One of the bonuses of my time working at the Church News was visiting in the homes of each president of the Church and many members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from the time of President Spencer W. Kimball in 1974 until I retired in 2017.
I remember particularly three visits to the home of President Ezra Taft Benson and Sister Flora Smith Amussen Benson — first, in April 1974 to interview Sister Benson as part of a series of features about the wives of General Authorities; second, in April 1985 when he was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; and third, in November 1985, after he became president of the Church. In September 1986, then-Church News editor Dell Van Orden and I interviewed President and Sister Benson on the occasion of their 60th anniversary.
Sister Benson was born to a Danish father, Carl Christian Amussen, and a Scottish mother, Barbara McIsaac Smith Amussen. The last of their four children, young Flora, had a close relationship with her mother, 40 years a widow.
Growing up, young Flora wanted only the simple things that life had to offer through the gospel. Sister Benson said she remembered telling her mother, “I’ll never leave you.” But her mother explained that marriage and motherhood would lead to the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom.
Sister Benson told me, “I decided, ‘Then, if I must marry, I want to marry a poor man materially, who is rich spiritually. We will get what we get together. I would like to marry a farmer who recognizes his dependence on the Lord.’”
During the interview for their anniversary, President Benson described how young Flora’s wish to marry a farmer became reality. He said he was living on the family farm in Whitney, Idaho. “I got most of my college (at Utah State) in the winter months. ... One year — I believe it was about 1920 — I went down to Logan, (Utah), to spend the weekend with my friends. I wasn’t in school that quarter.”
While there, he saw Flora Amussen drive by; his friends waved at her and she waved back. He asked who she was and then told them, “I’ve just had the impression I’m going to marry her. When I come down this winter, I’m going to step her.”
His friends laughed and said that would be unlikely. “She’s too popular for a farm boy,” they chided. He responded, “That makes it all the more interesting.”
They met a few months later. They enjoyed “a wonderful courtship,” he said, until he was called to Great Britain as a missionary, 1921-23. “When I came back, we resumed our courting. Then, to my great surprise, Flora received a call to go to the Hawaiian islands.”
He graduated from Utah State. When she returned from her mission to Hawaii, they were married on Sept. 10, 1926. They loaded a few of their belongings into a used pickup truck and headed for Ames, Iowa, where he had been granted a $70-a-month fellowship.
In our April 1985 interview, President Benson gave me insight into Sister Benson’s tendency to not boast. Sitting on the sofa in their living room with an arm draped around her shoulders, he said, “I’ll tell you about a serious mistake I made, but I made it only once.”
With a knowing glance at his wife, which she returned with a wink, he said, “We hadn’t been in Ames very long, maybe six weeks, when I said to Flora, ‘Don’t you think it’s about time we had a little recreation?’ She said that would be nice. I suggested we play a game of tennis. She said that would be fine. I tell you, I never got beat so badly in my life at anything! I asked, ‘Where in the world did you learn to play tennis?’ She said, ‘Oh, I was the women’s singles champion at Utah State.’ I never challenged her to another game.”
In the early years of their marriage, Sister Benson enjoyed the role of a farmer’s wife. That phase of their life ended when he was appointed executive secretary of the National Council of Farmers in 1939, a position that required them to move to the Washington, D.C., area, where he served as a stake president.
He was ordained to the Council of the Twelve Apostles on Oct. 7, 1943, which brought them to Salt Lake City. They went back to Washington when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in 1952; he served until 1961, the end of Eisenhower’s second term, at which time he returned to full-time duties in the Council of the Twelve. In the 1960s, Sister Benson served with her husband when he presided over the European Mission, then based in Frankfurt, Germany.
In each interview, Sister Benson was reluctant to talk about herself, but she expressed great love for her family, which included two sons and four daughters, and the Church. During our 1974 visit, she said, “I would be willing to live in a log cabin if I could have my family and the gospel.” She then added, “Well, if the cabin is clean and I can have little curtains on the windows.”
Sister Benson’s homemaking skills and responsibilities were carried out in surroundings very different from anything found in a log cabin. Through her husband’s government work, she met kings and queens, foreign presidents, ambassadors and others in influential positions.
She often saw her name in newspapers, and the Benson family was featured on a national television program hosted by Edward R. Murrow. In 1955, during her husband’s term in President Eisenhower’s Cabinet, she was named National Homemaker of the Year.
Sister Benson died Aug. 14, 1992.