'A Mormon boy' from rural Idaho

Nearly three-quarters of a century has passed since Ezra Taft Benson lived on his family's farm in Whitney, Idaho.

Since leaving the farming community's dusty roads, he has walked the halls of government service, traveled the broad avenues of the world's great cities, strolled the narrow streets and passages of small villages, and trod ground made sacred by his apostolic and prophetic callings.Despite the intervening years and the various positions of trust and responsibility that have been his, said one of his lifelong friends, Ezra Taft Benson has not changed.

"He is just the same as he always was," said Howard "Slim" Swainston, who is just one month and three days older than President Benson, who turns 90 on Aug. 4. "Of course, age creeps on," continued Brother Swainston, "but Ezra Taft is the same Ezra Taft I always knew."

Brother Swainston, who lives in the remodeled farm house where he was born and reared about two miles from the Benson homestead, was surprised one recent Saturday morning to look up from his front porch and see President Benson, accompanied by his wife, Flora, get out of a car.

"He just came up and sat down on the porch," said the prophet's friend. "I didn't know he was coming. I had received a telephone call from my bishop, who only told me I would have a visitor that morning. It puts quite a feeling in you to think that a man like that - even though you have known him all your life - would sit on your porch and visit with you.

"We talked like we always did as boys. We spent a lot of time together when we were young; I was over at his place or he was over here. We didn't go fishing very much, but we did farm work together. One of our last trips together as young men was to go to Cottonwood Canyon, about 20 miles to the north, to get poles for hay derricks."

Brother Swainston said he is often asked if it is hard for him to imagine that his friend is president of the Church.

"No, I always tell people that this isn't hard for me to imagine at all," he replied. "A lot of good boys came out of Whitney, and Ezra Taft Benson was one of the best. He was always a leader; all of us boys looked up to him. He could do anything, from riding horses to singing in our boys' chorus. And he was also so devoted and obedient to gospel teachings."

Brother Swainston said he has admired President Benson, and has kept track of his accomplishments. "He has done a lot of good wherever he has gone," the friend declared.

To say President Benson has gone far is, at best, an understatement.

He was born on the family farm to George T. Benson Jr., and Sarah Dunkley Benson, the eldest of 11 children. He graduated from Oneida Stake Academy in nearby Preston, Idaho. He left Whitney to attend Utah State Agricultural College (later named Utah State University) in Logan in 1919.

He interrupted his studies to serve in the Great Britain Mission from 1921-23. On Sept. 10, 1926, he married Flora Smith Amussen in the Salt Lake Temple. He had graduated from BYU shortly before the wedding; their honeymoon consisted of a drive to Ames, Iowa, where he received a master's degree from Iowa State College in 1927. (President and Sister Benson are parents of two sons and four daughters; they have 34 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren.)

In 1929, after he had done some graduate work at the University of California, he became 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 1930. While serving as executive secretary of the Idaho Cooperative Council, which he helped organize, he started the campaign that made the Idaho potato famous nationwide.

He had been serving as president of the Boise Stake only a year when, in 1939, he was named executive secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a federation of 4,600 cooperative groups. To accept that position, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where, in 1940, he was called as president of the first stake in the District of Columbia. The newly formed stake, created in the Capital District of the Eastern States Mission, extended north into Pennsylvania and as far south as Richmond, Va.

His life abruptly changed when, on Oct. 7, 1943, he was ordained a member of the Council of the Twelve. 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 10 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 saints.

In 1949, he became a member of the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization he has always admired and supported.

He returned to the nation's capital in 1953 when he was appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was orginally asked to serve for only one four-year 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.

The European saints who had benefited from his efforts during post-war years rejoiced when he returned to them as president of the European Mission from 1964-65.

He was set apart as president of the Council of the Twelve Dec. 30, 1973, and was ordained president of the Church, Nov. 10, 1985.

He has received 11 honorary degrees from American universities.

President Benson has strong ties to his hometown. From time to time, he returns for brief visits to Whitney, reveling in being in the tranquil southeastern Idaho community. Upon such occasions, people like Howard Swainston do not immediately think of the accomplishments of Ezra Taft Benson. "When I see him, I just think of our boyhood days," said Brother Swainston. "Then I think of what he has made of himself, and how he has allowed himself to be an instrument in the Lord's hands."

During President Benson's recent visit on Brother Swainston's front porch, the two longtime friends sang, "I Am a Mormon Boy."

"All his life, from the time we were little boys, he has sung that song," said Brother Swainston. "I think it's quite appropriate because that is just what he was and always will be - a Mormon boy from Whitney."

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