SALT LAKE CITY — Ryan Hill suspected the worst Sunday morning when his father, an LDS Church mission president in Ghana, phoned and asked him to hold while he added Ryan's siblings to the call.
Ryan thought there may have been a death in the family, but it didn't cross his mind that it could be his mother, Sister Raelene B. Hill, 64, who unexpectedly died on Sunday in South Africa from complications following a routine medical procedure.
Sister Hill, a native of Ogden, Utah, had been serving in Ghana since July 2013 with her husband, President Norman C. Hill, president of the Ghana Accra West Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"One of our ancestors is Rebecca Burdick Winters, who died as a pioneer in 1852 and whose grave is marked on the Mormon Trail," Ryan Hill said. "I've thought today about how my mom is like that. Our family has always been willing to sacrifice whatever the Lord would ask. She went on this mission because she knew it was important and the call came from the Lord."
Sister Hill traveled from Ghana to South Africa for a procedure to remove kidney stones and died when complications developed.
"(The Hills) are deeply loved by their family, church leaders and their missionaries," LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said. "We pray for each of them at this difficult time and extend our love to President Hill and his family."
The Hills were members of the Klein Texas LDS Stake before leaving on their mission. Sister Hill was a former Texas Mother of the Year and a past president of American Mothers.
Sister Hill regularly taught the missionaries serving in Ghana that they could do hard things. Ryan Hill said she asked Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to confirm to the missionaries that they could do hard things when he visited the mission last year.
"I perceive you know a lot about that, don't you, Sister Hill?" Elder Bednar said.
"It wasn't necessarily easy for her to leave on a mission," her son said.
For one, she had to leave behind grandchildren; she now has 12, with two more are on the way. She worried about her parents, Neal and Faye Ball, who still live in Ogden and now are in their 90s.
Returning to West Africa, where President Hill had worked in business for five years, also was a sacrifice, in part because she suffered from several health issues that she managed privately and that caused her pain.
Sister Hill was born in Ogden. She and President Hill were Ogden High School sweethearts. She waited for him while he served an LDS mission, then for another year as he fulfilled the promise his mission president required of every missionary to wait one year before marriage.
They married in the Ogden LDS Temple, which she had helped raised money to build. She attended Weber State and BYU, where she studied home economics and education. She taught at Tintic High School in Eureka, Utah, before focusing on raising four children. A fifth died at birth.
"She dedicated her life to her kids and our interests," Ryan Hill said.
Sister Hill's previous church service experience included time as a stake public affairs committee member, ward Relief Society president and stake Young Women president, according to a February 2013 LDS Church News article.
The Hills' mission has been noteworthy. After the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the evacuation of the missionaries from the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission, President Hill doubled for a year as president of that mission, too. He wrote an article for the Ensign, a LDS Church magazine, about how church members in Sierra Leone dealt with Ebola, isolation and the lingering aftermath of the war.
Their missionaries also helped Accra recover from the effects of major flooding in June, when more than 160 people died.
Sister Hill helped one missionary shed his initial reluctance to help people who had badmouthed the LDS Church.
"Sister Hill, our mission president’s wife, is always saying ‘we can do hard things,’" said Elder Victor Uzoho of Aba, Nigeria, "so I soon stopped complaining in my mind and instead saw how much good we were doing. I think they see us differently now because we were willing to get dirty by cleaning out gutters and washing walls alongside them."