“Elder Henry B. Eyring: Molded by ‘Defining Influences’” Liahona, Apr. 1996, 26
In every person’s life, there are events—some seemingly trivial at the time—that later prove to be of singular importance. So it has been in the life of Elder Henry Bennion Eyring, who on 1 April 1995 was sustained as the newest member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. For Elder Eyring, the call to the apostleship was a culmination of many “defining influences,” as he calls them.
The first and certainly one of the more profound of those influences was his early family life. Henry B. Eyring, or “Hal,” as he is known to family and friends, was born 31 May 1933, the second of three sons born to Henry Eyring and Mildred Bennion Eyring. At the time of Hal’s birth, his father was a professor of chemistry at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Living in the eastern United States, the Eyrings were far away from the population center of the Church. Their small branch met in a hotel room. When World War II began and gas rationing restricted travel, the Eyring home became the meeting place for the Saints in Princeton. The dining room table served as both speaker’s rostrum and sacrament table. His mother was often both music director and pianist. She would tap her foot as she played to help the people follow along with her. Elder Eyring smiles at the memory. He also remembers that he and his brothers, Harden R. and Edward M., constituted the total membership of the Aaronic Priesthood and were the only LDS youth in the branch as he grew up.
The senior Henry Eyring was becoming a scientist of great renown, eventually winning numerous honorary doctorates and virtually every major award in chemistry except the Nobel Prize. “What is interesting about my father,” Elder Eyring reflects, “is not so much what he did, but what he was. He was a simple Mormon boy from Pima, Arizona, a boy with a deep faith. His achievements never changed him much.”
No less significant in his life was Hal’s mother, Mildred, from Granger, Utah. At a time when a limited number of women pursued higher education, she graduated from the University of Utah and went on to become the head of the women’s physical education department there. She was on leave from the university, pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, when she met Henry Eyring and eventually married him. Says Elder Eyring in tribute: “She could have been anything she wanted, but instead she chose to be our mother.”
Because of his great love for science, Henry Eyring encouraged each of his sons to major in physics as preparation for a career in science. It was while Hal was studying physics at the University of Utah that a conversation with his father marked one of those defining influences in his life. He asked his father for help with a complex mathematical problem. “My father was at a blackboard we kept in the basement,” Elder Eyring recalls. “Suddenly he stopped. ‘Hal,’ he said, ‘we were working this same kind of problem a week ago. You don’t seem to understand it any better now than you did then. Haven’t you been working on it?’”
A little chagrined, Hal admitted he had not. “You don’t understand,” his father went on. “When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?”
“When I told him no,” Elder Eyring concludes, “my father paused. It was really a very tender and poignant moment, because I knew how much he loved me and how much he wanted me to be a scientist. Then he said, ‘Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.’”
The advice deeply impressed young Hal. He went on to finish his degree in physics, graduating not long after the end of the Korean War. During the war, the number of missionaries called from each ward had been greatly restricted. Further, by the time he graduated, Hal had already committed to a commission in the United States Air Force. So he entered the military without having served a full-time mission. But in a bishop’s blessing prior to his departure, Hal was promised that his military experience would be his mission.
That blessing proved to be prophetic, for though Hal was originally sent by the Air Force to the Sandia National Laboratories near Albuquerque, New Mexico, for temporary schooling, circumstances were such that he stayed on there for the full two years of his duty. Two weeks after his arrival, he was called as a district missionary in the Western States Mission. He served almost two years to the day in that calling.
With military service concluded, Henry Eyring determined to continue his education, but not in physics. He enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Business in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he completed a master’s degree in business administration. As he finished that degree, his father’s advice proved to be pivotal. Trying to decide what field of business to enter, he realized there was no type of business that strongly attracted him. That’s when he knew it was the teaching of business—actually helping others understand how to take a complex process and work it through—that he thoroughly enjoyed. He stayed on at Harvard and completed a doctoral degree in business administration. Even before he had finished his dissertation, he was accepted as an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Palo Alto, California.
The decision to continue his studies at Harvard proved to be significant for another reason. It meant he was still in Boston during the summer of 1961, when Kathleen Johnson, daughter of J. Cyril and LaPrele Lindsay Johnson, of Palo Alto, California, came to Boston to attend summer school. Hal, who was serving as a counselor in the Boston district presidency at the time, was assigned to preside at a sunrise service for young adults.
After that sunrise service, he saw a young woman coming out of a grove of trees. Not only was he struck by her beauty, but at that moment the words of President David O. McKay came to his mind: “If you meet a girl in whose presence you feel a desire … to do your best, … such a young woman is worthy of your love” (Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953, page 459). “That was exactly how I felt as I saw Kathleen for the first time,” says Elder Eyring.
Hal and Kathleen were introduced at church the following Sunday. “I knew Hal was someone special,” Kathy remembers. “He thought deeply about important things.”
The courtship continued throughout the rest of the summer and then by mail and phone after Kathleen returned to California. They were married in July 1962 in the Logan Temple by Elder Spencer W. Kimball.
Kathy proved to be more than a good wife and mother. She became another of those defining influences in the life of Henry B. Eyring. The best example of that happened when Hal had been teaching at Stanford for about nine years. It was a richly satisfying time in their lives. He was given considerable freedom to design the classes he taught at Stanford. He returned for one year to Boston as the Sloan Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had also entered the business world now, serving as an officer and director for Finnigan Instrument Corporation and becoming a founder and director of System Industries Incorporated, a computer manufacturing company. In the Church, he had taught early-morning seminary, served for a time in the bishopric of his own ward, and then was called as the bishop of the Stanford First Ward, a campus ward.
But that was all to change. “One night,” Elder Eyring reports, “Kathy nudged me and asked, ‘Are you sure you are doing the right thing with your life?’” He stops for a moment and then explains, “I was surprised. Now remember my situation. I have tenure at Stanford. I am the bishop of the Stanford ward. We are living next to her parents. I love what I’m doing. It’s like the Garden of Eden, all right? And then she asks me that question.”
“Couldn’t you do studies for Neal Maxwell?” she went on. Elder Eyring stops again. “You have to understand something. Neal A. Maxwell was the commissioner of Church education at that time. Kathy didn’t even know him. I didn’t know him.”
When asked about that night, Kathy is not sure what it was that brought forth that question. “We were very happy there,” she agrees, “but somehow I just felt like there was something more important that he should be doing. I knew that his teaching at Stanford was wonderful, but I felt there was something he could teach that could truly change lives.” She knew about the Church Educational System (CES) and somehow remembered that Neal A. Maxwell was the commissioner. Thus her comment.
It was enough. Hal determined he would pray about it. At first he got no answer, or so he thought. But not long after that, the phone rang and Commissioner Maxwell, who apparently knew of Hal Eyring, was on the line asking if Hal could come to Salt Lake City. He went.
“I was at my parents’ house,” Elder Eyring recalls, “so Elder Maxwell came over there. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Hal, I’d like to ask you to be the president of Ricks College.’”
Elder Eyring smiles at that. “You’ve got to remember, I grew up in the East, and I was living in California. I have to admit I didn’t even know where Ricks College was then. If you had asked me whether it was` a two- or four-year college, I couldn’t have told you.”
But a call of such importance was not treated lightly. Even before leaving Salt Lake City, he began to pray about the offer. For a day or two, he could get no answer, which troubled him. “And then,” he says, “as I was praying, an impression came that simply said, ‘It’s my school.’” Realizing that was all the answer he needed, he returned to California, and he and Kathleen began making plans to leave Stanford.
On 10 December 1971, Henry B. Eyring was inaugurated as president of Ricks College.
It was a considerable change to go from one of the nation’s premier universities located in a large metropolitan area to a small, private, two-year school in the rural farm town of Rexburg, Idaho. But it was a wonderful time for the Eyrings. It provided an opportunity for the family to grow closer to one another. The two older boys, whose school was near the campus, would come to his office each day at noon to have lunch with him. But it was more than that. “At Ricks I worked with a dedicated faculty and staff. I looked into the faces of those wholesome young people of faith and intelligence who were so open and friendly and determined to serve the Lord, and I was deeply impressed.”
“We loved the people in Rexburg,” Kathy says of that time. “They were wonderful, faithful Latter-day Saints. And I knew it was what Hal should be doing.”
While he was there, even though he was president, he couldn’t pass up a chance to follow one of his great loves: he taught religion classes with one of the other instructors, going through all four scripture courses before he was through. He also taught a young adult Sunday School class. A recent letter to the Church magazine tells of one young man’s experience in that class. “I was drifting, being a bit rebellious,” he wrote. Then he and his friends began attending Brother Eyring’s class. It was the influence he needed. He went on a mission, married in the temple, and has remained active since then. “Elder Eyring probably has no idea how much he affected so many of us,” the letter concludes. “It is just the quiet, powerful influence of a great disciple of Christ.”
The Eyrings, now the parents of four boys and two girls, are each quick to pay tribute to the influence the other has played in their lives. “Over the years,” Elder Eyring says with conviction, “that initial feeling I had when I saw Kathy has proven to be true. She has been a person who has always made me want to be the very best that I can be.”
Soft-spoken, Sister Eyring says of him, “Steadiness—that is one of the best adjectives to describe him. He is a wonderful husband and father, very caring. One of the things I appreciate most about Hal is his sensitivity to the Spirit, which he brings into our home.”
Elder Eyring credits his father’s example. “My father spent time with us, even when laden with heavy and demanding responsibilities, because he loved to. I feel the same way. Organizing Saturday morning family work projects or painting elaborate watercolor illustrations for family home evening presentations are things I just love to do,” he admits with a chuckle.
The Eyrings’ four sons—Henry, Stuart, Matthew, and John—are involved in business careers, and the three married sons have given their parents seven grandchildren thus far.
The Eyrings’ oldest son, Henry, shared an experience that is especially tender to him. “I was in the mission field in Japan,” he recounts. “I went there with great confidence and high expectations.” But at the end of 10 months, there had not been a single baptism. “I was really down,” Henry continues, “very discouraged. And then came a short letter from my dad.” In essence, all it said was that even though the people in Japan might reject him, God would never reject him—and that Henry’s father was pleased with his son’s labors.
With some emotion, Henry concludes, “What made this so important to me was that at that moment, I felt that those were the very words God himself would have spoken to me had he written the letter.”
Matthew describes his father’s influence this way: “Something that we all feel about Dad is that he has the ability to make us feel that we are valuable people. He always makes me want to try harder. My father has told us that there are two things that he prays for every night. The first is, ‘What blessings do I have that I am not aware of?’ and the second is, ‘Whom can I help?’ And,” Matthew adds, “Dad says there has never been a day that his prayers haven’t been answered.”
Elizabeth and Mary Kathleen are the two younger Eyring children. Elizabeth, a student at a junior high school in Bountiful, Utah, says it is her job to help Dad balance the checkbook each month. She, Mary Kathleen, and her dad also prepare a monthly family newsletter, which the Eyring family uses to keep in touch with each other now that the family is scattered. “Dad does the typing,” Elizabeth explains, “I’m the editor, and Mary Kathleen is the art editor.”
Mary Kathleen, who is 11, summarizes in two words what it is like to have Henry Eyring as a father. “It’s fun,” she says. She and her father often watercolor together, and they also bake bread for the family. Having heard reports that Elder Eyring sometimes cooks breakfast, the family was asked if, with the new demands on Elder Eyring’s time, that was still true. “He helped cook breakfast for me this morning,” Mary Kathleen answers.
His presidency at Ricks brought Henry Eyring into close association with many General Authorities and other leaders of the Church. Henry was called as a regional representative and then as a member of the Sunday School General Board. After five years at Ricks, he was asked by Jeffrey R. Holland, who was then the commissioner of the Church Educational System, to serve as his deputy commissioner.
Three years later, when Commissioner Holland was made president of Brigham Young University, Henry B. Eyring was asked to become the new CES commissioner.
Henry Eyring’s service in the Church Educational System provided another opportunity to expand his perspective of the Church. “I went out and met seminary teachers who were spending their whole careers teaching the youth because they loved them,” he says.
“I visited our Church schools in various parts of the world and looked into the faces of those beautiful children, and I understood that herein lies the future of the Church. I saw men and women down on their hands and knees scrubbing floors or out on the grounds in the heat of the sun, laboring to provide a pleasant place for learning. It was a wonderful reminder that the strength of the Church lies in the simple faith and dedication of its members.”
Stanley A. Peterson, currently CES administrator of religious education and schools, was called to serve as an associate commissioner at the same time Elder Eyring was called as deputy commissioner. “I have worked closely with this man for 18 years,” he says, “and he has a great desire to serve the Lord and to follow the Brethren.”
In the April 1985 general conference another unexpected change came to the Eyrings. Commissioner Eyring became Bishop Eyring when he was sustained as the First Counselor to Bishop Robert D. Hales, Presiding Bishop of the Church at that time. Working with Bishop Hales became another of those defining influences. “Bishop Hales was a wonderful mentor and friend,” says Elder Eyring. “His influence on me has been profound.”
In September 1992 Bishop Eyring was again asked by the First Presidency to be the commissioner of the Church Educational System, a position that had been vacant for several years. A month later he was released from the Presiding Bishopric and sustained as a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, though a major part of his assignment would still be his service as commissioner. And what does his call to the Quorum of the Twelve mean for his position as commissioner? “For a time,” he explains with a smile, “there will be no change in my education assignment, only in my schedule.”
Coming to the Quorum of the Twelve at a time when the Church has more than nine million members spread across the world in more than 150 countries, Elder Eyring expresses gratitude for those defining influences of previous years.
“The Lord has allowed me to see the Church from the viewpoint of so many of our members,” he says. “I didn’t grow up in a large ward and stake. My first experiences with the Church were in a tiny branch, a family setting. As a district missionary while in the Air Force, I was able to work on the Indian reservations. When I went to Harvard, it too was a district. It was not made a stake until just after I left. Then in my work with the Church Educational System, I meet people who are truly dedicated to the Lord and to his kingdom. I can’t think of a more helpful preparation for a calling to the apostleship than that.”
And now that he has had some time in his new calling, what are his thoughts about being an Apostle? He answers without hesitation, “I feel a greater and greater need each day for the Lord’s help as I strive to serve in this sacred position.”
Yes, “defining influences” have helped shape the life of Elder Henry B. Eyring. Now, in his position as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he will have the opportunity to serve as a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Recognizing that there is no greater “defining influence” than that which comes from the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Elder Eyring will help carry that testimony throughout the world.