SALT LAKE CITY — It was the spring of 1969 when they launched out across America, headed east. They'd been married two days. She brought a 1963 Ford Galaxie to the union, he a 1962 Porsche. They drove the Galaxie and towed the Porsche. America's Parents on their first road trip.
They thought they knew where they were going. They had no idea.
You could argue that others have done more, mused longer, talked with greater enthusiasm and written more extensively about raising children than Richard and Linda Eyre. Dr. Spock was a one-man child-care cottage industry in the 1950s. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton has been described as Spock's worthy successor. British psychologist Penelope Leach is a world-renowned leader in child-development. At its height, James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" radio show reached over 200 million people.
But you just might lose the argument.
The Eyres didn't set out to parent anyone. He was going to be a politician. She was going to teach music.
Then they started having kids, only to discover, like everyone else, that kids don't come with an owner's manual.
So they wrote one.
And not just one. Thirty at last count, with two on the way. In February, "Five Spiritual Solutions to Everyday Parenting Challenges" is scheduled to be released locally by Deseret Book. In the fall of 2011 "The Entitlement Trap: How to Rescue Your Child" will be published internationally by Penguin Books.
All told, over the course of the past three decades, Richard and Linda Eyre, while operating out of their worldwide "headquarters" right here in Utah, have written well in excess of two million words about parenting and marriage, accounting for book sales in the millions. Plus, there's the pre-school they developed called Joy School that is used extensively around the world. Then there are the speeches and parenting seminars they've given to audiences in more than 50 countries. And that's all in addition to their No. 1 calling card, their biggest, most tangible claim to fame: the nine Eyre children and the 21 (and counting) grandchildren, all of whom, at last bed check, are fine, upstanding, squared-away citizens of the world.
Like all parents, but especially like all parents who also happen to be world-class parenting consultants, the Eyres speak of their children's finer points with a mixture of pride and fear. It's akin to speaking of a no-hitter when it's in progress — you don't want to jinx it by talking about it.
The very subject brings up one of their favorite stories. It's about a Sunday school class they attended while vacationing at Bear Lake one summer. The class was on child rearing and one out-of-town visitor had all the answers and was taking the opportunity to pontificate about how wonderful his children were — the valedictorian, the star quarterback, the perfect church attender.
Finally, a local farmer sitting in the back could take it no longer.
He stood up and said, "God must not think much of you as a parent — sending you all them easy kids to raise."
"We get it," says Richard. "We got lucky. All nine of our kids have at least one college degree, all served (LDS) missions, all are doing well. That is all true. But I get very uncomfortable when people say how in the world did you do that? The answer is I don't know, except we got really lucky."
Then Linda adds, "And God doesn't think much of us."
* * *
It was an aspiring presidential candidate named Romney who gave Richard the advice that motivated him to want to drive cross-country two days after he and Linda were married.
Not Mitt Romney. He was on an LDS mission in France in 1969. Mitt's father, George Romney, the three-term Michigan governor, had made a run for the White House in 1968. His college campaign manager, the man who organized Romney for President chapters at campuses across America, was Richard Eyre from Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
Early in the campaign, Richard had sent Romney a detailed proposal for a campus strategy and to his surprise Romney invited him to join the campaign.
Richard was in New Hampshire in early 1968 when the Romney campaign wilted in the face of a Richard Nixon groundswell Nixon would ride to the White House. But if it was the end for Romney, it was just the beginning for Eyre, who was hooked on politics in general and in particular on George Romney, his mentor.
If Richard was serious about a career in government, Romney advised, then he shouldn't go to law school. "There are too many lawyers in politics already," he told him. "What we need are more managers. And law school teaches you to look backward. Business school teaches you to look forward."
So business school it was. After getting a bachelor's degree from Utah State and a master's from BYU — both in political science — Richard applied to Harvard Business School.
When the acceptance letter came, he and Linda dutifully headed off to Boston in their Ford-Porsche caravan. She got a job teaching music at a junior high school and he hunkered down in Cambridge. They sold the Porsche to help pay for school.
It was the first time out of the Intermountain West for Linda. She was born and raised in Montpelier, Idaho, just over the mountain from Utah State University, which is where she met Richard, a fellow Aggie who had moved with his family to Logan at an early age. Richard likes to say he fell in love first. "I met her because she was the homecoming queen," he says, "I fell for her from afar."
From Harvard they moved to Washington, D.C., where Richard joined two other former Romney staffers to form a political consulting firm. Then it was back to Utah so Richard could accept an invitation to run Salt Lake mayor Jake Garn's campaign for the U.S. Senate. It turned out a success — a portent, Richard hoped, for his own bid for public office.
But then came the totally unexpected, completely out-of-the-blue call that changed everything.
The Eyres were asked by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to preside over an LDS mission in London, England. She was 28, he was 30, the youngest mission president in the church.
"Everyone says their mission changed them," says Linda. "But it was like a right-angle turn for us."
They never saw it coming.
It was Linda who set the course for what would become their life's work. She had four young children under the age of six to care for and she decided to start a diary about motherhood. As she wrote about the causes and effects of her own parenting, she found herself tuning in to the causes and effects of parenting in general. She became increasingly aware that many, if not all, of the problems of the 19- and 20-year-old missionaries they were supervising could be traced back to their upbringing. Also, the majority of the problems that confronted the English people they worked with were family issues.
"It was in England that we really woke up to the fact that the problems in our society weren't political, they were personal, and it was the breakdown of families that was causing the problems, not the politics involved," says Richard. "It was Linda who crystallized the journey for us."
Thus the framework was laid for the Eyre's first two parenting books: "Teaching Your Children Joy" and "Teaching Your Children Responsibility."
They wrote and finished them in 1979 shortly after returning from England. Deseret Book, the largest publishing house in Salt Lake, bought both books and sent the Eyres on a publicity tour.
They were in San Francisco promoting the books on a local morning television show when the president of Random House, the noted New York publishing firm, happened to see them on TV.
When the Eyres returned to their hotel room, their phone was ringing. It was Susan Petersen (now Kennedy), the Random House president who was in San Francisco on a business trip.
"We want to buy your books," she said.
"Great," said Richard. "But we don't own them."
Random House subsequently negotiated with Deseret Book, bought the books, and released them nationally.
Better yet, they asked the Eyres to write another one. They assigned an editor, Jo?le Delbourgo, to assist them.
"What impressed me was their incredible kind of clean-cut, very transcendent appeal," remembers Delbourgo, now a literary agent in New York. "They were attractive and appealing and passionate with a real message that was very fresh."
The suddenly in-demand writing team decided a return to England for a year was in order to write their next book. "We went back 10 years later and lived in the same place so our younger kids could go to the same Church of England schools as the older kids," says Richard. "We wanted them to have that same opportunity."
They determined that the topic of book No. 3 would be "Values" and plotted out a 12-chapter format, one value per month. Random House enthusiastically received each chapter — until the final one.
It was the one about chastity and fidelity, which called for self-discipline, control and no small measure of abstinence.
"Basically they were saying that's a little old-fashioned," remembers Richard. "We said we'll work on it and sort of changed the words but they still didn't like it. Finally, they said we'd have to take that chapter out. We felt that was the wrong thing to do. AIDS was in the news, how could we write a book on values and have no reference to fidelity?"
Random House held firm. The Eyres held firm. The book was not published.
"We basically just walked out on the publisher," says Richard. "We thought we'd killed our writing career."
They returned to Utah from England and, still hearing that clarion call, Richard ran for governor. He won the Republican convention but lost to Mike Leavitt in the Republican primary.
"Got that out of my system," he says.
"Thank goodness," says Linda. "I hated it."
Meanwhile, on the writing front, the Eyre's agent at the time, Jan Miller in Dallas, was trying to shop their "Values" book elsewhere. She eventually found a favorable reception at Simon & Schuster, another New York publishing giant.
Miller phoned the Eyres.
"They love your book," she said.
"What about the last chapter?" they asked.
"That's their favorite," said Miller.
Not only did Simon & Schuster buy "Values," they also signed the Eyres to a five-book deal.
It got better. As part of the book tour to promote "Values" they were booked on Oprah.
Linda still laughs about her skepticism during the limo ride to Oprah's studio in Chicago.
"On the way to the show I said, 'who watches TV in the afternoon?'" she says.
About 22 million people, it turned out.
On the show, Oprah held up the "Values" book repeatedly in front of the camera, imploring, "You parents need to read this book."
The next day, stores all over the country ran out of books.
Within weeks, "Values" vaulted to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list — the first child-care book to make it to the top since Dr. Benjamin Spock's "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" was published at the beginning of the Baby Boom in 1946.
"Bless Oprah," says Linda.
Virtually overnight the Eyres became household names — or at least names for the concerned, enlightened American household.
They have been writing, speaking, traveling and headlining parenting seminars ever since, still at a loss to adequately explain their good fortune.
"It's hard to know what word to use," says Richard. "Luck is the simplest explanation. Providence, guidance, whatever it is, we've had a lot of it."
Their successful formula also might be due to what they insist they are not.
"We're not experts," says Richard. "Both of us are uncomfortable and have always been uncomfortable being called experts. We're not here to tell anyone how to parent; we're here to popularize parenting. We want people to think of us as fellow strugglers, fellow strugglers who have been around a little and gained some experience."4 comments on this story
Another something they don't do is attempt to define parenthood or family in strictly traditional terms. "We don't see one kind of parents," Richard adds. "We think of family in the biggest sense. Everyone is part of a family, everyone needs balance, and virtually all people have children in their lives."
Still together after all these years — more together than ever, in fact — and surrounded by all their children and grandchildren, Richard and Linda knock on wood and admit to no regrets.
Well, maybe one.
"We should have never sold the Porsche," says Richard.
To read more from the Eyre's see: