He radiates warmth. He listens attentively. He speaks sincerely. Nobody listening to Elder Robert L. Backman sharing his testimony or talking about his family would ever guess that social situations were once agonizingly uncomfortable for him.
He spent most of his teen years in South Africa where his father, LeGrand P. Backman, was serving as mission president, and came back to Salt Lake for his senior year of high school. He’d attended only boys’ schools and “couldn’t look a girl in the face without blushing, couldn’t dance, couldn’t play American sports, and couldn’t drive a car. It was the most miserable year in my life.”
His call to the Northern States Mission “transformed my life. It made me realize that I was a child of God and had great potential.”
Another important experience was his service in the army during World War II. When he arrived for basic training, he was grouped with five returned missionaries, one of them his own beloved companion with whom he had served for eighteen months.
One highlight from his army years was organizing an Easter service as “a group leader without a group” in a combat zone east of Manila. “We didn’t know if anyone would be there, but the trucks started pulling in and about fifty men arrived. They were still wearing battle fatigues. They stacked their rifles as they came in. The building we were in had been bombed, and the command post was attacked while we were there, but we didn’t pay any attention. We sat on our helmets and served the sacrament in our mess gear from a table made of ammunition boxes, and the Spirit was there.”
As a law student with two young children after the war, he planned to concentrate on studies first; but the first day he rode the bus to class, he shared a seat with the bishop and was the deacon’s quorum adviser by the time he got off. He has also served as president of the Northwestern States Mission, as the only general president of the Aaronic Priesthood MIA, and as sealer in the temple, a calling he still holds. “I’ve performed marriages for many of my missionaries and three of my own daughters, and I guess that’s just about the most glorious experience a man can have in this life—to bind forever.”
His most recent assignments have been as a Regional Representative, first for the Sacramento and Sacramento North regions, then for the Cottonwood and Murray regions, and then—on the Friday before conference—he was assigned to the newly created Holladay Region. He held that calling less than twenty-four hours—possibly the shortest term of service on record.
When the call came from President Kimball’s office “three sleepless weeks ago,” he told his wife, “I’ve received another one of those scary phone calls” and they went in, “hoping” for another mission call since they’d so enjoyed their first assignment. “It was a very sweet experience,” he says soberly. “At the end of that interview with President Kimball, I was ready to go anywhere.”
An equally sweet experience came when he and his wife Virginia shared the calling with their seven daughters and their husbands afterwards. “All of them, in tears, expressed their love and support,” he said tenderly. Then he grinned, “And some of them said they’d been expecting it. They’re great kids!”
Family closeness is a family tradition for the Backmans. He and his father belong to the same law firm, “and it’s the thrill of my life to see him come in the door each morning. I just love to be associated with him.”
Four of their daughters live in Salt Lake: Judith Marsh, Bonnie Price, Patricia Cox, and Barbara, still at home. The others are Louise Checketts, Bear River City; Rebecca Champneys, Sandy; and Virginia Backman, Bethesda, Maryland.
Born 22 March 1922 in Salt Lake City, Brother Backman has served two terms in the Utah House of Representatives.