When Wendell J. Ashton left his position as publisher of the Deseret News in June 1985 to become president of the England London Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he was arguably one of the top half-dozen most visible and influential businessmen in the state.
Highlights of his resume at the time included chairman of the Utah Symphony, chairman of the Salt Lake City Federal Reserve Board, a member of the advisory board of the Utah Jazz, former chairman of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, and designated by the chamber as "A Giant in Our City," an accolade earned by only a handful of Utahns.Ashton and his wife, Belva, returned to Salt Lake last June having completed their three-year mission, during which Ashton helped coordinate the 150th anniversary celebration of the LDS Church's arrival in Great Britain in 1837. Ashton recalls the occasion at London's Savoy Hotel as being among the many highlights of his career.
"The celebration attracted top LDS achievers from around the world to the dinner there," he said. "We had a videotape of President Reagan saluting the British for all they had done as Mormon pioneers founding some 400 communities in the United States."
Before leaving the Utah business community for England, Ashton had become legendary for his energy and strong work ethic. His admirers will be pleased to know that, at age 76, WJA - as he was known around the Deseret News office - is still going strong.
As he has done for the past 30 years, Ashton still puts on his heavy hiking boots each morning at dawn for a two-mile run up Neff's Canyon above his Mount Olympus home.
"It's wonderful up there," he says. "All I can hear is the crunch of my boots on the frozen snow and the distant call of a lone bird. It's just beautiful, the oaks and pines sweatered in heavy snow at daybreak."
Ashton has run in Samoa, Japan, New Zealand, Europe . . . all over the world. He recalls there was a time when people would look at him strangely. Now, he's just another jogger.
"It used to be embarrassing, now it's fashionable," he quips.
He must be on to something. In 30 years Ashton hasn't missed a total of two weeks of work and his daily run keeps him in shape to surprise a few people on the tennis court. (But not his brother, Elder Marvin J. Ashton, a member of The Council of the Twelve of the LDS Church, with whom he's played tennis twice a week for nearly 65 years.)
Nor is Ashton ignoring public service since returning home. He is currently teaching a course in advanced public relations at the University of Utah (his multifaceted career includes many years in advertising and public relations).
"I believe, with Dr. Samuel Johnson, that you keep young by associating with young people," says Ashton, adding that the university "has come a long way since I was there in 1930 to '33."
He is also keeping up his association with the Utah Jazz, which he was instrumental in bringing to the state, and is currently president of the Utah Jazz 100 Club, an advisory group for the team and management. Ashton is also on the finance committee that is helping the Jazz in its goal to build a new arena.
Ashton is a member of a committee of some 20 LDS businessmen nationwide who are helping BYU raise funds to build a new Department of Communications building that he says will, along with faculty, put Brigham Young among the leaders in communications education.
And Ashton hasn't forsaken the Utah Symphony. During his 20-year chairmanship of the symphony board he earned a reputation as one of the most effective fund-raisers the state has ever known, and that association continues today.
As chairman of the symphony's 50th anniversary celebration scheduled for next year, he says, "We have some exciting plans." Anyone who knows Wendell Ashton doesn't doubt that for a minute.