“The Way of an Eagle,” Ensign, Aug. 1994, 2
In his first statement to the press as the fourteenth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Howard William Hunter said, among other things:
“I have shed many tears and have sought my Father in Heaven in earnest prayer with a desire to be equal to the high and holy calling which is now mine.
“My greatest strength through these past hours and recent days has been my abiding testimony that this is the work of God and not men, that Jesus Christ is the authorized and living head of this church and he leads it in word and deed. I pledge my life, my strength, and the full measure of my soul to serving Him fully. …
“To the membership of the Church in every country of the world and to people everywhere I extend my love. … I pray that we might treat each other with more kindness, more courtesy, more humility and patience and forgiveness. …
“I … invite the members of the Church to establish the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of their membership and the supernal setting for their most sacred covenants. It would be the deepest desire of my heart to have every member of the Church be temple worthy. I would hope that every adult member would be worthy of—and carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it.”1
Following this, his two counselors gave their brief responses. His First Counselor, President Gordon B. Hinckley, said: “Thank you, President Hunter. It is an honor to work in any capacity in this church, and it will be an especial honor and privilege to work with President Hunter, with whom I have been closely associated for the past thirty-three years. He is a man of great capacity, a man of kind and gracious ways and of total devotion to the work of the Lord. There is much to be done in moving this work across the world, and we will give it our best effort as we work with our beloved leader.”
His Second Counselor, President Thomas S. Monson, said: “President Hunter, I look forward to the opportunity to serve with you in the Presidency as your Second Counselor. We have been very closely associated for the more than thirty years I have been in the Twelve. I would like one and all to know that you are a man of talent, you are a man of great compassion, and you are a leader whose heart goes out to the hungry, to the homeless. And in the spirit of the Master, your great desire has ever been to lift others upward toward Him. God bless you in your ministry.”
Trying to describe this charming, charismatic, exceptionally gifted President Hunter is rather like trying to capture “the way of an eagle in the air.”2 The following lines are an attempt to show him spreading his wings over a life spanning some eighty-six years.
As a young man of twenty-two, Howard received his patriarchal blessing. In it he was told that he was one “whom the Lord foreknew,” who had shown “strong leadership among the hosts of heaven,” and that he had been ordained “to perform an important work in mortality in bringing to pass [the Lord’s] purposes with relation to His chosen people.” He was promised, based on his faithfulness, that he would be blessed with “intelligence from on high” and that he would become “a master of worldly skill and a teacher of worldly wisdom as well as a priest of the most high God.” He was told that he would use his talents in serving the Church, that he would sit in its councils, and that he would be known for his wisdom and his righteous judgments.3 Howard Hunter’s blessing is reminiscent of the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”4
President Howard W. Hunter’s heritage stems from faithful forebears who hailed from Scotland, Scandinavia, and the United States. John Hunter, his great-grandfather, lived in Paisley, Scotland, where he manufactured cloth and textiles; he immigrated to the United States, came to Salt Lake City, and started a freighting business. Nancy Hatch, his great-grandmother, once wrote in her journal, “I went to hear the Mormon preacher [Joseph Smith] with great caution, hoping not to be deceived. His subject was the second coming of Christ. I had the testimony that he spoke the truth, and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, called and ordained of God to do a great work, because he had brought forth the truth as it was taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles. I asked to be baptized.”5
In 1904, Nellie Marie Rasmussen, who would become President Hunter’s mother, traveled from her home in Mt. Pleasant to visit an aunt in Boise, Idaho. While there, she met John William Hunter. They courted for the next two years; however, he was not a member of the Church at the time, and Nellie, not wanting to marry out of the Church, returned to Mt. Pleasant. But John persisted, and they were married 3 December 1906. The couple moved to Boise, where they rented a little house on Sherman Street. Howard William Hunter was born in Boise on 14 November 1907, and his sister, Dorothy, was born two years later.
His sister, Dorothy Hunter Rasmussen, recently deceased, remembered this tender incident when they were children together. “Howard always wanted to do good and to be good. A wonderful brother, he looked out for me. He was kind to our mother and father. Howard loved animals and regularly brought home strays.” There was an irrigation ditch by their house, and one day several boys in the neighborhood, not members of the Church, were throwing a kitten in the ditch. It would get out, then they would throw it in again. They did this over and over until they got tired of their game. “Howard came by and picked [the kitten] up; it was lying there almost dead, and he brought it home. Mother was afraid it was dead, but they wrapped it in a blanket and put it near the warm oven and nursed it.” It lived, and they had the cat for years. “He was also so kind,” Dorothy said. “I have never known my brother to do a wrong thing in my life.”6
Dorothy recalled that he was always very polite to older people and considerate of their needs. She said, “When we were small we used to get our milk from some people who had some cows. It was quite a trip every night to go get the milk. We would carry the milk in canvas bags that held three quarts. There was a widow in our neighborhood, and we always brought her back some milk.”7
Dorothy and Howard were close. “There were just the two of us,” wrote Dorothy. “He was always so good to me—one of those super brothers. We lived close to the Boise river, and so we had to cross pastures and go through barbed wire fences. I was really aggravated one day, so Mom said, ‘What’s the problem?’ I said, ‘He held the barbed wire longer for Beatrice than for me.’”8
“Howard was always doing something; he always had a job. He sold papers, did all kinds of things, won a xylophone. Our parents had a long living room, and against one wall Howard had all his instruments—he has perfect pitch. He worked in arts school, before school, and learned to frame pictures.”9 Another boyhood pursuit was picking up broken alarm clocks that had been discarded. He took them apart, repaired and lubricated them, and got them in working order. Then he would sell them for pocket money.
One job Howard tried was sorting lemons, separating the green ones from the yellow ones. This was one of the few tasks for which he had no aptitude whatever—being colorblind, he could not tell the difference! Interestingly, he later went on to become somewhat of an expert on bananas.
Even though they had a close relationship, Howard and his sister Dorothy were a little different in temperament. Dorothy thought of herself as sometimes being difficult and occasionally in trouble; but she claimed that Howard was always sweet, refined, and a peacemaker. And his manners, even when he was a boy, were such that women would comment, “If only my son were like that.”
While he was in high school, his musical interest continued to grow, particularly after he won a marimba set. At fifteen he put together his own orchestra, called Hunter’s Croonaders, which played at most high school socials in Boise. After graduation from high school, he and his orchestra played on a cruise ship that sailed to the Far East in 1927. His father was baptized about this time.
Having earned some ready money with the orchestra on the ship, Howard bought a Ford roadster. It was neither fancy nor new, and it gave him trouble the day after he bought it. But being an excellent mechanic, Howard spent the next two days fixing it. He has been “Mr. Fix It” ever since. In the 1980s when he was in his midseventies, he drove a large white car that was reaching antique status, and as the parts would wear out, he could find no replacements. The car held great sentimental value, so he machined the parts himself with home equipment.
Not long after he came back from Asia in 1927, Howard went to see Ned Redding, a friend who lived in southern California. After serious deliberation he decided to stay there and look for a career. He got a job with the Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) in 1928 and enrolled in evening classes for college credit.
This same friend, Ned Redding, introduced Howard to a young lady friend of his at an M-Men and Gleaner dance at the Wilshire Ward on 8 June 1928. Her name was Clara (Claire) Jeffs. Attracted to her at once, Howard said to Claire: “Why don’t you ever go out with me?” She said, “Why don’t you ask me?” Soon she and Howard began dating. They became engaged early in 1931 and were married on June 10 that year.
After their engagement, Howard decided to give up professional music and set new goals of marriage and a family. Since that time he has played his musical instruments only at family gatherings.
The Depression of the 1930s deepened during the early years of their marriage. To earn money, Howard sold soap door to door, ran a surveying transit, and painted bridges for Claire’s father, who operated an industrial painting business. He and Claire became parents on 20 March 1934 when Howard William Hunter, Jr., was born. But that summer, tragedy struck as little Billy became ill with an ulcerated intestinal diverticulum and died following surgery.
That same year of 1934, Howard managed to get a job in the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, assisting attorneys with evidence and preparation for trials. With the steady income that job afforded, he went back to school and, based on his experience, decided to work for a degree in law. For the next few years he worked full-time and took a full class load of ten credit hours. He graduated, cum laude, in June of 1939, passed the bar examination, and in January of 1940 was sworn in and admitted to practice law in California. From then on he was financially secure, for he has always been an astute steward of everything with which the Lord has blessed him. A frugal man, he is nevertheless most generous with his time and talents to all who meet him.
The “important work” mentioned in his patriarchal blessing began in September 1940, not long after he began a private law practice, when he was called as the bishop of the El Sereno Ward in the Pasadena Stake. He served in this office until November 1946. Needing a larger home for their growing family—by now their two sons John and Richard had been born—the Hunters moved to Arcadia in 1948.
In February 1950, Elders Stephen L Richards and Harold B. Lee were assigned to divide the Pasadena Stake, and they called Howard W. Hunter to be the president of the Pasadena Stake. He had no hesitation accepting this call. A meticulous journal keeper since his youth, he wrote this response: “I could well understand the comments of the brethren when they told us we had been selected because of the strength of our wives. Claire … always stood close by with support and understanding during the years in law school, while I served as bishop, and in every office I have held.”10
While serving as a stake president he was involved in the acquisition of a 503-acre horse ranch to be used as a welfare project. He also studied the possibility of an early-morning seminary program for high school students to be carried out in the Pasadena Stake—a forerunner of the Church’s nonreleased-time seminary program, still in place in California.
Balancing his Church work, his civic service, and his legal work, Howard continued to advance his distinctive career. An example of Howard’s careful, thoughtful approach to problems is the legal case in which he represented a plaintiff in an action to recover damages to a tomato crop caused by the drifting spray of a crop duster on an adjoining ranch. After Howard’s excellent opening presentation before the court, on the second day of trial arguments, the twelve defense attorneys offered a substantial settlement, which his client accepted. His capacity for precise thinking and logic, together with his intuitive feeling for justice, made him a formidable advocate.
While Howard was serving as a stake president, he was speaking to the congregated Saints of the Pasadena Stake during a special excursion to the Arizona Temple. It was Howard’s forty-sixth birthday, and he wrote in his journal: “While I was speaking to the congregation, my father and mother came into the chapel dressed in white. I had no idea my father was prepared for his temple blessings, although Mother had been anxious about it for some time. I was so overcome with emotion that I was unable to continue to speak. … This was a birthday I have never forgotten because on that day they were endowed and I had the privilege of witnessing their sealing, following which I was sealed to them.”11
A dramatic change occurred in the life Howard W. Hunter on 9 October 1959. He and Claire had gone to Salt Lake City to attend the October general conference, and Howard received a note saying President David O. McKay would like to visit with him. President McKay informed him: “Tomorrow you’re going to be sustained as a member of the Council of the Twelve.”12
After his name had been presented in general conference and he had been sustained, President Clark invited him to take his place with the Twelve on the stand. He recalled, “My heart increased its pounding as I climbed the steps. Elder Hugh B. Brown moved over to make room for me and I took my place as the twelfth member of the Quorum. I felt the eyes of everyone fastened upon me as well as the weight of the world on my shoulders. As the conference proceeded I was most uncomfortable and wondered if I could ever feel that this was my proper place.”13
This calling came, of course, as a great surprise, and it brought great changes into the lives of Elder Hunter and his wife, Claire. After twenty-five years in Los Angeles, they left their business associates, Church members, and cherished friends in California. But the decision itself was easy because Elder Hunter had long ago established a hierarchy of values upon which his personal, professional, and spiritual decisions were based. Service to God ranked highest of all on his list of priorities.
The years of his apostolic service are both fascinating and inspiring. He has said that his ability and capacity to give useful service have been greatly influenced by his study and practice of the law. In his conference addresses and other talks, he frequently employs the syllogistic logic he learned to use as a lawyer—and the conclusions of that reasoning always consist of important gospel principles.
An exceptionally modest man, President Hunter has never enjoyed being the center of attention. “Unassuming and undemanding, [he is] a person who thinks first of others’ comfort. He prefers to be accepted as part of the group rather than given special treatment. …
“Among his associates, Howard Hunter is described as a man of sound judgment and quiet wisdom. He rarely talks about himself and his accomplishments or shares his personal feelings. His concern is for the accomplishments and feelings and comfort of others. …
“The Twelve and those who work with them have learned that Elder Hunter weighs matters carefully before jumping in with opinions, conclusions, or solutions, undoubtedly a result of his legal training. He listens carefully as others express their opinions and feelings. If consensus isn’t reached or anyone in the group still has strong feelings about a matter, he will table it rather than force a vote.”14
His colleague Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said of him, “President Howard W. Hunter is a meek man. He once refused a job he needed as a young man because it would have meant another individual would have lost his job. This is the same lowly man, when I awakened after a weary and dusty day together with him on assignment in Egypt, who was quietly shining my shoes, a task he had hoped to complete unseen. Meekness can be present in the daily and ordinary things.”15
His work as a member of the Twelve included committee assignments at Church headquarters and assignments to travel to stakes and missions throughout the world. However, an entirely different horizon opened up for him with his appointment as chairman of the New World Archaeological Foundation. Although it was based at Brigham Young University, this professional research organization was involved in archaeological work in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Its goal was to search for sites connected with the descendants of Lehi. Some of these sites were very primitive, and his assignment literally took him into the jungle. Elder Hunter learned to survive such conditions by eating boiled eggs and bananas.
President Hunter has always had a special love for the Holy Land. The First Presidency assigned President Hunter to spearhead two special projects in Israel. One was to work with Elder LeGrand Richards in raising money to build the Orson Hyde Memorial Gardens, which was dedicated in 1979. The other was to negotiate for a site for a center to house the Brigham Young University semester-abroad program which had started ten years earlier. Sites in Jerusalem were at a premium, and when at last a choice one was found and a lease obtained, the representative of the land authority received the lease payment and said, “This is a lot of money.” Joseph Kokia, the Church’s distinguished Israeli attorney, responded, “Yes, it is a lot of money, but my family has lived in Jerusalem for fifteen generations, and the property that you have is beyond price.” Upon that special site the magnificent Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was built, despite much opposition. President Hunter’s close personal relationship with Mayor Teddy Kollek and other leaders helped make possible the building of the center. President Hunter dedicated the Jerusalem Center on 16 May 1989.
In 1983 his beloved wife, Clara Jeffs Hunter, passed away. She had suffered a devastating stroke several years before that had left her very much diminished. President Hunter tended to her needs, providing loving care with respect and an uncommon devotion for many years, with a complete disregard for his own health. But there was a reward, for as diminished as she was, Claire would smile and respond only to him. The tenderness so evident in their communication was heartrending. We have never seen such an example of devotion of a husband to his wife. Theirs was a many-splendored love affair. Love is service.
During the ensuing years, President Hunter has had several serious health challenges. When it was difficult for him to walk or even stand, he surprised the congregation in general conference by addressing them from a wheelchair. His gentle humor shines through the opening sentences: “Forgive me if I remain seated while I present these few remarks. It is not by choice that I speak from a wheelchair. I notice that the rest of you seem to enjoy the conference sitting down, so I will follow your example.”16
In April 1988, with the aid of a walker, he stood at the pulpit to deliver his conference message. Near the middle of the talk he lost his balance and fell backwards. President Monson, Elder Packer, and a security guard quickly lifted him up on his feet, and he continued his talk as though nothing had happened. At the close of the conference session, with his ever-present sense of humor intact, he said: “I landed in the flowers!”
In December 1988, after drawing on the faith and prayers of the Saints, he was able to walk to the council room in the temple where the Brethren were meeting.
At the weekly temple meeting on Thursday, April 12, 1990, after all the agenda items had been covered, President Hunter asked, “Does anyone have anything that is not on the agenda?” No one spoke, so he said, “Well, then, if no one else has anything to say, I thought I’d just let you know that I’m going to be married this afternoon.” There were gasps, then he went on to explain, “Inis is an old acquaintance from California. I’ve been visiting with her for some time, and we’ve decided to get married.”
This was a delightful surprise for the Brethren, who had been concerned about President Hunter’s being alone. And now, happily, they learned that he would have a companion who is outgoing, warm, cordial, and gracious. Since the time of their marriage, Inis has been unfailing in her concern for President Hunter and in her attentiveness to him. It has been a delight for him to have a traveling companion and to show her something of the dimension of Church service, with the many and varied assignments and responsibilities a man of President Hunter’s stature carries. For her part, she has experienced all the joys and emotions that come to the wife of a General Authority, and she quickly learned to speak extemporaneously as she was called on repeatedly to speak in Church settings and missionary meetings. Sister Hunter continues to be a comfort and a joy to him.
President Hunter has always been a man of great resolution. On 7 February 1993, he was on the Brigham Young University campus to speak at a nineteen-stake fireside and Church Educational System broadcast. As President Hunter rose to address the nearly twenty thousand young adults assembled in the Marriott Center, an assailant threatened him, shouting, “Stop right there!” The man claimed to have a bomb and a detonator and ordered everyone to leave the stand except President Hunter. Many people did leave, yet President Hunter resolutely stayed at the pulpit, with two security guards. Although threatened by what looked like a gun, President Hunter firmly declined to read the written statement the man handed to him. When students spontaneously began to sing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” the assailant was momentarily distracted. A security guard rushed him and took him into custody. Other security guards lowered President Hunter to the floor for safety.
There was, of course, a considerable commotion in the audience, but soon a reasonable calm returned. After a few moments to collect himself, President Hunter made a second approach to the microphone and read the opening line of his prepared text: “Life has a fair number of challenges in it.” He stopped, looked over the audience, and added, “As demonstrated.” Then he went on with his message as though nothing had happened.
President Hunter has a remarkably serene pulpit presence and a natural dignity. His messages are always thoughtful and profound, sensitive and comforting. For instance, in a talk given in October 1983, President Hunter gave comfort to struggling parents:
“A successful parent is one who has loved, one who has sacrificed, and one who has cared for, taught, and ministered to the needs of a child. If you have done all of these and your child is still wayward or troublesome or worldly, it could well be that you are, nevertheless, a successful parent.”17
Those who have been privileged to sit at his feet have, as the scriptures say, “marveled” at his profound wisdom.18 President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, has said of President Hunter:
“Sometimes people have asked me about the real Howard W. Hunter: ‘You have known him and have worked very closely with him for many years. What is he really like?’ The answer to that question is disarmingly simple: President Howard W. Hunter is just as you see him to be. A quiet, wise, uncomplicated man. He is pleasant to work with and has a quick sense of humor. Few men know the doctrines and procedures of the Church as he knows them. He has never shied away from the difficult decisions and is firm in his convictions. I find no mystery in him at all. The ‘real Howard W. Hunter’ is just as you see him to be.”
And on 5 June 1994, the noble man we have known and loved as President of the Quorum of the Twelve was called, sustained, and set apart as President of the Church. He has all of the qualities needed to be God’s mouthpiece and the leader of all mankind in this great era of the earth’s existence. He is a patient man who waits on the Lord and hearkens to his promptings. He is firm when he needs to be firm, yet tender when he needs to be tender. He has a quick sense of humor and an engaging, hearty laugh. He has a keen memory and an astute mind. He is a loving man, an affectionate husband, father, and grandfather—and everyone’s favorite uncle. He is a kind man, a good listener, vitally interested in the needs of others. He is the prophet of the Lord in this decade of this dispensation.
To any who have concern for his age or diminished physical strength, be assured that his great mind, heart, and spirit are intact, even greater than ever. All may be edified by the statement of Orson Hyde:
“When an individual is ordained and appointed to lead the people, he has passed through tribulations and trials, and has proven himself before God, and before His people, that he is worthy of the situation which he holds. … A person that has not been tried, that has not proved himself before God, and before His people, and before the councils of the Most High … is not going to step in to lead the Church and people of God. … Some one that understands the Spirit and counsel of the Almighty, that knows the Church, and is known of her, is the character that will lead the Church.”19
The scriptures remind us that “the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses … ; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church.”20
The scriptures further teach us that the “Presidency of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, have a right to officiate in all the offices in the church.”21
Sustained by the Lord, and sustained as he will be by the members of the Church, President Hunter will, as the Lord’s high priest, guide us in these latter days. As the prophet Isaiah said, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”22
President Hunter is one of the most loving, Christlike men we have ever known. His spiritual depth is so profound as to be unfathomable. Having been under the guiding influence of the Lord Jesus Christ as His special witness for so many years, President Hunter’s spirituality has been honed in a remarkable way. It is the wellspring of his whole being. He is quiet about sacred things, humble about sacred things, careful when he speaks about sacred things. He has an inner peace, tranquillity, and nobility of soul that is unique among the children of God. His intense suffering on so many occasions has been as a “refiner’s fire,” permitting him to become God’s pure vessel and prophet on the earth in this day and time.
Howard W. Hunter was born in Boise, Idaho, on 14 November 1907, the son of John William and Nellie Marie Rasmussen Hunter. He moved to California in 1928. He is an Eagle Scout and for many years has been connected with Scouting. After completing undergraduate requirements, he attended Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles, and in 1939 graduated with a degree of Juris Doctor, cum laude. He was admitted to the California State Bar and became a member of the Los Angeles Bar Association and a leading corporation lawyer. His sound counsel was sought when he served as a member of the board of directors of industrial, banking, insurance, and land-holding corporations as well as the New World Archaeological Foundation. He has served as president of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii and the Genealogical Society of Utah and as the Church historian. He is now the chairman of the Church board of education and also a member of the board of trustees of Brigham Young University. He also serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Beneficial Life Insurance Company of Salt Lake City.
He has served as a bishop, president of a high priests quorum, stake high councilor, and president of the Pasadena California Stake. While serving as stake president, he was chairman of the southern California welfare region. He was chairman of the Los Angeles Temple committee. He was called to the apostleship on 10 October 1959. He became the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve on 10 November 1985, and was set apart as President of the Quorum of the Twelve on 2 June 1988. President Hunter married Clara May Jeffs in the Salt Lake Temple in 1931. She passed away in 1983. They are the parents of two living sons who reside in California. President Hunter has eighteen grandchildren. He married Inis Bernice Egan in April 1990 in the Salt Lake Temple.