Elder Robert D. Hales: “Return with Honor”


“As a young man, I put myself in the Lord’s hands,” Elder Hales recalls. That decision has shaped his life.

“Will you accept a call to be elders quorum president?” On the surface, the request was simple enough. But for Robert D. Hales, then a graduate student working toward a master of business administration degree at Harvard University, there was no simple answer. In his heart, Robert was willing to accept the call, but he knew that professors discouraged students from any outside activities because of the intensity of the graduate program. He also knew he needed to talk it over with his wife, Mary.

The Hales family lived in an apartment with their two small children. As Robert and Mary discussed the call, they knew it would be extremely difficult for Robert to keep up with his master’s program and to serve as elders quorum president. However, after much prayer and discussion, Mary said, “I’d rather have an active priesthood holder than a man who holds a master’s degree from Harvard. We’ll do them both.” The next day when Robert came home from school, he discovered that Mary had walled off a section of the unfinished basement in their apartment with two-by-fours and wallboard. This small office would give him a place to study and help them with their goal to serve the Lord.

“I put myself in the Lord’s hands when I made that decision,” says Elder Hales now, nearly forty years later. “That decision was much harder to make then than when, years later, I accepted the call to serve as an Assistant to the Twelve and left my business career behind. Some people may have trouble understanding that, but I believe you really show the Lord who you are and what you are willing to become when you make those hard decisions as a young person.”

That decision is representative of the pattern Elder and Sister Hales have followed throughout their life together; they are a team committed to balancing family life, Church service, and career. It also exemplifies a trait that has dominated the life of Robert D. Hales: integrity and honor in choosing the right. He brings this sense of integrity and honor, as well as many other strengths, with him as he becomes the newest member of the Quorum of the Twelve, filling the vacancy left by the February 25 death of Elder Marvin J. Ashton.

A Balance of East and West

Born 24 August 1932 in New York City and reared in nearby Long Island, Robert—or Bob, as he is known to his friends and family—spent every summer in Utah with relatives. As a result, he enjoyed the influence of both the eastern and western United States. The youngest of the three children born to J. Rulon and Vera Marie Holbrook Hales, Robert enjoyed a happy childhood. Wild lilies of the valley and jack-in-the-pulpit flowers filled the Hales family’s large, wooded yard, and Robert loved to play there with his sister, Janet, and his brother, Gerald. Their father, a commercial artist, often called on his children to help him build rock gardens and fishponds in their yard.

The Hales family’s roots were in the West. Originally from Rexburg, Idaho, Rulon met Vera Holbrook, who lived in Bountiful, Utah, at the suggestion of his best friend, Jed Ashton. Vera invited Rulon to “come back in cherry blossom time.” He did, and they were married soon after.

Rulon’s grandfather, who had quarter horses, had been sent to Rexburg by Brigham Young to help dig the irrigation canal system. “The entry in his journal when his last horse died has always touched me,” says Elder Hales. “He listed the names of his horses and then wrote, ‘They served the Lord well in a labor that they were not suited to.’”

Vera’s grandfather settled in Bountiful. After a windstorm blew the roof off of the Bountiful tabernacle, Grandfather Holbrook (who was in the process of building his own home) gave all of his building materials for use in replacing the tabernacle roof.

“We enjoyed the best of the east and the west,” says Janet Hales Clark, Elder Hales’s sister. “Every summer my mother took the three of us to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Holbrook in Bountiful. Our cousins became like our brothers and sisters.”

Robert also spent two summers with his cousins on their ranch in Skull Valley, Utah. “We used to bale hay and ride horses, take salt licks to the cattle in the mountains all summer, and take care of the sheep and cattle,” says Elder Hales. “Those were great times.”

In New York City, Robert had other unique opportunities. The United Nations was included in his high school district. “I really learned about other countries from the children of the United Nations representatives,” says Elder Hales. “I decided then that I wanted to have an international experience in my life.”

When he was a child, everything about baseball fascinated Robert. By the time he was a high school freshman, he was the starting pitcher for the school’s varsity baseball team. In college at the University of Utah, he was on the baseball team until an injury made it hard for him to continue playing. But the lessons he learned about life and people during the years he played baseball have had an important influence on him.

Once in high school, Robert’s pitching slump caused the team to lose three games in a row, one to nothing. The headline in the school paper said “Hard Luck Hales Loses Again.” He took his uniform and went to tell his coach he was going to quit. When he got to the coach’s office, his coach said, “Do you know why you’re losing? Your pitching arm is tired at the end of the game because before the game when you’re supposed to be warming up, you’re out there impressing everybody with your fastball and curveball. You probably pitch two or three innings doing that. Quit showing off and you won’t wear out your arm.” Robert listened, and the next game he pitched a shutout. “That’s why you love a coach who will tell you what you need to hear,” says Elder Hales. “If you listen to your coach, you can avoid repeating your mistakes and have a better opportunity to achieve your goals. The Lord is like that too. I don’t get tired of the chastening of the Lord or the Lord’s anointed.”

The gospel was the center of family life for the Hales family, who attended the Queens Ward about twenty miles from their home. Both Rulon and Vera served faithfully in many Church callings throughout their lives. Many of the most important lessons Robert learned as a child came from the example of his parents and from his experiences in the Queens Ward.

As deacons quorum president, Robert learned to respect his priesthood leaders after an experience with the bishop in the Queens Ward. At that time, the ward met in the Citizen’s League Hall. The sacrament table was on the main floor in front of the stage. The deacons used to take the sacrament trays, climb up onto the stage, put the trays away, and then run and jump off the stage, grab another tray, and repeat the process until all the trays were put away. “I came sailing off of that stage,” says Elder Hales, “and our new bishop was standing there. He caught me in flight. I said, ‘Well, everyone else is doing it,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but you are the president of the deacons quorum.’ The bishop said he wanted the sacrament taken care of properly, with reverence. That was when I began to learn an important lesson. I’ve appreciated priesthood leaders who have taken the time to teach me.”

Family Life

It was in the Queens Ward that Robert, a college sophomore, met Mary Crandall, also a college student, whose family had recently moved to New York from Los Angeles. “After I met her, I never went out with anyone else,” says Elder Hales. “We were together every evening after work for the first two months sharing family activities. She’d help me wash my car, and I’d help her baby-sit her brothers; it was as though we were never going to be apart.” At the end of the summer, they both went back to college in Utah—Robert to the University of Utah and Mary to Brigham Young University. The following summer, on 10 June 1953, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple.

As a newlywed, Robert completed his senior year in college and also worked at a Salt Lake City television station as a cameraman and film editor. “Sometimes Mary packed sandwiches and came down to the station,” says Elder Hales. “We’d watch the movies so that I could edit them and splice in the commercials. She’d sit with me. Those were great years.”

“We’ve always had a good time together,” says Sister Hales. “Bob has a great sense of humor. He is very caring.”

Robert graduated from the University of Utah in 1954 with a degree in communications and business and then went into active duty in the air force. In 1955, Robert and Mary, with their newborn son, Stephen, moved to Florida, the first move of a lifetime of moves for them. For four years, Robert served as a jet fighter pilot, flying F84 and F100 aircraft in the strategic and tactical air commands. Their second son, David, joined the family in 1958.

Robert learned an important principle while serving in the air force. Each unit in the squadron had a motto that had been chosen to inspire the pilots in their efforts. “Our unit motto (displayed on the side of our aircraft) was ‘Return with Honor,’” says Elder Hales. “This motto was a constant reminder to us of our determination to return to our home base with honor after we had expended all of our efforts to successfully complete every aspect of our mission.” This motto has served as a reminder of the importance of honesty and integrity in his personal and professional life. As a father, he put his arms around each of his two sons before they left to serve their missions—Stephen to England and David to Germany—and whispered, “Return with honor.” He still refers to this motto today.

When Robert finished his active duty in the air force, the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he attended Harvard, graduating in 1960 with a master of business administration degree. Career opportunities quickly opened for him. Throughout his professional life, he served in major executive positions with several national companies. In connection with his work, the Hales family lived in England, Germany, Spain, and several different areas of the United States.

“Moving can be painful and difficult for children,” says Elder Hales. “It takes a while for them to realize the educational value of seeing the world, but when my boys grew up, they told me that living in foreign countries was the better part of their education.”

Moving was sometimes a challenge for Mary too, but she met it with independence and tenacity. Once when they moved in connection with his job, “I took her to Germany, dropped her off in Frankfurt with the two boys, and then I had to fly on to Berlin for a temporary assignment,” says Elder Hales. “Mary got the boys into school, learned to find her way around the busy autobahn, and eventually learned to speak German. This was typical. She has always made it work.”

Mary and Robert’s teamwork has been an example to many, including their daughter-in-law Susan. “They are a total partnership,” she says. “Any couple could pattern their marriage after them. Their relationship is 100 percent equal; one does not dominate the other. Each opinion is valued.”

This willingness to serve the Lord as a team, which Robert and Mary committed to early in their marriage, is one of the things that has made it possible for them to maintain a balance throughout their lives between important positions in the international business world and their desire to live the principles of the gospel.

“Once, when I received a promotion, my boss told me that I wouldn’t be where I was without my wife,” says Elder Hales. “He said, ‘Mary is your greatest asset, and don’t you forget it.’ And I never have.

“Mary has never held me back. We follow the Quaker proverb ‘Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee, and we will ascend together.’ A lot of what we have done would not have happened without a team relationship. We always have been a team and always will be. I think listening to my wife, next to listening to the Holy Ghost, has been the most important influence in my life.”

Church Service

Following the pattern established when he was called to serve as elders quorum president at Harvard, Elder Hales has willingly accepted any Church calling while maintaining his high-profile business career. Throughout his life, he has served in many Church callings, but most often as a branch president or bishop. His frequent career moves resulted in his service as branch president in Albany, Georgia; Weston, Massachusetts (Boston stake); and Frankfurt, Germany; and as a bishop in Weston; Wilmette Ward (Chicago stake); and Frankfurt. He has also taught early-morning seminary in Downey, California, served on the high council in Boston and London stakes, and served in the Boston stake presidency. He later served as a regional representative for the Minnesota and Louisiana regions.

In 1975, Robert was in a board meeting when his secretary handed him a note saying that President Marion G. Romney was on the phone. Since it was very unusual for anyone to leave a board meeting, everyone was surprised when Robert left to take the phone call. At that time, President Romney asked Robert to serve as a mission president. Later the assignment came to preside over the England London Mission.

Shortly afterwards, Robert got another call from Salt Lake City—this time from President Spencer W. Kimball. He asked Robert if he would mind going to a different mission. Robert replied, “I don’t mind. Send me wherever you want to send me, President.” Then President Kimball asked, “Do you mind if we ask you to serve longer than three years?” Robert said, “Okay.” President Kimball then extended a lifelong call to him to serve as a General Authority.

“President Kimball told me he knew I was disappointed because I wanted to go out as a mission president,” says Elder Hales, “but he said, ‘Don’t worry about it; you will have many missions.’”

For the first three years of his service as an Assistant to the Twelve and as a Seventy, Elder Hales helped plan twenty-seven area conferences for the First Presidency. “I loved traveling with President Spencer W. Kimball, the Apostles, and other leaders,” says Elder Hales. “Watching prophets, seers, and revelators bearing witness of the truthfulness of the gospel to the Saints in city after city was absolutely wonderful.”

Nearly three years to the day after he received his call from President Romney to serve as a mission president, Elder Hales received a call from President Kimball to serve as president of the England London Mission. “We loved the English people, England, and the mission,” says Elder Hales.

When Elder Hales finished serving as mission president in 1979, the family moved directly to Europe. There, as area supervisor, he worked with Elder Thomas S. Monson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Hans B. Ringger, then a regional representative. They worked closely with the leaders of countries where the gospel had not yet been established. In East Germany, they talked with leaders about the possibility of building a temple. Each time leaders made the request to build, it was denied because “no building materials were available.” Finally, they asked where building materials might be available. Eventually the answer came: Freiberg. Soon permission was granted to build a temple there.

His travels sometimes accidentally coincided with political or military confrontations that were going on in the countries then known as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. But Elder Hales was there “for the good times and the bad times.” In Poland, he built relationships with the government leaders, occasionally against a backdrop of tanks, tear gas, and people running in the streets. The first baptisms in Warsaw were in a hotel swimming pool, but eventually the members were able to build a church.

“I have great love and respect for the Saints in these countries,” says Elder Hales. “I love them for their faithfulness. More than two thousand of them remained true to their testimonies.”

After Elder Hales was released as area supervisor, the Hales family moved back to Salt Lake City, Utah. From 1983 to 1984, Elder Hales served as area president of the North America Southwest Area. In 1985, he was called to serve as Presiding Bishop. Elder Hales’s primary responsibility was overseeing the outward ordinances and temporal affairs of the Church. His years of Church service and experience as a business executive made him well suited to this calling.

“He’s really good at taking a problem apart and building a solution,” says his son Stephen. “I think he’s got a particular talent for getting things done through other people. He gives others the responsibility for solving their own problem and the power to do what needs to be done. When the problem is solved, he gives them the credit. He thrives on helping to get things done anonymously.

“Some people have been trained to zero in on the weak link and tear it out, but that can destroy lives. Typically, my dad will gather around and strengthen that link rather than replace it. He loves people, and he’ll bend over backwards for them.”

Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Seventy, who served as a counselor to Bishop Hales in the Presiding Bishopric, reaffirms this assessment. “Elder Hales is a builder of people. He has been helping people quietly over many years. When he finds out that someone has a need, he does something about it.”

For relaxation, he enjoys sports—especially golf. He and Mary also enjoy being with their sons, their daughters-in-law, and their eight grandchildren. The Hales family bought an old farmhouse near Bear Lake, and they love to take occasional weekend breaks there as an extended family. “We’ve learned the value of spending time one-on-one with our grandchildren,” says Elder Hales. “I take them to the bird refuge, visit farms, and go on hikes, to gymnastic meets, or to athletic events. Mary likes to read with them.”

Though in good health now, Elder Hales has suffered two heart attacks. At the general conference after his second heart attack, he said: “I’m happy for every day that I am here. I have felt a renewal of my willingness to consecrate everything I am and everything I have as repayment for all the good things that have happened in my life. I have a renewed appreciation for everybody and everything” (Ensign, May 1992, p. 63).

How do others describe Elder Hales? “Compassionate,” says his daughter-in-law Susan. “He is not a judgmental person. He forgives and forgets. He honors his parents and to this day gives them credit for rearing him with high standards. He doesn’t compromise those standards; he lives by them.”

His son Stephen says, “He respects others’ privacy and he keeps confidences. He’s anxious to do the right thing for the right reason. He’s always been a good example to me.”

“Patience is one of his best attributes. He is a very patient father,” says his son David. “In his business dealings, he is a good negotiator. He has the ability to talk with both sides and keep them focused on the problem and on the end goal.”

Mary says, “He has absolutely no guile. He has a pure heart and just wants to do the right thing.”

“Elder Hales is nonconfrontive,” says a coworker. “His management style is to let people work it out. And he has respect for his priesthood leaders. When the First Presidency speaks, he is their humble servant.”

The Newest Apostle

On Thursday, April 7, 1994, in the Salt Lake Temple, President Ezra Taft Benson joined with his counselors, President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson, and participated in the ordination and setting apart of Elder Hales as an Apostle. All the members of the Quorum of the Twelve were present.

“It was magnificent experience,” says Elder Hales. “It’s a great testimony and witness that President Benson is the Lord’s prophet. When he places his hands on your head, you know he is a prophet.”

Now as one of the Lord’s Twelve Apostles, Elder Hales will stand with these leaders of the Church as a special witness for Christ. The motto “Return with Honor,” so inspiring to Elder Hales as a jet fighter pilot, has been a theme weaving itself throughout his life, whether he is in a boardroom with business executives or in a playroom with his children. Whether he has been building a relationship with leaders of another country or strengthening his relationship with his wife, he has returned with honor. And in the future, in his assignments as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, as husband, father, grandfather, or friend, he also will continue to return with honor.

“We come to earth to undergo testing,” says Elder Hales. “Through faithful obedience and enduring to the end, we can one day return with honor back into the presence of our Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ. I never want to let a time go by without expressing my testimony. As it says in 3 Nephi 5:13 [3 Ne. 5:13], ‘I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life.’”

[photos] Far left: Robert D. Hales as a senior in high school. Above: A recent photograph. Right (top to bottom): On his wedding day with Mary; as a boy in New York; as a pitcher on his high school varsity baseball team.

[photos] Top to bottom: The J. Rulon Hales family in New York (left to right: Gerald, J. Rulon, Robert, Vera, Janet); the Robert Hales family (clockwise: Robert, Mary, David, Stephen); Robert as a jet fighter pilot.

[photo] Elder Hales learned to play the piano as a child. Today he plays “just for fun,” such as here with his grandson.

[photo] Paris France area conference, 1979. Left to right: David M. Kennedy, President N. Eldon Tanner, President Spencer W. Kimball, Elder Thomas S. Monson, Elder Robert D. Hales, and Elder Charles Didier.

[photos] Top to bottom: Elder Hales is on the front row, third from the right, at the Nürnberg zone conference in the Germany Munich Mission in April 1982; Mary and Robert Hales, June 1975; Elder Hales visiting a Somalian refugee camp in Kenya in 1993. (Photo courtesy of Gary Porter.)