Disproving the fallacy that true greatness may be found only in biographies of the past is the life of Nathan Eldon Tanner. Here is a man who from very humble beginnings has achieved magnificent heights, with foundational depths sufficient to support a rugged and towering structure. The underlying impression is of one whose high moral standards are constant, undeviating, and immovable.
In his very being he exemplifies the best that has been apprehended by thinking men of all ages. Here is a man of such stature as may not be limited by sectarian views or conflicting decisions, but who is judged by his associates as a Man, one who cannot be smothered or obliterated by the severe and frustrating storms of life. Having made his decisions after comparing opposing views, he has emerged from the conflict, even as the mountain is discovered when the storm has passed. His rare qualities of humility, fairness, straightforwardness, and decency have won friends for the Church in many areas of his business interests.
President Tanner is held in great respect and admiration in and out of the Church. It would seem that the Lord groomed him for his present Church leadership, as witnessed by his steady climb from a most modest embarkation. In his accomplishments there was a harbinger of future greatness.
Eldon was born May 9, 1898, the first child of Nathan William Tanner and Sarah Edna Brown Tanner, Utahns who had gone to Canada by covered wagon to homestead. Their first home was a dugout—a one-room shelter cut out of the side of a hill and reinforced with logs—six miles south of Cardston. However, Eldon was not born there, as his mother had returned to Salt Lake City to be with her mother for the birth of her first child.
At that time I was a boy of fourteen. Dr. Ellis Shipp had been summoned but was late in arriving. Transportation was by horse and buggy in those days. So my mother told me to scrub up, that I might have to assist in bringing a new soul into the world. However, much to my relief, Dr. Shipp arrived just in time for the delivery. My first recollection of Eldon was his birth cry, as I waited to help if needed. Ever since that time there has been a bond between us, as I instinctively recognized a child of promise.
Eldon’s boyhood was happy but filled with numerous responsibilities. Being the eldest in a family of eight children, he was expected to set a proper example for the younger ones. However, he admits he was a normal boy with the attendant wrestlings with temptation. On one occasion when his father, a bishop, was to be gone for several hours, he outlined tasks for the boys to do during his absence.
After his departure the boys decided it would be great sport to ride some calves in a nearby corral. They were having such fun that the passage of time escaped them until their father returned. But instead of scolding them or giving them “stern reproof” with a willow, he took Eldon aside and, looking deep into his eyes, said, “My boy, I thought I could depend on you.”
That was all the punishment he needed, and he resolved right then that his father would never again have need to repeat his chastisement.
At an early age he learned the virtues of self-reliance and determination to accomplish a job that appeared too difficult. As a young boy he was driving a four-horse team, hauling grain to the elevators, often in those characteristic early snowstorms. He learned the value of hard work on the farm and has made it a rule throughout his life to devote his full attention to the job at hand.
An event that happened when he was about fifteen is indicative of his character. He was thrown from his horse while herding cattle. When he got to his feet, he discovered that three fingers on his left hand were broken at the knuckle joints and were twisted back against his hand, with the bones of the middle finger protruding through the flesh. With characteristic pluck he grasped his fingers, straightened them, remounted his horse, and rode to a doctor, who marveled at the boy’s spunk. The bones were all correctly in place, and the doctor had only to stitch up the flesh.
Even as a youngster he assumed responsibility beyond his years. At one time when the entire family was ill with smallpox he was the only nurse. For two nights and three days he had no sleep as he attended the sick. None of the neighbors dared come in because of the dread disease.
Although his schooling was often interrupted by harvesting and other farm work, his parents were determined that he should have an education. He completed grade nine in the little town of Aetna, then attended the Knight academy in Raymond, where he successfully completed grades ten and eleven. Later he took a six-month course at the Calgary Normal School, earning his way by working in a butcher shop and grocery store.
In 1919 he was offered two teaching jobs. One was at Hill Spring near where his family lived, but the other, though some distance away, was enticing because it offered a better salary. His love for his family and the Church tipped the scales, and he accepted the position of principal and teacher in a three-room school in Hill Spring.
To meet the needs of the idle youth as well as his students at school, he introduced boxing, wrestling, and basketball; organized a Scout troop, and trained the cadets. Gradually the reputation of the boys in that town improved until they were considered the most well-rounded and mannerly boys in the stake. He was an exacting disciplinarian, insisting that rules and regulations are for a purpose and that it was the teacher’s responsibility to enforce them.
It was in Hill Spring, in answer to his dreams and prayers, that he met and fell in love with a lovely brown-eyed schoolteacher named Sara Isabelle Merrill. They were married December 20, 1919, and later were sealed for eternity in the Alberta Temple when it was dedicated in 1923.
That first year of teaching he taught the seventh and eighth grades. Because there was no high school in Hill Spring, he taught an additional grade each year until his six original eighth grade students had completed grade eleven. Every year (with the exception of one pupil) 100 percent of his students passed the rigid government examinations required for promotion.
In the fall of 1922 Eldon and his six graduating students left Hill Spring to attend grade twelve together in Cardston. So they had the singular experience of graduating from high school with their erstwhile teacher. The following year he returned to his original teaching position in Hill Spring.
These were depression years and schoolteachers were poorly paid, and the Eldon Tanners needed to supplement their meager income. So they sold their only possession, a fancy new Ford sedan. Using the money as a down payment, they purchased a small general store, which they operated while teaching school. A general store in those days carried anything from yardage to farm machinery, and the store prospered to the extent that he gave up his teaching job to run the store and the post office. He did his own freighting from Lethbridge and Cardston.
President Tanner next took a position as high school teacher in Cardston and moved his family there. During his eight years in Cardston he was on the town council, principal of an elementary school, Scoutmaster, bishop’s counselor, and later bishop of Cardston First Ward.
His humility and leadership ability were shown by his actions while serving as a counselor in the bishopric and adviser to the deacons quorum. Some of the boys were not attending their meetings. He soon discovered the reason as he visited them in their homes. They had no Sunday clothes and were embarrassed to wear their overalls. The following Sunday, according to agreement with the boys, he met with them at priesthood meeting in overalls. Needless to say, he won the love of those young boys and they were soon 100 percent active.
During this time he supplemented his teaching salary by selling insurance and suits of clothing. He also kept milk cows, and his two oldest daughters delivered the milk daily, wading through the heavy snow with bottles of milk strapped around their waists and over their shoulders. Sister Tanner made all of the clothing for their five little daughters and everyone kept very busy in their household. As their daughter Ruth has said, “During those depression years all the other kids seemed to feel poor, but we never did; we were too busy.”
Thus President Tanner instilled early in his children the importance of hard work and dependability. His disciplining of the children sometimes included a spanking, but more often it would simply be a very stern look. Ruth recalls thinking, “Oh, I can’t do that. Daddy might look at me!” All five of the little girls adored their daddy; and although he was the disciplinarian, he was always quick to praise them and to comfort them when they were hurt or sick.
Although he puts on no public display, his love and appreciation of his wife are evidenced in a glance or a touch of her hand as he passes her chair to take his place at the rostrum in the Tabernacle. She is a source of great comfort and strength to him.
In 1935 a new political party was gaining momentum in the Province of Alberta, and President Tanner was persuaded to become a candidate for political office. He was at that time elected to the legislature in the Social Credit Government. This necessitated his moving his little family from Cardston to Edmonton, and the move was made only after he and his wife gave the matter careful and prayerful consideration.
President Tanner was named speaker of the house although he had never attended a session of the legislature. He showed his genius and capacity for organization and efficiency as he acted as chairman of this august body of sixty-three members. Day and night he studied to familiarize himself with parliamentary procedures. He has since remarked that his whole life seems to have been largely a series of assignments for which he was not prepared, that each one caused him to reach beyond his grasp.
His ability and great potential were noted by the Premier of Alberta, Mr. Aberhart, who in December 1936 asked him to become a member of his cabinet. He thought he might be asked to take the Education or Municipal Affairs portfolios. However, he was appointed Minister of Lands and Mines, which was later expanded to two portfolios, Mines and Minerals, and Lands and Forests. As minister of these two departments he was responsible for administering all the natural resources, including the vast hydrocarbon assets, of Alberta—a sleeping giant.
Great opportunities lay ahead not only for President Tanner but also for the province as he started to organize a conservation program. Alberta had just brought in its first crude oil well, and the challenge was to introduce proper and adequate legislation and regulations. Consequently he visited the various oil states of the United States, studied their oil conservation systems, efficiently probed every possible source of information, and hired the best men in the business to work in his department. As a result, he introduced legislation that became the pattern for other Canadian provinces and even for other countries. He helped to make Alberta the only Canadian province free from public debt.
Because of his leadership abilities he was given numerous and varied important responsibilities. New grazing regulations were introduced under his administration, and he spent eight years in establishing the Eastern Rockies Forest Conservation Board. He served as chairman of a postwar rehabilitation committee and as chairman of a research council for Alberta. He and Sister Tanner met their many social obligations and responsibilities with warm and gracious dignity and won many friends for themselves and for the Church.
They won the admiration and respect of many influential men and women of Canada and Great Britain. In England they were guests of the late Duke of Windsor at his invitation, and also met with Lord Beaverbrook and other high government officials. It was their pleasure to review the Scouts in southern Alberta with Princess Elizabeth. Later when she became Queen they dined with her and Prince Philip. They were guests of the government of Barbados, West Indies, for a month to assist in drafting their oil and gas legislation.
All his life N. Eldon Tanner has been unswerving in his loyalty and devotion to the principles of the gospel. During his sixteen years in government service in Edmonton, he was president of the Edmonton Branch of the Church, which originally had only fifteen members meeting in a small second-story rented hall. It was a high point for the 350 Saints when the first chapel was built, and we all rejoiced when a fine institute building was erected for the members of the Church who were attending the university there. Donning levis and a denim shirt, he worked side by side with other members. There was nothing too menial if it needed to be done. Sister Brown and I lived in Edmonton for more than a year while Eldon was branch president, and we thrilled at his influence and were warmed by the admiration that members and nonmembers alike felt for him.
For many years President Tanner was active in the Boy Scout organization, and it is well known that the only piece of adornment he wears constantly is his Scout pin. In Canada he was a member of the Canadian Scout Committee and was provincial Scout commissioner. He received the Silver Acorn and the Silver Wolf awards, the latter being the highest honor that can be given to a Scouter in Canada. Through all this achievement he never lost sight of the young people themselves and of their needs. Someone once asked him why he was interested in the Boy Scouts when he had only daughters, to which he replied, “Well, I want to help boys to be worthy of my daughters.”
The chronology of Nathan Eldon Tanner’s progress in his varied areas of excellence was distinguished by his steady acceptance of responsibilities and his elevation to fresh new ones, which he earned by growth and achievement. In 1952, feeling that he had done his duty in government service, he resigned and moved to Calgary, where he became president of the newly organized Merrill Petroleums of Canada. He remained there for about two years with some financial success.
In 1954 he was asked to head the Trans-Canada Pipelines Ltd. This company had a 350 million dollar project to build a pipeline across Canada from Alberta to Montreal. However, it was bogged down by confusion, rivalry, and difficult federal conditions, and those in charge felt that Nathan Eldon Tanner was the only man in all Canada who could bring the various interests together and build a line conforming to government policy. He at first declined, but when Ernest C. Manning, Premier of the Province of Alberta, and C. D. Howe, Minister of Trade and Industry of Canada, appealed to his patriotism, he reluctantly left his new oil company to head this colossal undertaking.
He had recently been appointed as president of the new Calgary Stake and, therefore, was not prepared to move to Toronto, where the company had intended to establish its headquarters. Because they wanted his services, the company decided to have the headquarters in Calgary. This necessitated frequent trips to eastern Canada, but he always returned home on weekends for his church duties. The Church has always been first in his life, for he truly believes that if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all other things for our good will be added unto us.
Then began the terrific undertaking of building 2,000 miles of pipeline through five provinces, buying gas from hundreds of companies, and selling it throughout Canada and in some parts of the United States. As one authority said, “It was the greatest undertaking since the building of the transcontinental railroad and was accomplished in less than four years.” By the time his five-year contract terminated in 1959, the company was enormously successful and earned for him the lasting appreciation of his fellow Canadians.
When President and Sister Tanner moved to Calgary in 1952, his first church assignment was that of a ward teacher. Sister Tanner recalls, “The first night that he returned home from doing his ward teaching I asked him how it felt to be a ward teacher, thinking perhaps he may have felt a bit let down after having served as branch president in Edmonton for sixteen years. I was both surprised and enlightened by his reply.” President Tanner said, “If every ward teacher really did what the Lord expects him to do in this calling, the work of a bishop would be cut 50 per cent.”
Later he was called to the high council of the Lethbridge Stake, and on November 15, 1953, when the Calgary Stake was organized, he became its first president.
During the next seven years President and Sister Tanner enjoyed living in Calgary with friends, children, and grandchildren around them. Their daughters are Ruth (Mrs. C. R. Walker), now of Provo, Utah; Isabelle (Mrs. Willard S. Jensen), Navojoa, Mexico; Zola (Mrs. Howard S. Rhodes), Beth (Mrs. Grant L. Spackman), and Helen (Mrs. Jack Beaton), who all reside in Calgary. The Tanners have always been a very close-knit family and today he spends whatever time he can with his five daughters, twenty-six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
President and Sister Tanner planned and built their “dream home” in Calgary and had just settled into it when the call came for him to be an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, and they moved to Utah.
His selfless dedication to the work of the Lord was expressed in his acceptance of this call as he humbly stood in general conference and said, “I shall do my best and am prepared to dedicate my life to the work of the Lord.” He was set apart on October 9, 1960.
Almost immediately he was asked to accompany President David O. McKay and me to London to attend the dedication of the new Hyde Park Chapel and to assist in the organization of stakes in Great Britain and the Netherlands. Four days after the organization was completed, he was called to serve in London as president of the West European Mission, which would comprise the missions of the British Isles, two missions in France, and the Netherlands Mission.
In October 1962 Elder Tanner was called to be a member of the Council of the Twelve, and in January 1963 he was called back to Salt Lake City to assume the presidency of the Genealogical Society, which position he held until some time after he was called on October 4, 1963, by President McKay to become second counselor in the First Presidency. Upon the death of President McKay in January 1970, he was named second counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith. Following President Smith’s death in July 1972, President Tanner was named first counselor to our beloved President Harold B. Lee.
Great strides are being made in the Church today, and in all of the momentous decisions of the General Authorities, President Tanner’s judgment and humility play an important part. He is a man of deep understanding and compassion. His dedication is evidenced by his words when he accepted the call to the First Presidency: “I humbly thank you all for your confidence and sustaining vote, and pledge to you and to God himself everything with which the Lord has blessed me for the building up of the kingdom of God.”
On being asked for her observations about her employer, President Tanner’s secretary, LaRue Sneff, said: “His efficiency and ability to handle with dispatch those matters needing his attention always amaze me. He is also keenly perceptive. A number of his associates on boards of directors have told me that they appreciate his fairness and the fact that he always wants to hear both sides of every question. They appreciate his forthrightness and always know where he stands. He is unwavering in his sense of loyalty and uncompromising in righteous principles.
“He is courteous and gracious to visitors, and especially likes to meet young people. The secretaries in his office appreciate his keen sense of humor and his never-failing kindness and consideration of them.”
President Tanner is a man whose life is one of constancy amidst change, whose life testifies that there must be a reorientation around the hard core of spiritual values if individual and national integrity are to be saved. He knows that man, being a child of God, has a divine purpose in life. Spiritual values can be wrought only in the hearts of men, and this he exemplifies in his own life.
Here is a man of outstanding executive ability, unquestioned integrity, who has been known throughout his public career, even by his political opponents, for his rugged and undeviating honesty. He is a humble man of great faith, courage, and constancy, a dedicated and capable church leader, a devoted husband and father. Few men are chosen for high office in the Church who have a richer heritage and a more varied background of training and experience than Nathan Eldon Tanner, for whom I have great natural devotion and filial affection. May the Lord bless and sustain him in his high calling.