“President Howard W. Hunter—He Endured to the End,” Ensign, Apr. 1995, 28–30
Friday morning President Hinckley called and said, quietly, “The President just died; will you notify the Twelve?” I said to myself, “Well, he endured to the very end.” And endure is the word to describe him.
I looked up the word endure in the dictionary. To my surprise it means “to last, to suffer continuously.” That is exactly what he did; he lasted, and he suffered continually, and he did endure.
There is much to be learned from the very brief administration of President Howard W. Hunter. The condition of his health and the very brevity of his administration, only nine months, provide the lesson. The lesson centers in President Howard W. Hunter himself!
Dr. J. Poulson Hunter attended the President for thirty years. He reminded me of an orchestra leader, directing teams of specialists called to treat one condition or another.
Several years ago after President Hunter had been released from the hospital for the second time in a few months, this wise and experienced physician said to me in confidence, “My experience tells me that when a man of his age experiences two assaults of the magnitude that he has suffered during a year, he will not survive the third one.” In a matter of weeks the third strike came—the President went down again, but he was not out.
I once asked President Hunter if he had a doctor’s book, and if so I wanted to borrow it. He asked why. I said, “I want to keep it. It seems to me you read through it looking for some major affliction you haven’t had, wonder what it would be like, and decide to try it.”
When he was unable to walk or even stand, arrangements were made for him to speak in general conference from a sitting position. He quipped to the congregation, “You seem to enjoy conference so much sitting down, I thought I would do the same.”
After many months of agonizing therapy, with tender encouragement and help from Dale Springer, his loved and trusted aide, he was able to stand at the pulpit to speak. He lost his balance and fell over backward. We helped him up. He matter-of-factly continued his speech without missing a word. There was but a moment’s interruption. The television audience did not even know he had fallen. He had broken three ribs in that fall.
We accompanied him to Jerusalem for the dedication of the BYU Center. As I was speaking, there was some excitement in the back of the hall. Men in military uniforms had entered the room. They sent a note to President Hunter. I turned and asked for instructions. He said, “There’s been a bomb threat. Are you afraid?” I said, “No.” He said, “Neither am I; finish your talk.”
Later at BYU there was that other incident. He was confronted with what was apparently a bomb. He said nothing, just stood and looked on as if to say, “When you are through, I’d like to go on with my talk.” And so he did.
Recently I asked if he was in any pain. He said, “No.” I said, “Would you tell us, if you were?” And he smiled. When it came to pain, he was a very private man. It is not an easy thing to grow old on stage.
Now, these are but a few samples of the problems President Hunter endured. And I speak of them for a purpose. There is a message to future generations in what he did and what he was.
There are those who wonder at the system where the senior Apostle, invariably now an older man, becomes the President of the Church.
Those who do not understand write to us or publish articles saying, “Isn’t it time now to do the sensible thing and install a vigorous, young leader to face the challenge of a growing international church?”
They fail to see the divine inspiration in the system established by the Lord. Granted, it does not work as the wisdom of men would dictate. The Lord reminded Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9).
See what the Lord has provided. Nowhere on this earth is there a body of men of leadership and authority as completely devoid of aspiring. The very system that seems so strange to many just does not allow it; neither would the Lord permit it. There is no jockeying for position or power, no soliciting for votes, no hint of cultivating influence in any self-serving way.
There is a brotherhood that accommodates differing views and personalities, but we are one. The authority in the administration of the Church is independent of any individual and is held in trust by fifteen men who have been ordained as Apostles. President Hunter’s life has taught us that regardless of the age or infirmity of any man among them, including the President, the work goes on.
He said to the Church, “My walk is slower now, but my mind is clear, and my spirit is young,” and in these last few weeks he had a clarity of mind and a quickness of response that astonished those who knew him best.
The brief administration of President Howard W. Hunter symbolizes the supernal spiritual genius in the organization which the Lord has revealed. It is a testimony that this is the Church of Jesus Christ and that he presides over it. The Lord has his own measure of the credentials of one who will lead this church.
When Samuel was sent to choose the prophet to succeed himself, the Lord said: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; … for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Paul said: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). If you look through the lens of your natural eyes only, you will not see the genius in the system that not only allows for but is blessed by a President Howard W. Hunter, whose age and infirmity were really irrelevant.
No man comes to be the President of this church except he has been apprenticed for a lifetime. In association with his brethren who hold the keys, he has participated in decisions and faced every problem. President Hunter walked for over thirty years with LeGrand Richards, who remembered Wilford Woodruff; and Joseph Anderson, who died at a hundred and two and came to his assignment as replacement for a man hired by Brigham Young.
What man with the experience and consecration and age of President Howard W. Hunter would pay any attention to popularity or power—or to pain, or would even think, much less act, in any way that would be self-serving?
He does not become President of the Church without knowing the Church all across the world. Notwithstanding his physical frailty, President Hunter has been an unrelenting traveler. Just in the past very few years, I myself have traveled with him to South America, to Africa, to Europe three times, to Israel, to Asia, Hong Kong, and into China. Just six months ago we followed him in cable cars up Jungfrau, in the Swiss Alps, and by cog rail up the Matterhorn itself. And I am only one of the Twelve.
President Hunter, as with those who preceded him and those who will follow him, came to that office with a preparation and a purification that the world cannot understand. Each comes to that office attended by “the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him,” and they have the trust and the promise of the Lord: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:17–18).
The administration of President Howard W. Hunter, though very brief, has been a historic one. Things have transpired during those few months of his leadership, some of them as yet unannounced, which will bless this church for generations to come.
Forgive me for having avoided personal references to my beloved friend. President Hinckley reminded us once that “tears come easily to old men.” President Hunter knew that Donna and I loved him, and we know that that love was returned.
Three days before President Hunter’s passing, Elder Russell M. Nelson and I visited with the President. He was seated in the sunroom which overlooks the temple and the gardens. We knelt before him, each holding one of his hands. As we talked with him, he kept looking over his shoulder into the living room and then called to his wife, Inis.
Ever present and ever attentive, she responded immediately and asked what he needed. He said, “You are too far away; I want you close to me.” I said, “President, she was only thirty feet away.” He said, “I know, that’s too far.”
Of the many verses that teach what enduring means, I will read but one. “Blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb; and whoso shall publish peace, yea, tidings of great joy, how beautiful upon the mountains shall they be” (1 Ne. 13:37; emphasis added).
Surely President Hunter endured to the end.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” the Lord has said (Ps. 116:15).
“Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full” (D&C 101:36).
I bear witness that we have had the association of a holy man, a prophet of God, a beloved friend, our President. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.