Editor's note: A profile of President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, when he was called to serve in the Presiding Bishopric. This article was written by Gerry Avant and ran in the July 7, 1985, edition of the Church News.
Every day, Bishop Henry B. Eyring recalls lessons he learned at a chalkboard mounted on a basement wall in the home where he grew up.
When he was a young student, he often asked his father, a world-renowned scientist, for help with mathematical or scientific problems. His father, the late Henry Eyring, wouldn't just help him find the answer to a problem. Instead, he would take his son, called “Hal” by family and friends, to the board for a review of the basic principles that underlay the problem. Together they would derive a solution.
“I thought it was terrible to go through all that,” said Bishop Eyring, who was sustained April 6 as first counselor to Presiding Bishop Robert D. Hales. “Instead of working on my homework, I spent my time with Dad learning basic principles.”
Today, Bishop Eyring, 52, sounds much like his scientist father. Whether discussing a matter with his family, a doctrinal precept, a concern, or helping one of his children with homework, he speaks of “deriving simple solutions to complex problems by using basic principles.” With practicality and humor, he applies the academic and scientific skills his father taught him to every aspect of life.
“There are a few key principles,” Bishop Eyring philosophized. “If they were in the hearts of people everywhere in the world, things would run well. That’s why Joseph Smith said, ‘I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.’ He didn’t say, ‘I teach them 50 procedures.’ He said, ‘I teach them correct principles.’
“That statement is almost the credo of everything I’ve ever done. Dad gave me confidence that you can find most of the important ideas from simple principles. If you can’t do that, you’re in danger. His gospel study was, in one way, like his scientific study: he had a feeling if you went back to basic principles you could derive understanding.
“Family relationships are very complicated,” Bishop Eyring continued, as he explained his philosophy. “You can’t hope to read every social science book ever written on family relations and the rearing of children. Some of that information is very useful because you can get some ideas. But the only way you will be effective is to have a few true principles in your heart that you hold deeply, and to act out of them.”
He grew up in a home filled with stimulating conversations and discussion. In addition to his father being a scientist, his mother, Mildred Bennion Eyring, had been a doctoral candidate and acting chairman of a college department. She gave up her career to marry Henry Eyring, who over the years received 13 honorary degrees and 18 top chemistry prizes. The senior Eyring, for whom the chemistry building on the University of Utah campus is named, died in 1982.
Bishop Eyring’s parents turned everyday experiences into teaching moments. When the senior Eyring was a professor of chemistry at Princeton University in New Jersey, the Princeton Branch met in their home. “The branch was, essentially, my family, a few older converts and any other members who happened to be attending the university,” Bishop Eyring said. “The Church was my family. The Aaronic Priesthood was my brother and me.”
He has a vivid mental image of attending Primary, the one and only time it was held in the branch while he was of Primary age. “I guess you could say I had 100 percent attendance at all Primary meetings in our branch,” he said with a wry smile. “The branch then didn’t meet in our home, but in a rented hall. I think it was a lodge hall. I remember the green felt of the pool table. The lesson must have been about the pioneers because I remember seeing a little clay model of a wagon train placed on the green table.”
The family moved to Salt Lake City when Bishop Eyring’s father accepted a position on the University of Utah faculty. Bishop Eyring graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City and received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Utah. He then served two years in the Air Force, during which time he was stationed at Sandia Base, Albuquerque, N.M.
After military service, he attended Harvard Graduate School of Business and received a master’s of business administration degree in 1959. In 1963, he received a doctor of business administration degree from Harvard.
He was assistant professor and associate professor in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University from 1962 until 1971. In 1964 and 1965, he was a visiting faculty fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
He became president of Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, in December 1971, serving in that post until he was called to serve as deputy commissioner of Church Education in July 1977. He became commissioner of Church Education in 1980.
In each place he has lived, whether as a university student, airman, college professor or president, he has served in the Church. He has been a district missionary, counselor in a district presidency, a high councilor, a bishop’s counselor and a bishop. He was a regional representative when called to the Presiding Bishopric.
“One of the most gratifying experiences was being able to serve a district mission for the full two years I was in the Air Force,” he said. “I had as much or more opportunity to see people I taught being baptized during my two years as a district missionary in the Western States Mission, just working evenings and weekends, than my brothers might have had on their mission in Europe.”
He was a counselor to the Boston District president, Wilbur F. Cox, who is now president of the Manti Temple, when he met the young woman he married. Kathleen Johnson was reared and educated in Palo Alto, Calif., and was a graduate from the University of California at Berkeley. She had gone to Harvard for the summer when they met at a Church meeting. They were married in the Logan Temple in 1962. They have four sons and two daughters, ages 21 to 1 year.
Bishop Eyring, wiry at 6-foot-3 inch and 163 pounds, spends as much time as possible with his family. He loves athletics and sports but will not participate in any sport he can’t play with his family. “I have never pursued any sport I couldn’t do with my children,” he said. Among family favorites are tennis, basketball and swimming.
When their boys were younger, Bishop Eyring instituted a family tradition, which they call “projects.” Every Saturday morning is reserved for “projects.” They might build a bookcase or kitchen cabinet, clean the garage, plant flowers, or do some other chore around the house. “Saturday mornings are as off-limits to outside activities as are Monday evenings,” he said. “No one plans anything away from home then.”
The eldest son, Henry J. Eyring, is married. The next son, Stuart, is serving in the Japan Tokyo South Mission. Still home are Matthew, 15; John, 13; Elizabeth, 5; and Mary Kathleen, who just celebrated her first birthday.
When Bishop Eyring was president of Ricks College, the two older boys, whose school was near the campus, would go to his office every day for lunch, which he prepared, using a tiny grill and an ice chest he kept hidden in his office. Setting the grill so aroma from the cooking food would not waft into the building’s air conditioning system, he prepared sandwiches for himself and his sons before they returned to their classes and he resumed his presidential duties. After school, the youngsters would return to his office and they would walk home together.
Bishop Eyring, every bit the devoted teacher as was his father, excused himself from his interview with the Church News to talk to John on the telephone. He reviewed with his son a formula, explaining with basic principles a way to solve a challenging math problem.
“Just follow those principles and you’ll find your answer,” he told his son. Family tradition, it seems, has come full circle.
The LDS Church News is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The publication's content supports the doctrines, principles and practices of the Church.