When Robert D. Hales was a young teenager living on Long Island, his father took him to the Sacred Grove in upstate New York, the same forested sanctuary where Mormon founder Joseph Smith — at about the same age — had reported seeing heavenly messengers more than a century earlier.
“There we prayed together,” Hales said in a biography posted on the LDS Church’s website, “and dedicated our lives.”
That lifetime of dedication to the faith he loved — including various leadership posts in his local Mormon congregations, more than 40 years as an LDS general authority and 23 years as an apostle — ended at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, when Hales died at age 85.
He “died peacefully today at 12:15 p.m. in the hospital, surrounded by his wife and family,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a news release. His passing came moments after the morning session of the faith‘s 187th Semiannual General Conference.
Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was also at Hales’ side.
Hales was unable to attend any of this fall’s conference. He had been in the hospital for several days, Hawkins said earlier, undergoing treatment of pulmonary and other conditions.
“He lived his testimony,” President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, said in a news release. “He knew God. He knew the savior, and he loved the savior. … And he behaved as if God was close, Heavenly Father was close.”
In announcing Hales’ death to the crowd at the Conference Center for the afternoon session, Eyring said, “We will miss him. His wisdom and goodness have blessed our lives for many years.”
The church said it will announce details regarding funeral arrangements as they become available. It is undetermined when the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will be filled.
The three-member First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve together make up the top two ruling councils of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“No matter where he went, Bob would go to church and instantly he would get a church calling,’’ Mary Knecht, Hales’ aunt, recalled in a 1994 Salt Lake Tribune profile of the then-newly named apostle. “He was always willing to serve in the church.”
It was a promise Hales had made during that spiritual retreat with his dad and one he kept throughout his life as he repeatedly shelved his professional business ambitions to lend part-time and, for much of his life, full-time service to his Mormon religion.
In 1975, Hales was in a board meeting of Chesebrough-Ponds Inc. when he got a phone call from Spencer W. Kimball, then the president of the LDS Church.
His secretary responded, “I can’t disturb him.”
However, a family member recalled, Kimball told the secretary to “just go in the meeting and whisper to him who is on the phone and he’ll talk to me.’’
Kimball wanted Hales to quit his job and become an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. After discussing it with his wife, Mary, and praying together, Hales agreed.
Two decades later — after stints as a Mormon mission president, a Seventy, an area leader and the church’s presiding bishop — Hales was tapped as an apostle at age 61.
“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,’’ Hales said at the time. “I never thought I’d be among them.’’
When Hales was called into full-time church service at age 42, LeGrand Richards, then an 89-year-old apostle, put his arm around the junior LDS leader and said, “Oh, to be a boy and have a whole life ahead of you.’’
Robert Dean Hales was born Aug. 24, 1932, to John Rulon and Vera Marie Holbrook Hales in New York City, where his father was a commercial artist.
He grew up in and around Long Island, where his family attended the Queens LDS Ward about 20 miles away and where he became a star pitcher on his high school team.
“One time when he was in a pitching slump, he caused the team to lose three games in a row, each by a score of 1–0,” the bio on the church’s website recounts. “The headline in the school paper read, ‘Hard-Luck Hales Loses Again.’ He took his uniform and went to tell his coach he was going to quit.
“When he got to the coach’s office, his coach said, ‘Do you know why you’re losing? Your pitching arm is tired at the end of the game because before the game when you’re supposed to be warming up, you’re out there impressing everybody with your fastball and curveball. You probably pitch (the equivalent of) two or three innings doing that. (Stop) showing off and you won’t wear out your arm.”
He heeded that advice. The next game he tossed a shutout.
He met his wife, the former Mary Elene Crandall, in the Queens Ward on Long Island.
“Bob was home for the summer from the University of Utah, and Mary and her sister were home from Brigham Young University,” recalled Knecht, Hales’ aunt.
“After I met her, I never went out with anyone else,” Hales recalled in his bio. “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.”
When summer ended, both returned to college in the Beehive State — Robert to the U. and Mary to BYU. They married the next summer, on June 10, 1953, in the Salt Lake LDS Temple and went on to have two sons: Stephen and David.
After graduating from the U., Hales joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. When he wrapped up his active duty, he moved the family to Massachusetts to pursue a master of business administration at Harvard.
There, with a young family and steeped in his studies, his church came calling again, asking him to serve as head of his congregation’s elders quorum. It was a part-time, lay position but demanding nonetheless.
“He and his wife, Mary, prayed for guidance and discussed the calling together,” his bio explains. “As they did, Mary said, ‘I’d rather have an active priesthood holder than a man who holds a master’s degree from Harvard. We’ll do them both.’ ”
Private business to church business
With his MBA in hand, Hales accepted a job at Gillette, which took him to England, Germany and Spain. After that, he moved his family to Chicago, where he worked for Paper Mate. Then on to Max Factor International, Hughes Broadcasting and, finally, Chesebrough Inc.
Eyring described Hales as a “phenomenal” businessman who was “sensitive” and loyal and possessed “an ability to read people.”
During that time, he was a branch president in Albany, Ga.; Weston, Mass.; Frankfurt, Germany; and Seville, Spain. He was a Mormon bishop in Frankfurt, Chicago and Weston.
He also was a high councilor and stake president’s counselor, helping to oversee a number of LDS congregations.
He was a regional representative from 1970 until the call to full-time church work. He joined the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976. He served as president of the London Mission in the late 1970s.
Starting in 1985, Hales served as presiding bishop for nearly a decade. In that position he oversaw the LDS Church’s vast real-estate holdings and business operations. He was a prime mover in the renovation of the grand Hotel Utah, now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, in downtown Salt Lake City.
“I consider all my work in business,” Hales said, “to have been an excellent preparation to be the presiding bishop.”
Hales suffered two heart attacks before becoming an apostle, which gave him a renewed sense of gratitude for his life.
A television reporter asked the then-new apostle if, as a “special witness for Christ,’’ he ever had seen the Lord.
“I know him better than if I had seen him,’’ Hales replied. “Now it will be my responsibility to tell the world that I know.”
He did — often in recent years, as his health continued to fade, while sitting in front of a portable pulpit at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
In October 2011, after poor health prevented him from attending the conference six months earlier, Hales, seated and wearing an oxygen tube, addressed the problem of pain.
“Why is it that the Son of God and his holy prophets and all the faithful saints have trials and tribulations, even when they are trying to do Heavenly Father’s will?” he asked. “Why is it so hard, especially for them?”
Learning to cope with adversity brings growth and spiritual strength, said Hales, who didn’t return for the afternoon session. “He knows your sacrifices and your sorrows. He hears your prayers. His peace and rest will be yours as you continue to wait upon him in faith.”
At the faith’s conference this past spring, Hales was able to stand to give his remarks.
As Latter-day Saints follow Christ, “there will be no disparity between the kindness we show our enemies and the kindness we bestow on our friends,” the apostle told the crowd watching in the giant Conference Center in Salt Lake City and millions more watching via satellite across the globe or streaming online. “We will be as honest when no one is looking at us as when others are watching. We will be as devoted to God in the public square as we are in our private closet.”
Like the parable of the good Samaritan, true believers “cross the road to minister to whomever is in need, even if they are not within the circle of our friends,” Hales said. “We bless them that curse us. We do good to those who despitefully use us. Is any attribute more godly or Christlike?”
Hales never forgot that prayer he shared as a young Mormon deacon with his father — and he never wavered from that vow he made to his God and his religion.
“When we got back home, my father ... painted a picture of the Sacred Grove for me,” Hales recalled in his bio. “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.”
A talk that, for Robert D. Hales, led to season after season of service.