Death of Elder Delbert L. Stapley Mourned

“Why don’t you take more time to rest?” one of Elder Stapley’s children once asked him.

His response: “I wasn’t called to this position to rest, I was called to work!” (Friend, June 1978, p. 9)

Elder Delbert Leon Stapley, third-ranking member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, didn’t stop working from the time he was called into the Southern States Mission at the early age of eighteen until he died of a cardiac arrest, about noon on 19 August 1978, while walking near his home.

Elder Delbert L. Stapley

Elder Delbert L. Stapley, 1896–1978.

His funeral, held August 22 at noon in the Tabernacle, featured tributes from his friends and colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve. President Kimball echoed the praise he had given in an article introducing Elder Stapley to readers of the Improvement Era in November 1950, after Elder Stapley had been sustained at General Conference that fall: “He has been constant, consistent, and ever faithful. He has grasped opportunities, and they have presented problems. He has grappled with the problems, and this has brought him wide experience. His varied experience has brought him rare insight and wisdom.” (p. 922) The eighty-one-year-old apostle had been ill for several months and had been excused from April Conference earlier this year.

Elder Stapley was born in Mesa, Arizona, on 11 December 1896 to Orley Seymour and Polly May Hunsaker Stapley. On his mission, he served as conference president in Kentucky while still a teenager, under the direction of President Charles A. Callis. After his return, he married his schoolday sweetheart, Ethel Burdette Davis, on 14 January 1918 in the Salt Lake Temple. She and their three children survive him, as do eight grandchildren, seventeen great-grandchildren, two brothers, and two sisters.

His entire life has testified of his commitment to work. As a community leader he was elected to the Mesa City Council at the age of 25 and actively worked to develop the Colorado River water system to meet Arizona’s agricultural and industrial needs.

He believed in making long-term commitments and contributions. For instance, he was associated with the Boy Scouts of America in 1919, helped organize the Apache Council in Arizona in 1920, and later led in organizing the Theodore Roosevelt Council which absorbed it. Twice he served as the council’s president, and after moving to Utah, he simply transferred his activities to local councils, ultimately serving as member-at-large of the National Council. Scouting’s highest awards came to him—the Silver Beaver, Silver Antelope, and Silver Buffalo. In 1970 the Boy Scouts also awarded him a diamond pin commemorating fifty years’ service; he was still a Boy Scout leader at his death.

In Church service, the same pattern held true. He served in his Arizona stake’s YMMIA superintendency for seventeen years. President Kimball relates that business pressures became so severe that he resigned his position during the 1920s, but “soon found himself so unhappy and miserable” that he went back to his leaders and asked for another position. They promptly reinstated him in the MIA; he simultaneously served twelve years on the stake high council. He was first counselor in the Phoenix Stake presidency for ten years and stake president for three years before being called to the Quorum of the Twelve 30 September 1950.

In his first Conference address, he related the circumstances of that calling: “As I got out of the elevator in the Hotel Utah, whom should the Lord place in my path but President George Albert Smith. There is no one I would rather see, for I have known and loved him for a long time.” (President Smith had visited in the family home in Arizona when on stake conference assignments, had set young Delbert apart as a missionary, officiated at his marriage, supervised the general MIA while Elder Stapley was stake MIA superintendent, and for two weeks had been Elder Stapley’s personal guest at the dedication of the Arizona Temple.)

“And so here he was, blocking my way. He said, ‘President Stapley, you are just the man I am looking for.’ There in the lobby of Hotel Utah he told me that it was the wish of the Brethren that I come on the Council. Well, … I went up to the room and called my wife from an adjoining room. I just couldn’t speak, I was so overcome with emotion.”

In that first address, Elder Stapley said simply, “It is my desire since receiving this appointment, with the help of the Lord, to give it the best that I am capable of giving.” (In Conference Report, Sept. 1950, pp. 97–98)

In his last conference address, delivered October 1977, he spoke on the timely matter of obedience and urged all members to “determine where we presently stand in relation to the fundamental law of the celestial kingdom—the law of obedience.” In lessons distilled from his own life, he cited the four ways we learn obedience: “by reading the scriptures, heeding the counsel of God’s prophets and other divinely called Church leaders, disciplining our lives, and enduring our burdens in faith.” (Ensign, Nov. 1977, pp. 20–21)

As a General Authority, he has served on various committees—including the General Priesthood, budget, welfare services, retirement, and personnel committees—as advisor to the Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs, as chairman of the General Priesthood Softball Committee, as trustee of Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., as a member of the Church Board of Education, and as a member of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University.

Continuing his business and community interests, he was chairman of the Utah State Committee on Aging in 1959; chaired the board of his family firm, the O. S. Stapley Company which operates a hardware and implement business in Arizona; and was a director of Mountain Bell, ZCMI department store, Zions First National Bank, Layton Sugar Company, and Valley National Insurance.

Among his family members, Elder Stapley’s spiritual gifts were particularly cherished. His daughter, noting his gift of discernment, commented, “You may as well say what your problem is straight out, because he always seems to know what it is even before you tell him.”

One grandchild, remembering the “power” of a blessing Elder Stapley had given him for an illness, also recalls a seriously ill woman who said, “Nothing quite equaled the relief” Elder Stapley’s blessing gave her.

He has always administered to people’s needs in other ways as well. His children recall that he has unobtrusively met the material needs of widows, the aged, and the poor, and has supported “countless” missionaries in the field. A young great-granddaughter remembers that he always met her needs too: “He always gives me a hug when I come and a cookie when I leave.” (Friend, June 1978, p. 9)

A vigorous, athletic man who stood six-feet-two in his prime, Elder Stapley rejected a chance to play major league baseball in favor of his mission, but remained an active sportsman, camping and fishing with his family and playing golf regularly, until his worsening health curtailed many of his activities.

In that first address as a General Authority, Elder Stapley referred to two promises of his patriarchal blessing—that he “would be called into positions of responsibility and trust” and that he “would travel much for the gospel’s sake.” He paid grateful tribute “to the faithful patriarchs of the Church … for the ability they have to lay out before us our pattern of life.” In a statement prophetic of his next thirty-eight hard-working and obedient years, he added: “I know if we keep in the way of God’s commandments, we will realize that pattern of life.” (Conference Report, Sept. 1970, p. 99) With the closing of this term of service, Elder Stapley’s life pattern is plain. As President Spencer W. Kimball wrote of this newest apostle in 1950, he was—and has remained—“loyal, true, industrious, willing, humble, well-balanced, [and] ever in the service of others.” (Improvement Era, Nov. 1950, p. 922)