Elder Robert J. Whetten's character was formed at a young age, when his family knelt in prayer in the rural northern Mexican colony of Colonia Juarez and "poured out their hearts and souls about the things most important to them - the gospel and the family."
"Heaven was very close when I was a child," said Elder Whetten.A 6-foot-6-inch executive with a distinguished career in international banking, Elder Whetten prizes the spiritual memories of childhood, growing up in a family of 10 children and learning hard work in a land he called a "child's paradise."
"It is a special blessing to grow up in a big family," he said. "My best friends were my brothers and sisters. It was such a rich experience.
"I learned to love the Lord when I was little. Those lessons learned so young and tenderly stay with you. That's why family prayer is so vitally important."
Elder Whetten, 54, was sustained a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy April 4, and has been assigned to serve as first counselor in the South America North Area.
"We're humbled and overwhelmed," he said. "We are most happy to do what we are asked, and realize that the essence of the gospel is service to others, and that service is to bring people to Christ and to uplift and to encourage."
Serving in the South America North Area will mean living in Quito, Ecuador, which will not be a difficult adjustment for Elder Whetten and his wife, Raquel Lopez Whetten. The Whettens have reared their large, bilingual family of eight children in Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and the United States.
Elder Whetten explained that as they moved from place to place, their family remained close.
"Everywhere we moved, we were accepted immediately in the Church as part of the gospel family, and that really makes a difference."
He also said that frequent moves mean "that your best friends are other members of the family. Older children took the younger ones with them to movies and outings. The age difference was no big deal."
The foundation and confidence for raising their family in an international setting came from his strong family and Church background, and from his wife, Raquel, said Elder Whetten.
"When we were off by ourselves, we didn't feel alone; we continued to feel like part of our family because we knew others were praying for us."
The new General Authority was born in the Mormon colony of Chuichupa in northern Mexico, but his parents soon moved to Colonia Juarez, another of the colonies. He and his twin brother, Albert K., who was tragically killed in 1965 by some men who tried to unlawfully take away family land, enjoyed riding horses, hunting and learning Scouting skills. They learned to get up early in the morning to milk cows, feed pigs, chop wood, work in an orchard, and help their father drill wells.
"Father always took a son with him well drilling," remembered Elder Whetten. As they were working, his father taught his sons important gospel principles.
"He told us we needed to go on missions. He told us we didn't need to date girls before our missions because that just brought problems. He taught us to be honest and generous, to share what we had with others, and build others up.
"Father told my brothers the same things. We used to compare notes."
Others in the community were extended family, or devout members who also taught them gospel principles, he said.
"All my school teachers were members of the Church. I remember Kenyon Wagner when I was in the 8th grade, saying, that "to be married is like heaven on earth."
He graduated from Juarez Academy and then went to BYU. At first he earned his way as a custodian, arising at 4 a.m. to work.
From BYU, he was called on a mission to Mexico. He served in Mexico City, Chiapas, Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula in southern and eastern Mexico, and was a counselor to the mission president.
"I never remember when I didn't have a testimony, but it was on my mission where I really gained a testimony of the Book of Mormon," he said.
During his mission he met his future wife, Raquel, although they did not begin courting until six months after their return. She worked for the Church Missionary Department in Salt Lake City.
"She was a great missionary," said Elder Whetten. "She was responsible for the baptism of many people. She was also a great teacher."
"My wife is the best thing that happened to me," he said. "We recognize that if we are going to be successful in life, it will together. Eternal life is gained as a family, not as individuals."
By the time they married, he had decided on a career in banking, following the examples of other members from the Colonies who had been successful in that endeavor. When it came time to decide on whether or not to continue his schooling, Sister Whetten encouraged him. "She said, `Do it now. Keep going. You are smart. You are capable. You can do it.' That made a difference. I knew I had 100 percent backing."
He explained that she was willing to live in a $45-a-month basement apartment "where I couldn't stand up straight" so he could attend graduate school.
After completing a master's degree in international administration at BYU - a capstone on a lifetime of education entirely within the Church's Educational System - he was recruited and accepted a training position with Citibank in New York. It was a highly competitive company.
"Even though I didn't go to Harvard or Yale, I held my own with those who had attended those schools," he said. "My missionary experience was worth every bit as much as a degree from one of those schools. In terms of my career, I progressed faster than they did. I am convinced that my missionary experience tipped the balance in my favor, in that sense."
In 1969 he was sent to Mexico City where he became manager of corporate banking, then general manager. In 1975, at age 32, he was named head of Citibank in Uruguay, and then was a vice president of Citibank in Argentina. From there it was back to Mexico, where he was to become a vice president of Citibank. He joined joined another company, Multibanco Comermex as executive vice president and stayed until that company was nationalized.
"Banking is a trust business," he explained. "When a Latter-day Saint is a person of integrity, and living the gospel, people can feel your personal integrity and they want to deal with you," he said. "They trust you."
He then became a consultant involved in the industrialization of the border of United States and Mexico, a subject he had written his master's thesis on years earlier.
The next phase in his career began when he and a group of others purchased a bank in El Paso, Texas, operated it for four years, then sold it to Norwest Bank, of which he became president and chief executive officer. Later he became chairman of First National Bank in San Diego, Calif., "where the economies of the United States and Mexico mesh."
In 1996, he and his wife were called by the Church to Paraguay where he presided over the Paraguay Asuncion Mission. His brother, John, currently director of the Juarez Academy in Colonia Juarez, preceded him as president of that mission by a decade.
"One of the most profound changes we felt in ourselves came with the realization that the Lord loves His missionaries. He wants you to love them and do whatever is in your power to help them have a rich, special experience as missionaries."
Elder Whetten praised the work of his wife. "Her previous mission experience was invaluable for us. She knew exactly what our missionaries were going through. She knew what it is like to be a sister missionary. She made a great contribution, and I am convinced that her mission experience made her that way."
Elder Robert J. Whetten
Family: Born April 12, 1943, in Chuichupa, Chihuahua, Mexico, to Glen A. and Ada May Judd Whetten. Married Raquel Lopez; eight children, Robert M., Cynthia Whetten Herrera, Albert D., Katrina Whetten Gaspar de Alba, Kristel, Chantelle, Camille and Carlos J.
Education: Bachelor's degree in Spanish and sociology, BYU; master of public administration with emphasis in international administration, BYU.
Employment: Vice president, Citibank in New York, Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay; executive director, Multibanco Comermex in Mexico; financial consultant; president, State National Bank, El Paso, Texas; president, Norwest Bank, El Paso, Texas; chairman, First National Bank, San Diego, Calif.
Church Service: Missionary, Southeast Mexican Mission, 1962-64; bishop's counselor; bishop; high councilor; stake mission president's counselor; president of the Paraguay Asuncion Mission.