Elder Robert D. Hales: About the Lord's Business

Elder Robert D. Hales: About the Lord's Business

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It was 1975. Robert D. Hales was 42 years old, a rising star in the world of business having worked in top positions at major companies and one step removed from the top position at Chesebrough-Ponds when he received a note during an important board meeting that literally changed his life. The note informed him that Marion G. Romney, a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was waiting on the telephone to talk to him. “I asked to be excused, and the chairman looked at me as if there better had been a death in the family,” Elder Hales recalled with a chuckle. “When I returned from my conversation with President Romney, the chairman said, ‘You came back in here a different man.’” 

And a different man he was, with a different kind of business to conduct. Elder Hales was soon called into lifelong service for the Church, which meant resigning his business position and moving to Salt Lake City. After numerous leadership positions in the Church including serving as an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a member of the Seventy and as Presiding Bishop, he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 1994. Looking back, Elder Hales said it seemed a very natural process to dedicate his life to the Church because he had already decided to put his life in “in the Lord’s hands” as a young student working toward a master’s degree at Harvard University.

At Harvard he was married with two small children when he was called to a supervisory position in the Church, a volunteer job that carried with it major, time-consuming responsibilities. He knew it would be extremely difficult to keep up with the rigor and intensity of the graduate program and volunteer for the Church. “I was concerned about my grades, and was afraid I was going to fail if I took time out for such a calling,” Elder Hales said. But as he talked with his wife, Mary, they came to the conclusion that they could do them both — school and Church service. The next day when Elder Hales came home from school, he discovered that Mary had walled off a section of the unfinished basement in their apartment with two-by-fours and wallboard to give him a small office to study and conduct Church business.

Elder Hales said, “That decision was much harder to make then, than when years later I accepted the call to serve as an Assistant to the Twelve and left my business career behind. Some people may have trouble understanding that, but I believe you really show the Lord who you are and what you are willing to become when you make those hard decisions as a young person.”

As a boy growing up in New York City, Elder Hales gained an appreciation for his vibrant neighborhood with people of all faiths and backgrounds. He recognized early on that “most everyone has the same desires for themselves and their families in the different cultures of the world.” These insights built the character of the young man who later, as a business executive and Church leader, would live in England, Germany and Spain, building bridges along the way with those around him. His son David said, “He is a good negotiator. He has the ability to talk with both sides and keep them focused on the problems and the end goals.” Son Stephen added, “He’s always anxious to do the right thing for the right reason.”

Elder Hales also gravitated toward gospel teachings at an early age. “My mother told me I was reading the Bible at age 8. It was just one of those private things. I don’t know of a day when I didn’t believe. My testimony is a gift that was given to me.” 

Another gift given to Elder Hales was his parents. He said the greatest thing his father ever taught him was “how to treat my mother and my sister.” Equally influential in his life, Elder Hales’s mother schooled him in compassionate service. When he received his driver’s license at the age of 16, it was understood that part of his responsibility was to assist his mother when she visited the less fortunate as a part of her Church service. He learned to deliver groceries, take care of pets and genuinely love helping others. Years later these lessons of reaching out to the less fortunate would give him unique insight as the presiding bishop of the Church with responsibilities to provide worldwide humanitarian service.

“Elder Hales is a builder of people,” President Henry B. Eyring, a member of the First Presidency and fellow apostle, said. “He has been helping people quietly over many years. When he finds out that someone has a need, he does something about it.”

President Eyring and Elder Hales both grew up in the northeastern U.S. and then attended the University of Utah and Harvard Business School. "And so I saw him as a boy and then as a young man, and then as a presiding bishop of the Church," explained President Eyring.

"He was not only loyal to the people who he worked with, he was loyal to anybody he ever knew. I saw him go to bat for people that he didn't have to go to bat for, but he did," President Eyring said.

People and relationships have always been a hallmark of Elder Hales’s life. In fact, that is what most impressed his wife, Mary, when she met the young college sophomore. “When we were dating he always listened to me. My feelings mattered to him, and they still matter. We don’t always agree, and we have our own minds, but I know he listens and values my opinions,” Mary said.

For his part, Elder Hales said, “I met my wife and never dated another girl. It was so clear to me. I just told her, ‘I will never date another girl until you tell me yes or no.’” It took Mary a year to say “yes,” and Elder Hales said he was humbled she would have him to be her husband. “Wherever we’ve gone over the years, she’s been a teacher. She’s a great mother, a great teacher and a great companion.” He added, “We follow the Quaker proverb ‘Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee, and we’ll ascend together.’” Daughter-in-law Susan said, “They are a total partnership. Any couple could pattern their marriage after them. Their relationship is 100 percent equal; one does not dominate the other. Each opinion is valued.”

"She was the only person that I know of who really could tell him you ought to do something a little differently, and he would. … He trusted her in a way that I've rarely seen a couple," President Eyring said. "He treated her as if she was one of the great people he'd ever known."

Elder Hales has also learned to value life itself and glean understanding from even the most difficult of circumstances after suffering from multiple heart attacks and open heart surgery. “I’m a different person now,” he said. “When you’re lying in bed and you see each day by the sun going across the wall, then you begin to say to yourself, I think I know the lesson I’m being taught here. That’s what it’s about.” He continued: “You don’t worry about any of the political things that go on around you. You say to yourself, look, I know I can be taken at any time. I know I’m here at Your will. I’ll be here and do what You want me to do. I’ll do only that which I have in my calling. That’s how I pattern my life.”

And perhaps that’s why when asked what he enjoyed most about being an apostle, Elder Hales responded without hesitation: “Giving hope. And you do that through your testimony and through your nurturing, through your caring.”

While serving in the United States Air Force for four years as a fighter pilot, Elder Hales learned an important principle that he applied to spiritual aspects of life throughout his later ministry. “Our unit motto was ‘Return with Honor,’” said Elder Hales. “This motto was a constant reminder to us of our determination to return to our home base with honor after we had expended all of our efforts to successfully complete every aspect of our mission.”

"He ought to be remembered as someone of absolute integrity, just a person that always had good judgment, always wanted to do the right thing, always knew what it was, and always cared about other people," President Eyring said. 

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