When the alarm goes off in the morning, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, says: “Well, I’m still here. I guess I better get up.”
His lifelong habit is to arrive early to work. His office in the Church Administration Building is connected to a series of offices and a meeting room reserved for Quorum of the Twelve committees and quorum meetings.
“I find myself all day long answering questions and giving directions and learning how to do the things that matter most,” President Ballard shares in his biography “Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard” by Susan Easton Black and Joseph Walker.
While President Ballard grew up in Salt Lake City and both grandfathers were Apostles and has a family tree that includes Hyrum Smith, his family wasn’t particularly active in the Church. His mother helped coach him to pass his baptism interview, and his grandparents, friends and youth leaders helped support him at church. President Ballard later served a mission in the British Mission, and he and his wife, Sister Barbara Ballard, presided over the Canada Toronto Mission before he was called as a general authority.
“I’m not so very different from others — as I see it, I’m pretty common and ordinary,” he said. “But in 92-plus years, this common, ordinary man has had some rather remarkable experiences through which I have learned extremely valuable and worthwhile lessons that have shaped me as a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. If I can share these experiences in such a way that readers can understand what I’ve learned and see the hand of the Lord in my life, maybe it will help them to better understand the lessons of their own lives and to see how God has been there for them as well.”
Here are a few excerpts from his biography. (Some have been edited for length and style.)
Hazards of being a general authority
On young Russell’s eighth birthday, Grandfather Melvin J. Ballard took him to the Rialto Theater in downtown Salt Lake City to see a Walt Disney cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
“As soon as the lights went off, Grandfather fell fast asleep,” said President Ballard years later. He remembered feeling “a little embarrassed because he was sleeping quite noisily. I couldn’t understand how anybody could sleep through a Walt Disney movie. I watched the show through, and it started the second time. I finally had to wake him up and tell him that the movie was over.”
Decades later, the exact same thing happened to President Ballard when he was a general authority himself. “I recall coming home from a conference assignment and listening to my children as they lobbied to go see ‘Star Wars’ at the Centre Theatre in Salt Lake City,” he said. “I thought that would be fine and was assured it was a good movie. We went to the movie, the lights went off, and I fell fast asleep. My children still wonder how it is possible that Dad could sleep through ‘Star Wars.’ Now I can tell you that it is an occupational hazard when you’re a general authority. Whenever the lights go off, he will fall fast asleep. I didn’t understand that when I was eight, but I understand it now because a grandfather made a precious memory” (“Anxiously Engaged,” page 14).
A missionary’s ‘perfect day’
When Elder Ballard served in England, tracting, street meetings and cottage meetings were staples of missionary work at the time. This experience is from his journal entry of May 20, 1948:
“I had the most interesting experience that I have had since I arrived in the mission field today. The same man who was yesterday’s heckler came back to the Nottingham Square with his Book of Mormon. He caused a great deal of trouble in our meeting and even held one of his own. He stated that the Mormons were evil devils and all the things that he could think of. After 1 hour and 45 minutes, he let us have our turn again.
“We answered in a friendly way and the crowd pulled for us, each and every one of them were on our side before we left. I know that it was the Spirit of the Lord. I know that we are the true Church and that the Lord will defend us if we work for Him in righteousness. A perfect day!” (“Anxiously Engaged,” p. 37).
Meeting his wife
Three days after he returned home from his mission, 21-year-old Russ Ballard and a few friends attended the “Hello Day” dance at the University of Utah. The dance was an excuse for the friends to get together, share mission stories and, if lucky, dance with some young women.
It was a friend, Dick Harris, who first spotted a beautiful, blue-eyed blonde sophomore on the dance floor. He wanted Russ to meet her. Without Russ’ encouragement, Dick tagged out the young man dancing with her and danced her over to where Russ was standing.
Dick introduced Russ to Barbara Bowen and moved aside. “Barbara was vivacious and popular, so I got to dance with her for less than a minute before another young man tagged me out,” President Ballard said years later. “That was just not acceptable to me. Having learned the importance of follow-up on my mission, I got her telephone number” (“Anxiously Engaged,” p. 59).
From bishop to the back row
When a release was extended to Bishop Ballard in 1964, it did not come with the relief he had expected. He wrote of his first experience sitting on the back row:
“During the process of my sitting upon the stand … my wife had the back row. It was kind of her territory. She would come in and sit on that back row, and I was on the stand. I was so invigorated and exhilarated on the Sabbath Day doing the Lord’s work, interviewing, visiting and doing all those things that bishops do. I would come home at night, and my wife would be absolutely exhausted. Sunday was a hard day for her. She tried to explain what it was like to sit on that back row with those six children of ours. Then the day came that I was released. That was a moment of truth. …
“I was now sitting on the back row with the six children. Barbara was on the stand with a sisters’ choir. …
“We had the opening song, the prayer, the sacrament. I was sitting with our six children. I have never been so busy in my whole life. I had the hand puppets going on both hands. That wasn’t working too well. The Cheerios got away from me, and that was embarrassing. The coloring books didn’t seem to entertain as well as they should. I looked up and Barbara caught my eye and just smiled.
“After struggling through the meeting, I started thinking, ‘Will it never end?’ I proceeded to gather up all that stuff and the six children. As I walked into the foyer exhausted from the assignment, I understood!
“Barbara later told me that she had never enjoyed a sacrament meeting as much as this one” (“Anxiously Engaged,” pages 93-94).
President Ballard didn’t know it then, but when he and his wife left for their mission to Canada, he was leaving his full-time professional business career behind him forever. For the rest of his life he would occasionally refer to himself as a “businessman-emeritus” and talk about how he sometimes misses “the satisfaction of working in the business world.” But he knew in 1973 — and still knows today — that the opportunity to serve the Lord trumps any investment project. His advice, then and now, is, “Keep your financial affairs in order, but never become so involved in business that you feel unable to accept a Church calling” (“Anxiously Engaged,” p. 114).
In 1976, while the Ballards were serving in Canada, President N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor in the First Presidency, called and invited them to attend general conference and to come by his office for a short visit.
The Ballards arrived in Salt Lake City on the evening of March 31. At 3 p.m. on April 1, they were seated across the desk from President Tanner. President Tanner took them completely by surprise when he said, “President Kimball wants to see you.”
They couldn’t imagine what they had done to require a visit with the President of the Church. President Tanner walked across the hall with them to President Kimball’s office.
President Kimball invited them to sit down. He paused to look at them for a moment before saying, “We have invited you to come to conference to extend an invitation to you, Brother Ballard, to become a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the Church.”
It was an earthshaking moment for President and Sister Ballard. President Ballard wondered if he was really worthy and capable of serving among the general authorities of the Church.
Fifteen minutes later, they left President Kimball’s office with President Tanner, who cautioned them to keep a low profile until the Saturday afternoon session of general conference. President and Sister Ballard watched the Saturday morning session on a television set at the home of his parents. They walked into the Tabernacle on Temple Square for the afternoon session, taking their seats as inconspicuously as possible. In that session, Elders Carlos E. Asay, John H. Groberg, and Jacob de Jager were also sustained as members of the First Quorum of the Seventy, along with Elder M. Russell Ballard. They were the second group called to the First Quorum of the Seventy, which had been organized six months earlier at the October general conference of 1975.
From the time of that call until today, President Ballard has served more than 45 years as a general authority. (“Anxiously Engaged,” pp. 135-136).
‘I will never be the same’
President Ballard spoke of his Ethiopia experience at the priesthood session of general conference in April 1985:
“Just 15 days ago, by assignment, I left for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which is approximately 10,000 miles from here. The world is very small in some ways. Had I been able to fly directly from Addis Ababa to Salt Lake City, it would have taken approximately 19 hours. In many other ways, however, the world is very large. Billions of our Heavenly Father’s children live upon the earth in all kinds of circumstances; the plight of those who are living in the drought-stricken areas of Africa is disastrous. Human suffering there is almost beyond description. I do not know all the reasons for the suffering. However, this most recent experience in my life has had a profound effect on me. I will never be the same.”
Nor was the Church. Within a year of his return from Ethiopia, LDS Humanitarian Services was organized to provide benevolent Latter-day Saints — and the Church itself — with an appropriate vehicle through which they could provide aid and assistance to the poor and needy of the world, especially during times of crisis (“Anxiously Engaged,” page 187).
It wasn’t a call to speak
Early Sunday morning, Oct. 6, 1985, President Gordon B. Hinckley called then-Elder Ballard at home … and asked if he was planning on attending conference that morning. In the same jovial tone, he asked if Elder Ballard and Barbara could stop in to see him about 9 o’clock before heading over to the Tabernacle.
When Elder Ballard hung up the phone, he “started to prepare Barbara for the fact that we might be receiving an assignment to go overseas.” He said to her, “You know, the members of the Seventy are being moved all over the world, and I just want you to know that when you get a call like this, it’s very likely that President Hinckley wants to assign us to an overseas assignment.”
He confessed, “I was preparing her to be ready to go to Hong Kong, or to Latin America, or to Europe. I didn’t want her to be too shocked when we were told that we were going someplace out of the country.”
As Elder and Sister Ballard were driving toward President Hinckley’s office, he “thought he would perhaps be called on to speak in conference, since one of the speakers was ill,” Barbara said. “We were relaxed on the way to President Hinckley’s office and discussed what Russ might talk about if called to speak.”
When the Ballards arrived at President Hinckley’s office, he invited Elder Ballard to come in alone. President Hinckley explained that he had just come from President Spencer W. Kimball’s apartment. He then said, “I am authorized to extend to you the invitation to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”
Elder Ballard was shocked. “Immediately, I lost control of my emotions,” he said. “Tears streamed from my eyes. To this day I am endeared to President Hinckley because he came around from his desk, took me in his arms and wept with me” (“Anxiously Engaged,” pages 189-190).
Health challenges and frozen yogurt
Elder Ballard had back pain while attending the Denver Colorado Temple dedication. When he came home, the next day he went, under protest, to LDS Hospital for a CT scan of his back. The scan, which included a larger area than originally planned, showed a cyst on his left kidney. It was drained, but an exploratory surgery was scheduled.
Elder Ballard entered LDS Hospital, and shortly thereafter, Elder Boyd K. Packer came into his room, followed by the surgeon. Together they gave him a priesthood blessing, after which Elder Packer and Elder Ballard gave the surgeon a blessing that he would receive inspiration and guidance as he did the work he was trained to do. During the procedure, the surgeon found in Elder Ballard’s left kidney what he said was the smallest malignant tumor he had encountered in his 30 years of practice. They removed the kidney, and no other procedures were required.
Within days of his hospital release, President Howard W. Hunter called Jon Huntsman and said, “We need to take Russ out for some yogurt.” This was a tradition among the friends — whenever one of them had health issues, the other two took him out for yogurt at their favorite frozen yogurt shop. The two friends picked him up, and “the three of us enjoyed our frozen yogurt together” (“Anxiously Engaged,” p. 208).
Serving around the world
As an Apostle, Elder Ballard was learning that there was no such thing as settling into a routine. Around every corner, it seemed, was a new experience, a new adventure, a new opportunity to serve the Lord’s children. In early 1990, for example, he and Elder Charles Didier — along with approximately 108 missionaries, members and investigators — met in Port of Spain for the dedication of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago for the preaching of the gospel.
The next day, Elder Ballard, again with Elder Didier, offered a dedicatory prayer in Georgetown, Guyana. This was followed by dedicatory prayers in Paramaribo, Suriname, and in Kourou, French Guiana, on Feb. 27.
Just a few months later, Elder Ballard was back in Toronto to attend the dedicatory ceremonies of the Toronto Canada Temple. He hosted Lord Thompson of Fleet as well as a group of local clergy for a tour of the temple. One clergyman took him aside after the tour and said, “I have felt the Spirit of the Lord twice in my life abundantly: once as I stood at the open tomb in the Holy Land and the second time as I stood in the celestial room of this temple. I have never felt anything like this except on these two occasions.” Elder Ballard replied: “That is Heavenly Father and the power of the Holy Ghost witnessing to your heart and to your mind that our message is true, that these temples are in fact houses of the Lord. His Spirit dwells here. The work of eternal salvation for our Father’s children is undertaken in this holy house.” The clergyman shook hands with Elder Ballard as if “we had been friends for many, many years” (“Anxiously Engaged,” pages 216-217).
Editor’s note: Three additional excerpts were added on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.