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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Elder Robert D. Hales, center, laughs while talking with BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson, far right, just before the start of a BYU devotional with Elder Hales as speaker Sept. 14, 2010. Elder Hales' wife, Mary, is at far left, and Sharon Samuelson, President Samuelson's wife, is center right.

SALT LAKE CITY — As a young Mormon boy growing up in a heavily wooded area of Long Island, Elder Robert D. Hales learned the names of the apostles.

“Imagine what it means to be a young boy from New York who memorized the names of all the apostles when I was a deacon," he once said. "I never thought I’d be among them.”

Elder Hales, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, died Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, of causes incident to age, passing peacefully at the hospital surrounded by his wife and family. He was 85. Also present at his passing was President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Hales' priesthood leader.

Elder Hales died at 12:15 p.m., in between Sunday's two sessions of the 187th Semiannual General Conference, which brought one of the conference's most tender moments as the afternoon session was drawing to a close. Concluding speaker Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve, read a few lines from a conference message prepared by Elder Hales in anticipation of speaking at the conference:

“When we choose to have faith we are prepared to stand in the presence of God," Elder Hales wrote. "After the Savior’s crucifixion, He appeared only to those who had been faithful in the testimony of Him while they lived in mortality. Those who rejected the testimonies of the prophets could not behold the Savior’s presence nor look upon His face. Our faith prepares us to be in the presence of God.”

Elder Hales had served as an apostle since April 1994, as the church's presiding bishop for nine years previous to that, and as one of the church's general authorities since 1975.

In an October 2014 general conference address, Elder Hales described how he came to know God.

"As a boy, I used to gaze into the starry sky and ponder and feel his presence. I thrilled to explore the magnificent beauties of God’s creations — from tiny insects to towering trees. As I recognized the beauty of this earth, I knew that Heavenly Father loved me," he said.

Elder Hales said his testimony grew as he learned from his parents and teachers, diligently read the scriptures and, especially, heeded the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

"As I exercised faith and obeyed the commandments, the Holy Ghost testified that what I was learning was true," he said. "This is how I came to know for myself."

Prior to his call as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1975 and to the First Quorum of the Seventy a year later when the church did away with the assistants to the Twelve, Elder Hales — Bob to his friends — had a successful business career as an executive in four major national and multinational companies. He also played baseball in college and served as an Air Force fighter pilot.

He was admitted to the hospital several days before this weekend's general conference for treatment of pulmonary and other conditions, and did not participate in the event.

Elder Hales suffered undisclosed health challenges that affected his mobility and endurance in early 2011. Though it kept him from speaking in the April general conference that year, he improved by October to deliver his conference speech from a chair on the stand in the Conference Center.

He had spoken in every general conference from October 2011 through April 2017 and had participated in several seminars for new mission presidents. He also suffered two heart attacks and in 1998 underwent bypass surgery.

Speaking in October 2016 general conference, Elder Hales paid tribute to people who serve the Lord as caregivers. He acknowledged his wife, Mary, as a "special caregiver in my life, the Savior's special disciple to me."

“She has given all in compassionate nurturing and love. Her hands reflect His gentle, sustaining touch. I would not be here without her, and with her I will be able to endure to the end and be with her in eternal life," he said.

Robert D. Hales and Mary Elene Crandall Hales on their wedding day in 1953.  |  Hales family photo

In a general conference talk in April 2015, Elder Hales spoke about preserving agency and protecting religious freedom, one of the hot-button issues of the day.

He outlined four cornerstones of religious freedom that he said Latter-day Saints must rely on and protect — the freedom to believe, share their faith, form religious organizations and exercise their faith not just at church but also in public places.

"As we walk the path of spiritual liberty in these last days, we must understand that the faithful use of our agency depends upon our having religious freedom," he said.

Elder Hales said the lack of respect for religious points of view is quickly devolving into social and political intolerance for religious people and institutions.

"Some are offended when we bring our religion into the public square, yet the same people who insist that their viewpoints and actions be tolerated in society are often very slow to give that same tolerance to religious believers who also wish their viewpoints and actions to be tolerated," he said.

In his last general conference address in April 2017, Elder Hales focused what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

“Many people hear the word disciple and think it means only ‘follower.’ But genuine discipleship is a state of being. This suggests more than studying and applying a list of individual attributes. Disciples live so that the characteristics of Christ are woven into the fiber of their beings, as into a spiritual tapestry,” he said.

Elder Hales listed faith, virtue, temperance, patience and charity among those qualities disciples of the Savior should cultivate.

“As we earnestly strive to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, these characteristics will be interwoven, added upon, and interactively strengthened in us. There will be no disparity between the kindness we show our enemies and the kindness we bestow on our friends. We will be as honest when no one is looking as when others are watching. We will be as devoted to God in the public square as we are in our private closet,” he said.

Throughout his life, Elder Hales had an insatiable curiosity that propelled him on a never-ending venture to learn about “absolutely everything.”

Many of his schoolmates growing up were from distant countries, and their parents were assigned to the United Nations, which was in his school district. His community was a laboratory in which he learned of various cultures, customs, political views and religious persuasions.

Good-natured, warm and friendly, Elder Hales had no qualms asking questions about anything that caught his interest.

Once while driving past a lumber mill, he stopped and asked if he could take a tour. As an employee escorted him, he asked about each piece of machinery and the responsibility of each worker. When his curiosity was satisfied, he continued on his way with newfound knowledge that his analytical mind might put to use someday.

Elder Hales was one of the first general authorities to be featured on YouTube, with a “Blessings of the Priesthood” feature in May 2009.

Speaking at BYU Education Week in 2008, he advised listeners not to dwell on the past, but to look to the future to better the world. He said courage, faithful desire, humility, patience, curiosity and a willingness to share what one learns are necessary to effective lifelong learning.

Elder Hales succeeded in every aspect of life, except one.

Robert D. Hales plays baseball at age 15.  |  Hales family photo

A lover of sports, he was a pitcher on the Great Neck High School baseball team and at the University of Utah. He called failing to become a professional baseball player his biggest hurt and disappointment.

“The great people who help us in life are the ones who are the most honest," he said in a Church News interview after being sustained as the church's presiding bishop in April 1985, a position he held for nine years.

"I wanted to pitch for the New York Yankees. Anything less than that wouldn’t do. On one occasion, after the scouts had looked at me, my coach, Art Smith, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox, said, ‘You can go on and do very well in the minor leagues, but you’ll never be a first-rate major league pitcher because you just aren’t strong enough and you’re not fast enough.’”

Elder Hales hurt his arm in spring training in Arizona and never recovered. He played some semiprofessional baseball in industrial leagues.

“My coach was right. I wasn’t good enough. Had I been, I would not have gone beyond my ability and injured my arm,” he said.

Born on Aug. 24, 1932, Elder Hales was the third and last child of John Rulon and Vera Marie Holbrook Hales. His father was a commercial artist in New York City who often taught his son about the gospel with pictures.

When Elder Hales returned from his first out-of-town game with the varsity baseball team as a ninth-grader, his father discerned he had heard language and seen behavior that was not in harmony with gospel standards.

His father sat down and drew a picture of a knight — a warrior capable of defending castles and kingdoms.

"As he drew and read from the scriptures, I learned how to be a faithful priesthood holder — to protect and defend the kingdom of God," Elder Hales said in the priesthood session of general conference in April 2013.

Elder Hales said his father took him to the Sacred Grove when he was a deacon.

"There we prayed together and dedicated our lives. Then he talked to me of sacred things," he said.

After arriving home, his father painted a picture of the "shady woodland" where God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith for the first time.

"I’ve always hung that picture in my office, and when I look at it, I remember my father and our talk that summer afternoon," he said when he first moved into the Church Administration Building.

At the end of his sophomore year at the University of Utah, Elder Hales returned to New York to work at the United Nations for the summer. As he was going home from work one day, he noticed a young woman boarding a bus. To his surprise, the next Sunday at church he was introduced to that young woman, Mary Elene Crandall, who had moved into the ward with her family.

“After I met her, I never went out with anyone else,” he said. “We were together every evening after work for the first two months sharing family activities. She’d help me wash my car, and I’d help her baby-sit her brothers. It was as though we were never going to be apart.”

They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on June 10, 1953, and later became the parents of two children, Stephen and David.

While earning a degree in business administration at the University of Utah, he worked full time at KDYL Radio and KSL-TV to pay his college expenses.

Robert D. Hales during his time with the 308th Fighter-Bomber Squadron.  |  Hales family photo

Elder Hales joined the Air Force after graduation and flew F-84 and F-100 fighter jets for three and a half years in the strategic and tactical air commands. He was an adjutant and a member of the squadron’s precision firepower demonstration team.

He learned an important principle in the Air Force.

“Our unit motto was ‘Return with Honor,’” Elder Hales later said. “This motto was a constant reminder to us of our determination to return to our home base with honor after we had expended all of our efforts to successfully complete every aspect of our mission.”

As a father, he put his arms around each of his two sons before they left to serve their LDS missions — Stephen to England and David to Germany — and whispered, “Return with honor.”

In 1960, he earned a master's of business administration from Harvard University. Career opportunities took him to national and multinational corporations in the United States, England, Germany and Spain.

After joining the Gillette Co., he became president of the Papermate Co., a division of Gillette. Then he joined Max Factor Co. as a vice president and later headed Hughes Television Network. He was an executive at Chesebrough-Pond's Co. when he was called into full-time church service.

An energetic, hard worker, Elder Hales loved a challenge, a former business colleague said in a Church News article after Elder Hales was called as presiding bishop.

“While other men dive under the table and hide or get ulcers when confronted with a difficult problem, he jumps on top of the table and salivates,” the former colleague said.

“The titles of men really are not important,” Elder Hales said in the same Church News article. “If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, and if you’re providing for the … needs of your family while getting some satisfaction from your job and you have a few dollars left over, then you’re a rich man.”

Consecration and commitment have been part of Elder and Sister Hales’ lives since their marriage.

Elder Hales once said in a Church News interview after he was called to the Twelve that the decision to accept the call to serve as a general authority wasn’t nearly as difficult as accepting a call as elders quorum president in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was working on a master’s degree at Harvard.

“I was concerned about my grades and was afraid I was going to fail if I took time out for such a church calling,” he said. “But Mary and I pondered the call and said, ‘We can do both — school and church service.’

“The next day I came home from school to find that Mary had taken some two-by-fours and wallboard and walled me off a little office in the raw basement of our apartment. She quietly said, ‘That’s your study room and office. You can get good grades and be a good elders quorum president.’

“I put myself in the Lord’s hands when I made that decision (to serve),” Elder Hales said many years later.

President Ezra Taft Benson, then president of the Quorum of Twelve, shakes hands with new Presiding Bishop Robert D. Hales at LDS general conference in April 1985.  |  Deseret News archives

Putting themselves in the Lord’s hands is the pattern Elder and Sister Hales followed throughout their life together. They formed a team committed to balancing family life, church service and career. And because they established that pattern early in their marriage, it was much easier to accept callings in the future.

Elder Hales later served as the Weston Branch president, and when the Boston Massachusetts Stake was organized, he was sustained as the Weston Ward’s first bishop.

In LDS Church service, Elder Hales was a bishop or in the branch presidency in Albany, Georgia; Weston, Massachusetts; Frankfurt, Germany; and Seville, Spain. He later was bishop of the Frankfurt and North Shore (Chicago) wards.

He also served on the high councils of the Boston and London stakes and was second counselor in the presidency of the Boston Stake, an elders quorum president in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a seminary teacher in Downey, California.

In September 1970, Elder Hales was called as a regional representative to the Minnesota and Louisiana regions. He served there until his call as a general authority.

He also served on the National Advisory Council of the University of Utah and in 1987 was appointed to the Utah Board of Regents. This appointment was a break in tradition because all LDS Church leaders who had served as regents up to that time had been members of the Twelve.

As chairman of the church's Olympic Coordinating Committee when Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Games in 2002, Elder Hales also carried the Olympic torch a segment up the steps to the church’s Administration Building on South Temple on Feb. 7, 2002.

Elder Hales received a doctor of Christian service award from Brigham Young University in 2003. And in July 2017, when he was honored with the 2017 Pioneers of Progress President's Award sponsored by the Days of '47 Inc., he said life's greatest challenge is "enduring to the end."

“I think that enduring to the end is the greatest accomplishment, to be able to give everything you have got,” he said in a video featured during the program. “It is like the coaches say, ‘When you give everything on the playing field, you can’t ask for more.’”

Among the lessons Elder Hales' father taught was gratitude for what it meant to be a general authority.

When he was in his 80s, John Hales painted a picture of the home of an apostle who was to come pick it up. Because of the depth of the snow, snowplows had caused a snowbank in the walkway to the front door. He shoveled the walks and removed the snowbank, returning to the house exhausted and in pain.

As Elder Hales arrived, his father was experiencing heart pain from overexertion and stressful anxiety. He wanted to tell his father how unwise it was to work so hard.

“Robert,” he said through interrupted short breaths, “do you realize an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ is coming to my home? The walks must be clean. He should not have to come through a snowdrift.”

He raised his hand, saying, “Oh, Robert, don’t ever forget or take for granted the privilege it is to know and to serve with apostles of the Lord.”

In his last general conference address in April 2017, Elder Hales focused what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

“Many people hear the word disciple and think it means only ‘follower.’ But genuine discipleship is a state of being. This suggests more than studying and applying a list of individual attributes. Disciples live so that the characteristics of Christ are woven into the fiber of their beings, as into a spiritual tapestry,” he said.

Elder Hales listed virtues that would come to mark his life: faith, virtue, temperance, patience and charity among those qualities disciples of the Savior should cultivate.