Freely Given:
Walter Stover—
A Legend of Generosity

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    Wooden shoes make wonderful sounds. They slurp out of muddy lanes, crunch along gravel roads, clatter down cobblestone streets. Walter Stover’s shoes made all those sounds and more on the long walk to school each morning. The German schoolboy didn’t wear wooden shoes for the sounds, though. He wore them because they cost only 20 cents a pair, and money was scarce.

    Young Walter’s life was never exactly easy, but things always seemed to work out. His mother died when he was an infant, but his father’s second wife proved to be a kind and loving woman. “My father was bedridden the last three years of his life,” Walter, now 87 years old, remembers. “At a very young age I had to help with the work. We lived on a little farm. I remember when I brought the grain to the miller, we didn’t have any money, but he took seven pounds out of 100 for his fee.”

    When Walter was 11 years old, his father died. At 14 the young farmboy was apprenticed to a metalworker. At 16 he was drafted into the German army, fighting in the artillery on the battlefields of France and Belgium during World War I.

    After the war he opened an upholstery and mattress business and married Martha Bohnenstengel. Then in 1923 two young men knocked on his door. They were Elder Wayne Kartchner and Elder Otto Andre. In broken German they told about a boy named Joseph, about an angel, a book, a promise.

    Walter and Martha were baptized in the Warthe River one cold November midnight. The ordinance had to be performed at night because of the anti-Mormon feeling in Germany at the time. “Nobody liked the Mormons. We were considered by some to be the most terrible people who ever lived.” Walter became the president of the Landsberg Branch. The 30 members met in his mattress factory.

    Heeding the call to gather to Zion, he and Martha emigrated to Utah in 1926. Martha found employment sewing men’s dress shirts at $7.50 a week, and Walter worked in a mattress manufacturing plant at $20 a week. In 1929 they founded the Stover Bedding and Mattress Company.

    As his business flourished, Walter became known for his generosity and compassion. He gave freely of his worldly goods and of himself. He does not like these acts of kindness to be spoken of, but many burdens were lifted and many lives brightened by his caring.

    Walter’s own life was darkened, however, by the storm clouds of war that billowed over Europe. Soon his homeland and his adopted nation were killing each other’s sons on the same battlefields where he had fought as a young man.

    When the guns of World War II finally fell silent, Germany awakened to a gray world of hunger, disease, and despair. Her cities lay in ruins. The whole nation was exhausted. Millions were homeless. Food, clothing, fuel, and shelter were almost nonexistent. People were dying every day for lack of the simple necessities.

    Faithful Latter-day Saints had suffered with the rest. Some had died when the bombs fell. Many had been killed in combat. Others were prisoners of war.

    The love of the Saints for one another during the apocalyptic last days of the war and the grim aftermath was a kind of miracle. They shared their food, their homes, and their faith. Their native leaders worked with great devotion to obtain what supplies they could for the members.

    Still, the time came when there was no more to share and no more to buy. By late 1946, the situation was desperate. One of the coldest winters on record came howling in through bomb-shattered cities to the north. Meeting in unheated buildings, the faithful Saints watched in amazement as the water froze in sacrament cups.

    Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve had come to Europe early in 1946 to assess needs and open channels for the hundreds of tons of relief supplies that the wards and stakes of the Church had been contributing. In the fall of the year, just as the need was becoming most desperate, these supplies began flowing into Germany.

    And not long after welfare supplies began arriving, the Church sent another great gift to Germany—a man of faith and love and compassion. A strong, humble man who had long since outgrown his wooden shoes but who would never outgrow his love for the land of his birth. Walter Stover was called to minister to the war-torn Saints of Germany as president of the East German Mission.

    Eager to do his part, he purchased with his own funds two railroad carloads of food and relief supplies and took them with him to Germany. Because of his generosity many lives were saved.

    President Stover was sustained as mission president in a meeting at which Elder Benson presided. It was held in a bombed-out school in Berlin. Members of the Church approached President Stover after the meeting and told him, “We have lost our homes, our farms, and all our belongings, but we have not lost our testimonies of the gospel.”

    Seven of the East German Mission’s eight districts lay within the Russian zone. President Stover launched a series of district conferences into this zone, gathering together the remnants of the Saints. Many branches had almost disappeared. Some had only women and children. The men were dead or in prison camps. The people were reduced to eating weeds to supplement their meager ration of black bread. The members thronged to the conferences, as hungry for spiritual nourishment as they were for food. Time after time President Stover crossed into the Russian zone in his green Pontiac, taking both spiritual and temporal aid, a shepherd to a scattered and ravaged flock.

    There was some danger in these travels. He was arrested several times, and once he was taken at gun point to be tried by a Russian military court as an American spy. He was released unhurt. He had been promised by President George Albert Smith that the adversary would have no power over him as long as he was doing his duty, and this promise was honored many times.

    And always, he fed and clothed the Saints. Time after time he staved off starvation and exposure with Church welfare supplies, and sometimes with goods he purchased himself.

    His reports from those days are filled with touching stories. “I went to visit one sister whose husband was killed in action in Russia. She lived with no heat, no windows, no water. There was hardly any bedding. Two small children were in bed shivering. The mother was hard of hearing, and the oldest daughter, 11, was half-starved and frozen. The little girl had no shoes and little clothing. … We gave them warm food and clothing.

    “I will never forget the thankful expression on the little girl’s face when she got underclothing, a dress, stockings, and new shoes. We also could help the mother and other little girl from the welfare supplies. We gave them a couple of blankets and a few other things. The family might well have frozen to death if they had not come to our attention.”

    Another time he wrote: “I gave a little girl an orange. She eyed it with suspicion and then began to play with it. I told her it could be eaten, and before I could show her how to peel it she began to eat the peeling and all as if it were an apple. Children have no knowledge of fruits or sweets. The gaunt adults remember such items as milk, eggs, butter, fats, and meats but vaguely.”

    Members from all over the Church contributed to the rescue of the German Saints. President Stover was part of an event which he would call “the most beautiful and inspiring thing that has ever been my privilege to witness during my entire membership in the Church.” It began on a visit to Holland when he graphically described the suffering of the German members. Cornelius Zappey, president of the Netherlands Mission, was so moved that he asked the Dutch members if they would plant seed potatoes in their flower gardens for their former enemies. They responded enthusiastically, and in November of 1947, they sent 60 tons of potatoes to Germany, along with 96 barrels of herring. They sent another 60 tons of potatoes in 1949.

    President Stover’s own generosity to the Saints was legendary. He built and paid for at least four new chapels from his own funds. Once he rented a train to bring the members from East Germany into the American sector of Berlin for a conference.

    One Christmas he and the West German Mission president purchased a chocolate bar from the U.S. army commissary for every LDS child in Germany. After that the children called him their “chocolate uncle.”

    At the end of his mission, President Stover and his wife adopted two little German girls, Heidi and Brigitte.

    President Stover witnessed the birth of the Cold War. He saw the Iron Curtain come down across Europe. He saw access to his beloved Saints in East Germany become more and more difficult and infrequent. But he worked on tirelessly to serve his people in every way he could.

    After his release in 1951, Brother Stover continued his giving ways back in Salt Lake. He hired many impoverished immigrants at his business, and quietly helped unnumbered others, shunning publicity, but always giving. Giving was his hobby, his passion, his mission. Students living in Helaman Halls at BYU enjoy one small part of his generosity. He donated all the mattresses and box springs for the whole complex.

    In the meantime, he fulfilled many Church assignments, both in his own ward and as a member of Churchwide committees. He didn’t know any other way to spend his life except in service, and he saw chances for service everywhere. President Ezra Taft Benson has said of him, “Brother Walter Stover, whom I have known and loved for over 40 years, is a man without guile and an exemplary Latter-day Saint.” President Thomas S. Monson says, “Walter Stover has contributed his all after the fashion of the Master, quietly and unceremoniously—without any fanfare or credit to himself.”

    Walter Stover’s whole life has been dedicated to building Zion and taking care of the needs of his Father’s children. He could have been a very rich man by now as the world measures riches. He could have had estates and mansions and fleets of vintage autos. Instead he has invested his money and himself in the lives of his fellowmen and in the restored gospel. And so instead of being very rich in dollars and cents, he is very rich in love and joy and the Spirit of the Lord.

    The Savior must surely have been thinking of people such as Walter Stover when he said,

    “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

    “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

    “Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

    “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

    “When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

    “Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

    “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:34–40).

    Illustrated by Larry Winborg

    East German Mission headquarters; Brother and Sister Stover adopted two German girls, Heidi and Brigitte; Berlin Dahlen Chapel; President Stover built four chapels and the mission headquarters with his own funds

    President Stover with the missionaries; Planting potatoes for a welfare project in Berlin; Brother Stover, who received the BYU Presidential Citation, has made substantial donations to many worthwhile causes.