Looking Back: The Influence of a Powerful, “Desarving” Woman

Contributed By Gerry Avant, senior contributing editor

  • 3 May 2018

Elder LeGrand Richards gives a congratulatory kiss on the hand of Belle S. Spafford after she was released as Relief Society General President during the October 1974 general conference. She had served 29 years, the longest tenure of any Relief Society General President.  Photo by Gerry Avant.

Article Highlights

  • She showed the importance of enjoying the moment.
  • She was recognized nationally for her influential leadership.
  • She strove to be “desarving” of the attention she received.

“Preparation for tomorrow is vital if you intend to live a happy and comfortable life.” —Sister Belle S. Spafford, Relief Society General President (1945–1974)

Belle S. Spafford was “one of the most outstanding women in the world.”

So declared President N. Eldon Tanner, then First Counselor in the First Presidency, on October 3, 1974, the day Sister Spafford was released after having served 29 years as Relief Society General President.

I have vivid memories of that day. I captured one of those memories while shooting photos after the Relief Society conference held in conjunction with the 144th Semiannual General Conference of the Church in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

Several minutes had passed since the conclusion of the meeting. This is the memorable scene: As Elder LeGrand Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles approached Sister Spafford on the podium of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, she extended her hand for him to shake. He took it, raised it, and, with a gentlemanly bow, gave a congratulatory kiss to the back of her hand.

Looking at that photo of two great servants of the Lord, I feel that I really was an eyewitness in some of the Church’s memorable moments. The photo remained unpublished—until now.

Sister Spafford served as Relief Society General President from April 1945 until October 1974, the longest tenure of any leader in the organization’s history. She was called to the Relief Society general board in 1935 and as a counselor to the General President in 1943.

I met her shortly after I began working for the Church News in 1972. Our professional association was brief, but we continued a friendship that lasted until her death on February 2, 1982. She served as my escort when I went to the temple for the first time.

Over the years, Sister Spafford shared her wit and wisdom. She helped take the edge off of some of life’s disappointments and provided me with a wealth of insight. She taught me about the importance of enjoying the moment.

I remember when I learned that she, then in her early 80s, and Marianne Sharp, one of her former counselors in the Relief Society General Presidency, would get on the telephone and, with their radios turned on, listen together to play-by-play broadcasts of Utah Jazz basketball games. They formed their own remote cheering section.

Sister Spafford had some definite ideas about enjoying the moment.

I went to her home for an interview several years after she was released. I noticed that her table had been set for one, complete with a nice tablecloth, linen napkin, china, and silverware. Sister Spafford said she might be dining alone, but she could do it in style. Sometimes, when I’m shoving aside the newspaper or a book to make room for a solitary meal at my kitchen table, I think about Sister Spafford and her elegantly set table.

During our visit, we talked about life and its later years. I said that I hoped I would become a “sweet little old lady.” I was 36. Sister Spafford leaned forward, pointed a finger at me, and said, “If you want to become a sweet little old lady you’d better start working on it right now.”

“Preparation for tomorrow is vital if you intend to live a happy and comfortable life,” she said. “One thing we must remember is that the body is an instrument given to us for accomplishment, and I think we make a grave mistake when we neglect it or abuse it.”

She said people need to work on maintaining their mental, as well as physical, health. “As they grow older, they need to keep in step with the current of life about them. I always try to keep close to one or two young people I admire and get their points of view; they bring a youthful outlook to life.”

Sister Spafford reflected on the many events that helped shape her life. She spoke of her mother, Hester Sims Smith.

“I was born into a single-parent home,” Sister Spafford said. “My father died seven months before my birth. I was the seventh child. I was blessed with a capable, wise, understanding mother, a remarkable woman from many points of view. She taught us a lot of good lessons by having us learn clichés, verses of scripture, or little bits of wisdom she picked out.

“When I was first called to the Relief Society general board (1935) I was fearful of the calling. I hadn’t had much experience and was quite young; the other women were mostly older. I felt I didn’t have much to offer, and yet I felt I should accept the calling. After I had been interviewed by the First Presidency, I went home and said, ‘Mother, do you think I’m qualified to do this?’

“She said, ‘I think you are but let me give you a little advice: Never speak or act out of the wealth of your ambition and ego and the poverty of your knowledge and experience.’ I’ve remembered that and have tried to apply it.”

After she was released as Relief Society General President, Sister Spafford kept busy. When I interviewed her on the occasion of her 85th birthday, she was still jetting across time zones to keep appointments.

She served on the National Council of Women for 52 years and held many positions, including serving as president. She served on the council’s executive committee and was treasurer of the American Regional Council of Women, a subsidiary of the International Council of Women. On two occasions, she was on the advisory committee to the White House Conference on Aging.

She received numerous awards from civic, educational, religious, and community organizations. In commemoration of her 85th birthday, the National Council of Women declared October 23, 1980, “Belle S. Spafford Day,” honoring and citing her for her capable, influential, and gracious leadership. In May 1981, the council formed the Belle S. Spafford Archival Fellowship at New York University upon her retirement from the council.

When I asked how she regarded all the attention being heaped upon her, she told me about her Scottish grandmother.

“She was the matriarch of the family,” Sister Spafford said. “We children were instructed that if we had any good news, Grandma was to be the first person told. Then we could tell the others. Whenever I had a part on a Sunday School program or got a good report card or had any kind of success or honor, I’d go tell her first.

“She would take hold of my hand and say, ‘O child, I hope you’re desarving,’ she said, emphasizing her grandmother’s Scottish accent.

“That’s what I say now—I hope I’m ‘desarving’ of all this attention. I hope I deserve all these honors.”

I had that conversation with Sister Spafford 38 years ago. Often, when someone gives me a compliment, I think of Sister Spafford and, with her, hope I’m “desarving.”