John Hunter knew that his father, President Howard W. Hunter of the Pasadena (California) Stake, was no sports fan. Still, his father seemed unusually distracted that autumn evening in 1959 as he quietly stared at the fifty-yard line, almost unseeing, throughout the Brigham Young University-University of Utah football game. Howard Hunter could not tell his son that he was reflecting on an interview he had had with President David O. McKay a few hours earlier.
President Hunter, visiting in Salt Lake City for general conference, had not been surprised by the message he had received asking him to come to President McKay’s office between sessions that day. He had been working on a project for the First Presidency and assumed that the President wanted a report.
But President McKay’s greeting was a stunner: “Oh, I’m glad you’re here, because tomorrow you’re going to be sustained as a member of the Council of the Twelve.”
“I was shocked at the call,” the new Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve remembers. He felt unprepared, even though he had broad experience in Church leadership positions. He had been a stake president for nearly ten years and had previously served as a bishop for almost seven years. He was also chairman of the regional council of stake presidents in Southern California.
Howard Hunter listened as President McKay told him how much he would enjoy his new calling and how it would change his life. Then President McKay asked him not to share the news with anyone but his wife until his name could be presented for a sustaining vote in conference the next day.
Clara May Hunter was forty-five miles away in Provo at that moment, visiting John and his wife, Louine, who had recently given birth to the Hunters’ first grandchild. Elder Hunter telephoned to tell “Claire” the news, but after he got the words out, there was silence on the line as both were overcome by emotion.
“I went to the afternoon session and sat down, and the weight of the thing started to rest down on me. I got so nervous I couldn’t sit there, so I got up and started to walk. I don’t know where I went,” President Hunter recalls, but the time was spent thinking about how the new calling would affect him.
It would mean giving up his law practice and the life he and Claire had built in Southern California during nearly three decades of marriage. But, along with thinking of the sacrifices they would have to make, President and Sister Hunter also thought of the covenants they had made in the temple to serve the Lord at all costs. “We expected to honor the commitment we had given,” he says.
That was, after all, what they had always done. And President Hunter was accustomed to taking on responsibility and living up to it. He had grown up that way.
Howard William Hunter was born in Boise, Idaho, 14 November 1907—the eldest of two children of John William and Nellie Marie Rasmussen Hunter.
“My mother said that from the time he was a baby, he always kept perfect time” to music, recalls his sister, Dorothy Hunter Rasmussen. “He has perfect pitch,” she says, and “a beautiful voice.” Those musical talents would become important in his life.
But some other qualifies showed up early, too. “He was always a very good student,” Sister Rasmussen says. He had “this driving ambition, and he had a brilliant mind.” And yet his ambition and intelligence were tempered with love and compassion. He would win other boys’ marbles in play—and then decline to keep them. He once turned down a job he wanted when he learned that another boy would be let go to make a place for him.
“When he was young, he always had jobs,” Sister Rasmussen says. Young Howard sold newspapers on a street corner in Boise. His family lived near the country club, so he frequently caddied for golfers there. He framed pictures in an art store, delivered telegrams, did odd jobs in a department store. Because of his success with a project at his after-school job in a drugstore, he won a correspondence course in pharmacy and completed it before he was out of high school.
It seemed that whatever good thing he set his mind to do, he succeeded. In 1919, when funds were being raised for a new chapel in Boise, Howard, a deacon, was the first to offer a pledge. He donated twenty-five dollars—not a small sum for a boy of twelve.
To Howard, being a deacon was an honor. His father was a fine man, but he was not a member of the Church when Howard was a boy. It was not until Howard was of deacon age and participating in the ward’s Boy Scout troop that he and his sister received permission to be baptized. Their father finally joined the Church himself in 1927 and the family was eventually sealed in the temple.
In the meantime, Howard became the second Eagle Scout in Boise, Idaho, just a few days behind another young man. He also attained the highest rank in his high school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
He was known as a polite young man, popular with his peers—particularly the young women his age and eager to serve. He did not call attention to himself; he just did the things he felt were important in his own “quiet, sweet way,” his sister says. “He was awfully good to me, and I can truthfully say I have never known my brother to do a wrong thing in his life,” she adds.
Howard took piano and violin lessons as a boy, and he learned to play several more instruments on his own—including the marimba he won in a contest while in high school. Before he was out of high school, he was playing in his own band.
After graduation in 1926, he got ready to attend the University of Washington in Seattle. But a band he had recently formed, “Hunter’s Croonaders,” was awarded a contract to perform on a cruise ship, the SS President Jackson, and so the band spent two months performing aboard ship and in hotels and dinner clubs in the Far East.
After the tour, Howard traveled to Southern California to visit the band’s piano player. He liked the area and decided to stay. He found work in a bank and supplemented his income by playing with orchestras and on radio programs.
It was at a Church dance that he met Clara May Jeffs, a former fashion model who had worked her way up to personnel manager of a prestigious Los Angeles department store. They spent most of their dates involved in Church activities.
Howard had never planned to spend his life as a professional musician, and as he approached marriage to Claire, he decided that a musician’s uncertain employment and odd hours would not permit the family life he wanted. So on the Saturday in 1931 before they were to be married, he played his last professional engagement, packed away his instruments, and prepared to go to Salt Lake City to be married in the temple.
When Brother and Sister Hunter were married, they received some advice they took very seriously: Stay out of debt; never buy anything until you have the money to pay for it. Claire scrubbed their clothes on a washboard until they could afford a washing machine, but they followed that counsel, sticking with it throughout their married life and teaching it to their children.
That counsel proved to be extremely valuable when the bank where Howard was employed failed during the Great Depression. Out of work, but also out of debt, Brother Hunter quickly regained his footing. He worked briefly for the state banking department, then found a job as a title examiner for the Los Angeles Flood Control District.
It was a momentous decision for the Hunters when Howard decided to go to law school, beginning in 1934. “I worked eight hours a day and took most of my classes at night. I did my studying at night and over the weekend,” President Hunter recalls. At first, he would study until two in the morning. Then he found it was less taxing if he went to bed earlier and got up at two in the morning to study.
It was, he says, a period of rigorous training that helped him learn the discipline required to handle the demands of a career, Church work, and family life. He graduated cum laude, passed the bar examination, and began his law practice in 1939.
The Hunters’ three sons were born during those years in law school: Howard William, Jr. (who died in infancy), John, and Richard. It wasn’t long after the young attorney began his law practice that he was called, in 1941, as bishop of the newly organized El Sereno Ward of the Pasadena Stake. And these two influences—family and Church shaped the years of his law career.
During a recent visit to Southern California for a multistake conference of the Foothill and Glendale regions, President Hunter was honored at a special “This Is Your Life” program. Seated in the red leather “Howard Hunter Chair” from which he used to preside during meetings of the Pasadena Stake high council, he listened as a number of his friends lovingly recalled their associations.
“He liked to see things go well,” reflects Daken Broadhead, who was called as first counselor when President Hunter was called as stake president in 1950. “There was never anything shoddy about what he did. And he was always cheerful and optimistic and very, very spiritual.”
Sometimes high council meetings were “marathons” because President Hunter wanted to be sure he heard the best thinking of everyone who wanted to speak on an issue. “His modus operandi was to listen to those who counseled, then make a decision and move ahead,” said Talmage Jones, who served as both first and second counselor to President Hunter. He did not dominate situations, but he was “very firm in his leadership. He was respected by the people of the stake for that quality,” Brother Jones reflects.
President Hunter was very good in a crisis, and very businesslike—but not all business, Brother Jones says. “I don’t know of anyone who enjoyed parties as much as President Hunter, particularly if they served ice cream. He loved ice cream.”
It was also apparent that he loved the youth. Alicebeth Ashby, who served in the stake’s MIA under his direction, noted that President and Sister Hunter faithfully attended monthly MIA dances—and did not leave until all the kitchen cleanup was finished. Brother Jones recalls the day the bus pulled out carrying the stake’s Scout troop to a national jamboree. “Tears rolled down his cheeks because he wanted so badly to go with us.”
Those were busy years. President Hunter served on the temple committee while the Los Angeles Temple was constructed, and, through the business associations he found so satisfying, was named to the board of directors of some two dozen corporations.
Still, he found time for his sons. One of several notable activities which he enjoyed with them was their Scout troop’s journey down Oregon’s Rogue River in homemade kayaks. President Hunter was paired with his youngest son on the river. Like most of the other kayaks, theirs did not survive the trip. Richard still laughs about going over a waterfall backwards with his father.
At that time, a boy had to camp out for fifty nights to earn the camping merit badge. “My father was a great camper,” John Hunter says. Many times they camped in a grove of trees on an undeveloped tract of land near their home in Arcadia.
But his father also had a penchant for camping while they were traveling. One night, John remembers, they stopped the car after dark and rolled their sleeping bags out in a convenient spot; later they were awakened by a herd of moose picking their way around three prone human beings. John and Richard both recall the night the three of them were jolted from sleep by the noise and the headlight of a train coming straight at them! Just a few yards away, it changed direction, passing within twenty feet. In the dark, they had rolled-out their sleeping bags at the base of a railroad track bed.
In many ways, President Hunter taught his sons without saying a word. “What I know about honesty and integrity has come in large measure by what people have told me about my father,” Richard says. He tells of one Saturday when he accompanied his father to a business meeting in a nearby town. While the meeting was going on, one of the other men stepped out for a breather, and he and Richard conversed about what was being done inside.
Richard commented that surely it would be a long time before the project under discussion could begin, since there would be so much legal paperwork involved. No, the man assured him, those involved in the discussion could proceed confidently before all the paperwork was finalized, because they knew that whatever Howard Hunter said he would do, he would do.
Both Hunter sons followed their father into the field of law. Richard is a lawyer in San Jose, California, and John, who lives in Ojai, California, has been a municipal judge for nearly sixteen years. He and his father had planned to practice law together, John says, until the calling as a General Authority changed the course of his father’s life.
Elder Hunter has taken occasion to visit his children and their families in California whenever possible. While John was studying law in Los Angeles, Elder Hunter would arrange a visit when he passed through on Church assignments; John would take his older children to pick up their grandfather at the air terminal. It happened frequently enough that John’s older children came to know Elder Hunter as “the grandpa who lives at the airport.”
As the grandchildren grew up, and while some of them lived in Utah during their university schooling, Elder Hunter found other opportunities to enjoy their company at conference times or at dinners and BYU events.
“When I think of grandpa Hunter, I think more than anything of an example of a loving husband,” says Robert, his oldest grandson, manager of a branch bank in a Salt Lake City suburb. Family members watched with love and admiration for more than eight years as Elder Hunter nursed his beloved Claire through the illness that finally took her life in 1983.
“You could really sense a loving bond between the two of them,” Robert says. Elder Hunter insisted on caring for her as much as possible himself during the years when a series of strokes left her increasingly dependent. Until it became impossible to do otherwise, he resisted having her in a nursing facility. Meanwhile, he continued to handle his Church assignments. He suffered a minor heart attack, but it did not seem to slow him down, his sister says. She and others helped care for Claire as he would allow it.
When finally he was forced to leave his wife in a nursing care facility, he called the place often to check on her, even while he was traveling on Church assignments. Stopping to see her was his first priority after leaving the Church offices for the day or when returning from an out-of-town trip. When she could no longer converse with him, he continued to talk to her during visits.
“He was always in a hurry to see her, to be by her side, and take care of her,” Robert says.
“He did so much for her—so much,” Sister Rasmussen emphasizes.
The wife of a member of the Council of the Twelve, President Hunter says, exerts a “quiet, sustaining influence” which helps her husband to bear the burdens he must carry. Frequently, she must speak, bear testimony, and contribute in a number of other ways. She makes a “great contribution” to a husband’s success in his calling. “I haven’t had my wife to do so now for two years,” he adds. “I guess I didn’t realize what a great support and influence she was until she died. I realize it more now than I ever have.”
There is another love that has helped sustain him through the years of his wife’s illness and since her loss—not a love that could ever take her place, to be sure, but one that uplifts, supports, and cheers. It is the love of the members of his quorum.
“There is a love among the members of the Twelve that surpasses understanding,” he says. “They have the love that I believe Christ talked about.” Associating with them, he explains, has taught him humility, patience, greater faith, and love of fellowman. And those qualities foster a greater desire to serve others.
During more than a quarter of a century in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Howard W. Hunter has helped to move the Church along its upward path. He has been associated with the Church’s genealogy programs for many years (and maintains a personal interest in genealogical research and in gathering family genealogy, his son John reports). Under Elder Hunter’s direction several years ago, goals and guidelines were established that still point the way for the Church’s Genealogical Department.
As president for twelve years of the Polynesian Cultural Center, adjacent to the BYU—Hawaii campus in Laie, Elder Hunter was a prime mover in the center’s development. Now it is one of the major tourist attractions in the Hawaiian islands, providing work—and thus the opportunity for schooling—for thousands of students.
President Hunter has influenced the Church Educational System as a member of the Church Board of Education and the BYU Board of Trustees. He has had a strong voice in Church youth programs, particularly in Scouting. (The Boy Scouts of America honored him with its Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in 1978.) He has served as president of the West European Mission and has employed his business experience as a director of several corporations and other organizations owned by the Church or related to its activities.
But it is the depth of his caring for individuals and the quiet strength of his testimony that have made him beloved to so many Latter-day Saints. His concern is always focused outward. “He has an extraordinary ability to remember people and their circumstances,” his son Richard says. Family and friends alike comment on his amazing recall of people he met years ago and the things they talked about.
His spiritual counsel proved invaluable to one young woman whose family he had come to know years before. “I’ve never talked to anyone who I could feel so thoroughly understood the root of the problem. I had the feeling he was telling me what Christ would tell me,” she recalls. Some months after their chat, she answered her telephone one day to hear, “Hello, this is Howard Hunter.” He had called to see how she was faring.
That kind of concern for individuals is typical of President Hunter. Despite the demands of his assignments and the frequent travel involved, he does not tire of traveling. “We’re with the best people in the world, and that’s what makes it enjoyable,” he says.
He has had the privilege of working daily for many years now with some of the most spiritually attuned men on earth. “You can’t associate with men who have testimonies like theirs without it building your own,” he comments.
Through the years, Elder Hunter has become one of those whose testimony builds others. He has, for a third of a lifetime now, constantly and consistently reaffirmed the witness he bore in the closing session of general conference on 11 October 1959, the day after he was sustained as a member of the Twelve.
“I have a firm, uncompromising conviction that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that the gospel was restored in this latter dispensation by the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I have an abiding conviction of the truthfulness of this fact,” he said.
“I accept, without reservation, the call … and I am willing to devote my life and all that I have to this service.” He has kept that pledge with integrity and love.