When Russell Ballard was in college, his fraternity brothers called him “the bishop.” They knew that whatever the situation, he would be true to his faith, an example of the gospel in action.
Elder M. Russell Ballard, the newest Apostle called to the Quorum of the Twelve, has been just that. He is a man who has dedicated his life to serving the Lord. And he has now accepted the call to be a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He was called to be an Apostle Sunday morning, 6 October 1985, just before the morning session of general conference. He was sustained by the Church membership that afternoon in the closing session of conference.
“It was an overwhelming call,” says Elder Ballard. “Some of my associates in the Quorum of the Twelve tell me there is an ongoing feeling of humility and wonderment at the call.”
His wife, Barbara, recalls how totally unexpected it was. “It came as such a surprise. We were just ready to leave the house to go to conference. The phone rang, and it was President Hinckley, who asked my husband to come to the office. He thought he would perhaps be called on to speak in conference, since one of the speakers was ill.
“We were relaxed on the way to President Hinckley’s office and discussed what Russell might talk about if called to speak. When we got to the office, President Hinckley called my husband to be an Apostle. I almost thought, please say that again. I don’t know if I heard correctly. Russell looked at me with tears in his eyes. It was a sobering experience,” she says.
Though Russell Ballard made Church service a part of his life from his early years, he could not have guessed where that service would finally lead. He was born in Salt Lake City on 8 October 1928 to Melvin R. and Geraldine Smith Ballard, the only boy in a family of four children. He lived in the same home on Butler Avenue from the time of his birth to the time of his marriage.
His father was the owner of Ballard Motor Company. “He had a profound impact on my life,” Elder Ballard says. “He instilled in me the desire to work hard.”
That devotion to hard work showed up early in Russell Ballard’s life, recalls his sister, Ann Keddington. “He always had a job, even when he was little.” It started with cutting lawns, she says, and he took on more and more in the line of yard care until he got into something else.
Younger than her brother by five years, she remembers him much better as a teenager. He was a “smiling, slender, wiry young man with a fun sense of humor,” she says. He was also a leader.
Elder Ballard served a mission to England in 1948, where he was a counselor in the mission presidency. Upon returning home in 1950, he met Barbara Bowen, who would become his wife.
“I met her at the University of Utah ‘Hello Day Dance.’ A friend of mine thought I ought to meet her, so he tagged in to dance with her, danced over to where I was, introduced me, and I danced with her thirty seconds before I was tagged out. That was the beginning of a courtship of eleven months.
“She was not only beautiful, but had a sparkling personality. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to marry her, but she didn’t share the same feelings. It was a little hard convincing her. I kid her now that getting her to agree to marry me was the greatest sales job I ever did,” says Elder Ballard.
Shortly after the Ballards’ marriage he was called into a bishopric and has served in Church leadership positions ever since. In 1974, he was called to preside over the Canada Toronto Mission. He was still serving in that capacity when, in 1976, he was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy. He has had a variety of administrative assignments, including Executive Director of the Curriculum Department and, at the same time, Executive Director of the Correlation Department. He has also served as Executive Director of the Missionary Department and as President of the International Mission. In February of 1980, he was called to the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
What kind of a person is Elder Ballard? A man of great abilities, yet teachable, says Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve.
“It is not unusual to find those who have very brilliant minds to at once lack humility and meekness,” said Elder Packer. “Not so with M. Russell Ballard. If I should choose a word to describe him, it would be teachable. That is a synonym for meekness. Meekness and weakness are not synonyms.
“When he was presiding over the mission in Toronto, I toured the mission. When I returned home, my wife was concerned because I was so tired. ‘Did you have a mission president that wouldn’t listen to your instruction?’ she asked.
“I replied, ‘No, just the opposite. I found a mission president who was so eager to learn and so desirous of obtaining instruction that I was drawn beyond what we ordinarily are able to do.’”
Elder Ballard’s son Clark has seen that “teachable” quality in his father, too. “I recently went to a stake conference with my dad. After the conference, we met with the missionaries. Dad wanted to see how the improved discussions are working.
“He brought in the office staff, and they told him how things were going,” said Clark. “What impressed me was that the missionaries were teaching my father. He was willing to listen to them. He told them, ‘You’re the guys out on the front lines who know how this is working.’”
Perhaps one reason people are surprised that Elder Ballard is so teachable is because he’s such a capable teacher and leader himself. His skills in managing projects and putting ideas into action are well-known among those with whom he has worked.
“He has explicit faith in the fact that things can be done,” says Ron Knighton, a former director under Elder Ballard in curriculum planning and development and publication coordination. “He’s not one who looks for reasons things can’t be done. He’s a man who believes in keeping good people around him and demonstrating faith in his staff by giving them the authority to take action on issues. And he’s a man of real courage, who’s not afraid to take on an issue that others may choose to avoid, if he feels strongly that it would make a difference in the progress of the Lord’s work,” adds Brother Knighton.
Business associate Nate Wade worked with Elder Ballard for thirty years on various projects and has seen that same straight-thinking. “He has goals and objectives, targets to shoot for, so he knows where he’s going,” said Brother Wade. “He’s conducted his church, business, and family affairs that way.”
Professionally, Elder Ballard became involved in several enterprises, including automotive, real estate, and investment businesses. He was the top-selling salesman for his father’s Nash car dealership when he left it in the early 1950s to pursue other business interests. In 1956 he returned and took over the Ballard Motor Company from his father. During this period he also served in the United States Army Reserve. When he left in 1957, he held the rank of first lieutenant.
In the late 1950s, he came home from one business trip and told his wife he’d won the right to be the Edsel car dealer for Salt Lake City. His dealership became the most successful in the country, and Ford Motor Company invited him and his associates to Detroit to tell other dealers how they did it. But in the end the Edsel was a failure. The motor company, and dealers around the country, lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It was a devastating experience,” he recalls. Associates say his reputation for hard work and integrity allowed him to keep the confidence of financial institutions and recover from the losses, but full recovery took years. He dealt with people as honestly and fairly as he could. He also learned to have compassion for those having great difficulties.
“The first part of my business career it seemed like everything worked. I was a little intolerant, I think, of those who were having trouble in business. But then I had trouble, and that helped me gain an empathy and understanding for people who struggle similarly.
“To me, failure is only when you quit trying,” he says. “If you keep working at a task and try to do what’s right and honest, ultimately it works out.”
One of the highlights of his business career, says Elder Ballard, was his responsibility as president of the Valley Music Hall in Bountiful, Utah. The theater offered high-quality family entertainment, and he worked in association with Art Linkletter, Danny Thomas, Bob Cummings, and other Hollywood celebrities who were advisers to the enterprise. Although the music hall failed financially, he made sure that investors had opportunities to recover the money they had put into it.
In the meantime, he and Barbara were raising a family. They eventually had seven children, two sons and five daughters: Clark, Holly, Meleea, Tamara, Stacey, Brynn, and Craig. With his responsibilities in Church and business, it would have been easy for family to be less than top priority. But that did not happen, says Sister Ballard.
“He’s extremely devoted to his family, and they’ve always come first,” she says. “He was a bishop for many years and held lots of Church jobs, but those responsibilities have never been to the detriment of his family. When he was home, he made the time count.
“There were times when we went places without him because of his commitments. When he did have to miss something, he sat down and made sure everybody knew the nature of what he had to do, so there was never bitterness. He has always felt the real importance of being a father and knowing that his judgment was needed. He’s a very strong person emotionally and spiritually. The family leans on that a great deal.”
Elder Ballard says he could not have fulfilled his family responsibilities without the help of his wife. “I married the right woman,” he says. “Without the help and direction of Barbara, our family relationships would not have happened as well as they did. It was hard to be the bishop, the owner of my own business, and at the same time father of these children that came along, but somehow it worked out. I give credit to Barbara and her good judgment.”
Their son Clark has happy memories of time spent with his father, despite the demands on his dad’s time. “Dad would take me to Ely, Nevada, with him when I was young, to a mine he had an interest in. It was exciting for me as a young boy. I’d put on the helmet with a light on the front of it, and we’d go down the mine shaft. The only reason he took me was so we could be together.”
Daughter Stacey has happy memories, too. “The first thing I think of about Dad is the way he’ll do anything for us kids, regardless of how dumb it might seem. When we were in Laguna Beach, California, this summer, I had a craving for chocolate chip cookies. He drove all around Laguna trying to find me one.”
“He has always been understanding,” says his daughter Holly. “The day I got my driver’s license, he let me borrow his beautiful Buick Electra. I was returning a sweater to the store for him. When I parked the car, I scraped its side.
“I was shaking when I called my dad, afraid that he’d be upset. He just laughed and told me it was only a car and no big deal. He was so understanding. He always seemed to know when we needed an arm around us.”
His daughter Tammy had a similar experience. “When I was in second grade, he was always bringing home a different used car, because of the business. One Sunday he had a yellow Cadillac with a white roof, and my friends and I jumped in the car to get a ride home from dad. We started jumping around in the car and a friend kicked the gear shift into neutral. The car rolled back and hit another car. My friends fled, and I panicked.
“I ran and told mom, and we went home. When we pulled up the garage door, the yellow Cadillac was there. My friends and I had jumped into another man’s car and wrecked it. I thought dad would be upset. But when he got home, he scooped me up in his arms and told me he was proud of me for telling the truth, then he took care of it and never mentioned it again. I really learned a lot from my father.”
These days, though Elder Ballard is extremely busy, he’s still available for his family members, said Stacey. “He always seems to be there at the time you really need him. This last year I went through a major heartbreak, and he was there to put his arms around me and give me a father’s blessing. Those things mean a lot.”
“He’s always given father’s blessings to our children as they’ve gone on a mission or been married or whenever there’s been a need,” Sister Ballard says. “When we were in Canada on our mission, our little boy was just starting kindergarten and didn’t know one person. He was frightened. My husband took him to the office, knelt down with him, and prayed that Heavenly Father would help him find friends. They had that prayer together several days in a row. He’s helped several of our children that way when they’ve had special needs. And he made it a habit to interview each child regularly,” said Sister Ballard.
Now that five of the children are married, that fatherly concern hasn’t waned in the least. “He is truly the patriarch to our family,” says Clark. “Family matters are very important to him. Now that most of us have moved away from home, he feels that it’s important for us to get together and still communicate with each other. A couple of years ago he invited the married children and their spouses to stay overnight in Park City. He had a family meeting the next day where we talked about what was going on in our lives and what our goals were. And he taught us. It was a little like what he does in stake conference when he teaches the leadership of the stake. It was a lot of fun, too,” said Clark.
Elder Ballard serves as a patriarch not only to his own family, but to his extended family as well, says his sister Ann. Since his parents’ death, he has taken the responsibility of seeing to the needs of several of his aunts and uncles. Sister Ballard’s widowed mother lives in an apartment built onto their home, at Elder Ballard’s suggestion.
For Elder Ballard, family relationships are as much a reality on the other side of the veil as they are on this side. As he spoke to the Church membership about his feelings in accepting the call, Elder Ballard mentioned that he had often felt a great closeness to his forefathers. He is the grandson of Elder Hyrum Mack Smith, who served in the Council of the Twelve from 1901–1918, and Elder Melvin J. Ballard, who served from 1919–1939. Both of their pictures hang on his office wall. The busts of his great-great uncle the Prophet Joseph Smith, and his great-great grandfather Hyrum Smith (brother of the Prophet Joseph), and his great-grandfather President Joseph F. Smith are displayed prominently in Elder Ballard’s office.
“The spirit of Elijah has a powerful impact in the lives of all those of Heavenly Father’s children who are willing to ponder their forefather’s lives,” said Elder Ballard. “I’ll often sit in my office wrestling with assignments I have, thinking about how to better do things, and gain a great deal of strength looking at their countenances and realizing they’re not very far away.”
Elder Ballard never knew his grandfather Smith, who passed away in 1918. “But even though I’ve never met him, I feel very close to him. Through my mother and my aunts and uncles, I’ve become acquainted with Grandfather Smith. I’ve researched and gathered all of his writings and sermons to try to gain a greater insight into him. He was a great orator, one who could teach the gospel with power, yet at the same time with clarity,” he said.
“I knew my Grandfather Ballard as a grandfather. I was smart enough at age ten to realize that he was one of the great teachers of this dispensation. I knew him as one who loved me enough to take me to a movie on my eighth birthday. I remember his sleeping through the Walt Disney movie, and I couldn’t understand that. Now I understand better, because I think most General Authorities have a hard time staying awake when the lights go out, because their heavy work load exacts a lot from them.
“He’d come up to our cabin in Lamb’s Canyon once or twice in the summer, and we’d walk off into the woods together. Those are very precious memories. I think grandfathers throughout the Church ought to remember that the memories they make with their grandchildren will live in their hearts for a long, long time.”
One of Elder Ballard’s great gifts is not just concern for family but for the individuals with whom he comes in contact. Just as his father was known as a “people person,” so is M. Russell Ballard.
“He’s a very thoughtful person,” said Elder J. Thomas Fyans, a member of the First Council of the Seventy. “I’ve watched him reach into the lives of people who have special challenges and give of his time and his experience in counseling them and lifting them to a higher plane. He has a sensitivity for people’s feelings.”
Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy agrees: “One thing that has impressed me about him is that I’ve never seen him at lunch in the General Authorities’ cafeteria without some guest, and it’s usually a prospective missionary or someone who needs some encouragement.”
Encouragement is exactly what he gave in mammoth proportions after the October 1980 general conference when he invited Church members who had an inactive or nonmember friend to make a commitment to help that person come to the light of the gospel. He told them, “I want to help you keep the commitment you’ve just made. I invite you to write to me when your time has come for some additional help. Send me the name of the person you seek to rescue, and I’ll write a letter of encouragement to him.”
“Elder Ballard wrote more than six hundred personal letters of encouragement to people who needed help in gaining a testimony,” says Dorothy Anderson, Elder Ballard’s secretary. “The responses he received showed that many lives were touched by his concern.”
Wrote one of the recipients of Elder Ballard’s letters, “I feel that your letter was the real beginning of this fantastic change in my life, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“I don’t know how he cares for so many people,” says Sister Ballard. “I wonder sometimes, when is it his turn? He has this deep reservoir of care; he just gives and gives and gives.”
Family members remember the time they drove to a nearby amusement park to spend the day. On the way to the park they passed an Oriental family whose car had broken down on the highway. Once Elder Ballard got to the park, he dropped off his family, picked up the family with car problems, and let them take his car while theirs was being repaired. The Oriental family spent part of the day at the amusement park, and after their car was repaired, they returned the Ballard family vehicle.
“He has a great compassion for people who suffer or are unhappy,” says his wife, Barbara.
One young man who turned to Elder Ballard for kindness was Danny, a twelve-year-old whose father had just died. After one of Elder Ballard’s stake conference addresses, Danny asked him if he would ordain him a deacon. Elder Ballard said if Danny’s bishop and stake president agreed to the arrangement, he’d be happy to do it.
That was the start of a great friendship between Danny and Elder Ballard. Danny and his brother Pete have spent afternoons helping in the Ballard garden and feeling the influence of a friend who cares for them. When Pete wasn’t sure if he’d go on a mission, Elder Ballard encouraged him—and spoke at his missionary farewell.
He’s also a man who lives close to the Spirit. When his son and daughter-in-law had a new baby with medical problems, Elder Ballard visited the five-month-old girl in the hospital the day before she died. He was later able to comfort his son and daughter-in-law with the knowledge that her spirit had communicated with him.
“Dad told us that he heard her spirit talk to him and tell him not to worry, that everything would be all right, she’d be fine,” Clark says. “He knew she was going to pass away before any of the rest of us knew.”
Elder Ballard’s unswerving devotion to the gospel, and his desire to help teach that gospel, is based on the solid rock of his testimony.
“I would tell Church members to keep their eyes riveted on the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve and to stay close to the scriptures, reading and pondering and praying over the word of the Lord. That will give the strength that the individual member of the Church needs to live in today’s world,” said Elder Ballard.
“I have strong convictions that those who are really anchored in their faith in the Restoration and the mission of the Prophet Joseph, and in the revelations that have come to the Church through him, which confirm and declare that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that the gospel is upon the earth, will be able to handle whatever life passes to them.”
Life has passed to Elder M. Russell Ballard his share of trials and triumphs. But he has been true to the faith, a living example of what it means to submit one’s self to the Lord’s will.