I still intend someday to go back to teaching, but this took us in a very interesting direction," he said.

In 1968, he did some opinion polling for the campaign of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Sen. Goldwater was so impressed with Richard Wirthlin's work, he recommended him to a friend, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California.

Of his first meeting with Gov. Reagan in December 1968, Elder Wirthlin recalled: "There were just the two of us sitting across a small table chatting for two hours. I became very convinced this was an unusually strong, very fine individual."

He went on to help Reagan in his second run for the governorship in 1972 and his first bid for the U.S. presidency in 1976. With Richard Wirthlin as his pollster and chief campaign strategist, Reagan prevailed in the 1980 U.S. presidential election.

During their association, Elder Wirthlin said, he had a chance to observe a spiritual side to Ronald Reagan.

"He prayed frequently," he said. "One of the first times I noticed that was on a trip from Sacramento to San Diego on a private jet. [Campaign adviser] Mike Deaver and I sat on one side of the jet. Ronald Reagan and his security man sat on the other, and before we took off, I noticed he had his head bowed. I asked Mike, Is the governor feeling well?' And Mike said,Oh, he feels fine. He's just offering a prayer that this will be a safe and successful trip.' "

The night Reagan received the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1980, the Wirthlins were at the Reagan apartment, along with a number of campaign workers, including some prominent movie stars.

Sister Wirthlin recalled: "We had two or three little children there, and we were standing back a bit, just observing. He drew us over to the corner and talked to us."

Elder Wirthlin said he remarked to the governor that night that he must be relieved. "He said, `Well, it isn't so much being relieved, but it's a different feeling.' "

To explain the feeling, Mr. Reagan told the Wirthlins the story of a man who has a chance to observe his life as two sets of footprints in the sand, his own and those of the Lord. The man observes that in times of crisis there is only one set of footprints. The man asks the Lord why He left him during those times. Then comes the reply: "It was during those times that I carried you."

Living near the Potomac River in Virginia and near some famous Civil War sites, Elder Wirthlin pursued a keen interest in that saga and its significance in the history of the United States, the way it defined the nation as a union, not just a coalition of separate states. His library contains works on the Civil War, and from it, he said, he draws lessons about leadership.

He admires the leadership qualities of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. The new home in Salt Lake County, Utah, which the Wirthlins helped design themselves, incorporates one or two subtle similarities to Jefferson's Monticello home.

The home also has a room big enough to hold all of the eight children, three spouses and 17 grandchildren. And the home accommodates Pharoah, the family's big, affectionate German Shepherd. "What we've done with this house is to try to create a place where all of our family, from the newest born to the oldest can come and enjoy being here," he said.

Family solidarity was partly the reason that he at age 38 revived his interest in skiing, a sport he had enjoyed in his youth but abandoned at 19 when he went on his mission.

"I decided we were going to take up skiing," he said, "because it's a sport all the kids can enjoy. We as a family have enjoyed skiing together. And every other year we try to do something as an entire family. We went to Alaska on a fishing trip, for example. But I think just getting together as a family, sharing experiences, telling what's happening in one another's lives - that's the real fun. You don't have to go to the Carribbean to have a family adventure."

As a professional pollster and opinion shaper Elder Wirthlin has refined his theory that "you can persuade by reason, but if you want to motivate, you have to tap into emotions. That dimension comes from understanding what people value: self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment, and religious values as well."

Is there a message there for Church members as they present the gospel to the world?

"There very well could be," Elder Wirthlin said, "and I think we do it almost instinctively. We talk about joy, peace of mind, self-esteem, the power in having control over your life, a sense of sacrifice, the value of altruism and service that all come from living the gospel."


Elder Richard B. Wirthlin

Family: Born March 15, 1931, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Joseph L. and Madeline B. Wirthlin. Married Jeralie Mae Chandler Nov. 23, 1956, in the Salt Lake Temple. Children: Richard L., Mary Ann Wirthlin Grant, Joseph Mark, Carolyn Wirthlin Crandall, Michael B., Susan Ilene, Jill and John Orson.

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees from Universtiy of Utah, doctorate from University of California at Berkeley, all in economics.

Military service: U.S. Army, 1954-55.

Employment: chairman, chief executive officer and founder of what is now Wirthlin Worldwide, a strategic public opinion research firm; former professor and Economics Department chairman at BYU.

Church service: high councilor, member of Sunday School superintendency, bishop, stake president's counselor, regional representative, missionary in Swiss-Austrian Mission.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed