In Memoriam: President N. Eldon Tanner


May 9, 1898–November 27, 1982
Lifter • Builder • Leader
President N. Eldon Tanner

President N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball, died of cardiac arrest at his home in Salt Lake City on Saturday, November 27, 1982. He was 84 years of age.

“He is as approachable as a child, as wise as a father, and as loving as a gentle brother. This is a man of rare makeup. He has not shunned any obligation of which he was aware as a father, friend, or brother; as a businessman, citizen, or civic leader; or as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly Nathan Eldon Tanner is a man to match our mountains: tall, rugged, unyielding, immeasurable.”—President Spencer W. Kimball

When N. Eldon Tanner was born in Salt Lake City on May 9, 1898, the West was still a little bit wild. His mother had come to Utah from a one-room dugout on a farm near Aetna, Alberta, Canada, for the birth. When she returned home with her infant son six weeks later, highwaymen stopped the train and robbed the passengers.

Eldon was the first of eight children born to Nathan William Tanner and Sara Edna Brown Tanner, and growing up on a pioneer dry farm, he grew up fast. He learned to ride almost before he could walk, and by the age of 12 he was driving a four-horse team 7 1/2 miles to the grain elevators. There was no plumbing, electricity, or telephone. The work was hard and the winters harsh, but young Eldon thrived on it. He decided on his own that his father would never have to wake him up in the morning, even on the days when they were to start working at three or four A.M. Once in his early teens the whole family was stricken with smallpox, and he nursed them, going without sleep for three days and two nights. His father was impressed by the young man’s steadfastness and told him privately that one day he would be an Apostle. Eldon never repeated this to anyone until it had become a fact, but it filled him with joy that the best man he knew thought him worthy of that great calling.

Eldon’s father was a great influence on his young life. As they faithfully drove the eight miles to priesthood meeting together, they talked of many things. “My father taught me early that I was a spirit child of God,” he has said. “He taught me what a great privilege it is to kneel down and pray to our Heavenly Father. From the time I was a little boy, he taught me something I remember well: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

Eldon learned one of his greatest lessons from an unpleasant experience. He was 14 years old, and his father was serving as bishop. There had been a death in the ward, and his father had gone to prepare for the funeral. He asked Eldon and his brothers to do the chores while he was gone.

“We decided to ride some calves before we did what he had told us to do. We thought we would have plenty of time, but he came home while we were still riding those calves, and he called us over to him. Though he had never whipped me, I thought maybe I was going to receive a whipping at that time. But he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘My boy, I thought I could depend on you.’ That hurt me very much. I can still almost recall the exact feeling I had at that time. I made up my mind that he would never have a reason to say, ‘I thought I could depend on you.’ Right then I made up my mind that the Lord would never have reason to say, ‘I thought I could depend on Eldon Tanner.’ It has helped me greatly in my life. The things I learned while I was a boy have helped me all through my life.”

Young Eldon was blessed with a keen mind and insatiable hunger to learn. His schooling was interrupted by grain harvests and other farm work, but he managed to get through high school in Cardston and Raymond by helping in a butcher shop to pay for his board and through Calgary Normal School by working in a grocery store. On graduating from normal school, he was offered two jobs, one at Hill Spring and one at Rocky Ford, Alberta. Although the latter paid a higher salary, he chose the Hill Spring job because there was no LDS church at Rocky Ford. At 20 years of age he became a principal of a three-room school.

The students at Hill Spring had a reputation as rowdies, but Eldon was equal to the challenge. He was a firm disciplinarian, and he had the ability to make academic subjects fascinating. He also introduced boxing, wrestling, basketball, and other extracurricular activities; formed a Scout troop; and trained cadets. One young man later reported that President Tanner had been his schoolteacher, Scoutmaster, and cadet instructor as well as his boxing, wrestling, and basketball coach, all at the same time! His coaching produced several provincial wrestling championships.

Spring Hill provided an even more important opportunity than teaching youth. One of the teachers under Eldon was named Sara Merrill. He had never met her officially, but he had glimpsed her previously one day in Cardston and said to a friend, “Someday I’m going to marry her.” They were married on December 19, 1919. Their union was blessed with five beautiful daughters, the first being born in October 1920 and the last in August 1931.

Late in 1928 the family moved to Cardston, where Eldon again worked as school principal. To supplement their meager depression income, he sold insurance and custom-made suits, milked cows, raised chickens and a vegetable garden, and served on the town council. He also served in the Church as Scoutmaster, bishop’s counselor, and bishop of the Cardston First Ward.

While serving there as a second counselor he became a hero among the local youth with a piece of innovative leadership. It seems that few of the deacons were attending priesthood meeting. Concerned, Eldon went to each of them and found that they had only overalls to wear and were ashamed to come to meetings. He told them that if they would come to their priesthood meetings, he would attend in overalls too. They agreed, and deacons quorum attendance rose to almost 100 percent.

President Tanner’s activities as a political and business leader earned him early recognition as a man of high integrity and wisdom. In 1935 he was elected to the Alberta legislature and moved to Edmonton. He was immediately chosen Speaker of the House. Later he was appointed to two ministerial positions in the provincial cabinet. Legislation he sponsored became the pattern for other Canadian provinces and helped make Alberta the first province free from public debt. At the same time, however, he was so involved in Scouting that he was known unofficially as “Minister of Lands, Mines, and Scouts.”

But President Tanner’s greatest success and happiness came from his relationship with his family and his Church. At a fireside in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1979, his daughter Helen Tanner Beaton reminisced about life with her father.

“Daddy was branch president in Edmonton, cabinet minister in charge of two major departments, president of the Boy Scout Association. But he still got up with us in the night if we were sick, prepared breakfast every morning, and set up the washing machine and rinse tubs every Monday morning at 6:00 A.M.

“At the age of eight, my girl friend and I put our dolls in their carriages and walked the several blocks to the government building. Daddy’s secretary announced us, and we were invited in to the big executive office and introduced to the men he was in a meeting with. We introduced our dolls and were thanked for coming.”

During World War II, the Tanner home was always open to servicemen. “We and our guests would sit around and discuss our religion and beliefs,” Helen reported. “Many a young man, serviceman, student, or missionary understood and established his beliefs as a result of these discussions.”

During this period, President Tanner received many honors.” The British government chose him to go to Barbados to set up their oil policy, and he and mother were entertained by royalty and government officials in many countries.” During a trial in one of New York’s courts, the question was asked if anyone could name a man of total integrity. N. Eldon Tanner’s name was entered into the official court record as such a man.

When the trans-Canada pipeline was being planned, President Tanner received constant appeals from the national minister of trade and from the premier of Alberta to become head of the project. He accepted the challenge.

The 2,000-mile pipeline, largest in the world at that time, was completed in four years, even though one project authority compared it with the building of the U.S. transcontinental railroad.

During that time President Tanner served faithfully as stake president in Calgary. He went on to serve in various corporations as president, director, board member, and chairman of the board. He would later use these experiences as a guide in helping to revitalize downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, where he has been deeply involved in civic affairs.

While he was serving as president of the Calgary Stake, President Tanner was called to be an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve.

He was soon thereafter called to serve as the president of the Western European Mission, and on October 11, 1962, he was ordained a member of the Council of the Twelve.

President Tanner has served as counselor to four presidents—David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and President Spencer W. Kimball.

“When I was a member of the Twelve Apostles,” President Spencer W. Kimball once wrote, “and President Tanner was a member of the First Presidency, I went very often to his office and plunked myself down in his big red leather chair, unloaded some of my problems, and he was always of great help to me.”

Elder Marvin J. Ashton, a member of the Council of the Twelve, once said that President N. Eldon Tanner would go down in history as one of the greatest counselors ever to serve in the First Presidency of the Church. Elder Ashton says that President Tanner is “a lifter, a builder, a leader.” He once heard President Tanner say that “all I want to do in God’s kingdom is do what He wants me to do.”

In a statement issued by the First Presidency following the death of President Tanner, it was said, “None has been more steadfast in carrying the responsibilities of high office. None has been more faithful in the execution of duty.

“His unflinching testimony of God the Eternal Father and the Risen Lord Jesus Christ has been a strength to millions over the earth.

“Our close association has been a warm and beautiful experience. Oh, how we shall miss him.”