Never satisfied with less than his best, Elder Robert D. Hales was relentless in his devotion to responsibility, especially to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He relied on gospel principles to guide him as a youth pitching baseball, as a young adult flying military aircraft, as a student in a master’s program at Harvard University, as an international business executive and as a General Authority for 42 years. He was a personable man who enjoyed being around people and sharing a sense of humor.
Elder Hales died peacefully from causes incident to age on Sunday, Oct. 1, at 12:15 p.m. at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was surrounded by family at the time of his passing. He was 85.
Elder Hales was sustained as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1975, to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976, as Presiding Bishop in 1985 and to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1994.
During his tenure as Presiding Bishop, the rate of building meetinghouses and international humanitarian aid increased.
While serving in the Seventy, he served as president of the England London Mission, 1978-81, and, after his release served as first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency from 1981-85. He was executive administrator over Europe when the Freiberg Germany Temple was built in what was then the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany.
In the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he served on the BYU Board of Trustees, was adviser to the general auxiliaries of the Church, served as first contact for Europe, and was the Church’s point man for the Church’s contributions to the 2002 Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City. These included “Light of the World,” a presentation in the Conference Center for Olympic guests and Church members, addressing the media, and carrying the Olympic flame up the steps of the Church Administration Building to President Gordon B. Hinckley. He also encouraged Utahns of all faiths to serve in some capacity during the Games.
In 2003, he received an honorary doctoral degree in Christian Service from BYU and this July he was recognized with the 2017 Pioneers of Progress President’s Award, sponsored by the Days of ’47, Inc.
Prior to his call as a General Authority, Elder Hales served as regional representative and stake president and as a bishop three times. He was a business executive for four companies, and was a group vice president with Cheseborough Ponds.
During the Pioneers of Progress Awards ceremony, held July 13, Elder Hales said the greatest challenge in life is “enduring to the end.”
“I think that enduring to the end is the greatest accomplishment, to be able to give everything you have got,” said Elder Hales. “It is like the coaches say, ‘When you give everything on the playing field, you can’t ask for more.’”
Robert Dean Hales was born Aug. 24, 1932, in New York City, New York, to John Rulon and Vera Marie Holbrook Hales. His family had moved from Rexburg, Idaho, to New York, where the father was a successful commercial artist. Young Robert attended school in Great Neck, New York, where he was among but few Latter-day Saints. In his school district was the United Nations building, and many of those he lived around were of international origin.
“As a boy I felt that if I ever once deviated from the principles of the Church, it would be very difficult to explain to my friends,” he once said. “To me it was a responsibility and, had I broken that trust, I think it would have been a problem.”
Growing up, he learned the gospel from his parents by both precept and example. For example, his father once took him to the Susquehanna River to teach him of the restoration of the priesthood. From his mother he absorbed welfare principles while sharpening his teen driving skills; he drove the car so his Relief Society president mom could deliver goods to those in need. As a new deacon, when he rose to share his feelings, tears filled his eyes because the Spirit was so strong, he said later.
His teenage passion was baseball. He was a pitcher both in high school and college, but was told he could not make a professional player. “The great people who help us in life are the ones who are the most honest,” he would later say.
He turned his interests to academics at the University of Utah, supporting his education as a radio announcer for KSL and KDYL radio stations. During his college years, he met and married Mary Crandall, and, after graduating, served in the USAF as a fighter pilot. He flew the F-84 and F-100 in the strategic and tactical air commands. He was an adjutant and part of the precision firepower demonstration team of his squadron. Serving in the U.S. Air Force helped provide the means for graduate school.
After his military service, he attended Harvard University and received a master's of business administration degree. While there, he was called as elders quorum president.
“I was concerned about my grades and afraid I was going to fail if I took time out for such a Church calling,” he said. “But Mary and I pondered the call and said, ‘We can do them both — school and Church service'" (Church News, April 16, 1994).
After graduation, he began a career in business, and decided to proceed on a multi-national basis, a step foreshadowed by his growing up among families from the United Nations. The Hales family, which grew to include two sons, moved from city to city, from country to country — England, Germany, Spain; and cities in the United States including New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; Albany, Georgia; and Big Spring, Texas.
“The wife is left to take care of everything,” recalled Sister Hales. “The first time we moved overseas, he said, ‘You will need to finish selling the house and car, make the flight plans and take care of all the business that needs to be done before leaving the country.”’
And she did, with some guidance by telephone from the Harvard graduate.
“Whatever decision I made, he accepted,” she said. “It’s a much more rewarding relationship when one isn’t doing the labor while the other provides all the brains” (Church News, April 16, 1994).
They continued the pattern established in graduate school to accept callings regardless of their personal circumstances. And he was successful in his work. Eventually his career brought them, through employment with Gillette, Max Factor, Paper Mate, and Cheseborough Ponds, to Scarsdale, New York. It was while living in this community north of New York City that they received President Spencer W. Kimball’s call for him to become a General Authority. Meetings where he spoke as a General Authority were noted for their spirituality, and he frequently shared the testimony he gained as a youth.
“My testimony has been a gift that has been given to me,” he said. “There has never been a time when I have doubted.”
In general conference on Oct. 4, 2003, he observed: “Gaining a testimony and becoming converted begins with study and prayer, then living the gospel with patience and persistence and inviting and waiting upon the Spirit.” He spoke of temple dedications when he said, “During these times, among many others, I have felt the undeniable witness of the Spirit of God, like a fire burning in my heart, that the restored gospel is true.”
Elder Hales suffered failing health for several years. In his October 2011 general conference address, in which he spoke of "waiting upon the Lord," he said: "Every one of us is more beloved to the Lord than we can possibly understand or imagine. Let us therefore be kinder to one another and kinder toward ourselves. Let us remember that as we wait upon the Lord, we are becoming 'saint[s] through [His] atonement, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us], even as a child doth submit to his father'” (Matthew 26:38).
Contributing: John Hart