Henry Bennion Eyring, First Counselor of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Henry Erying’s Early Life
Known as “Hal” to his family and friends, Henry Bennion Eyring was born on May 31, 1933, to Henry and Mildred Bennion Eyring. The first thirteen years of Hal’s life were spent with his family in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was a professor of chemistry at Princeton University.
Hal’s father was a gifted scientist who was renowned worldwide and who received numerous honorary doctorates and nearly every major award in chemistry, except the Nobel Prize. When there was a limited amount of women pursuing higher education, Hal’s mother Mildred was attending the University of Utah, where she graduated, and went on to become the head of the women’s physical education department there. When she was about to leave the university and pursue her doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, she met Henry Eyring. They dated and eventually married on August 25, 1928.
The membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is often mistakenly referred to as the “Mormon Church”) on the eastern seaboard was minimal at this time. Church meetings were held in a hotel room until the onset of World War II, when gas rationing restricted travel. The Eyring’s home then became the ‘meetinghouse’ for the members in Princeton. Hal and his two brothers were the only members of the Aaronic Priesthood and were the only youth in the branch at that time.
In 1946, the Eyrings moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Hal’s father was to head the Graduate School at the University of Utah.
Life in the Eyring home was filled with music, intellectual innovation, and spiritual growth. Because of his great love for science, Hal’s father encouraged his three sons to major in physics to prepare for careers in science.
While studying physics at the University of Utah, Hal remembers having a significant conversation with his father. He asked his father for help with a complex mathematical problem. “My father was at a blackboard we kept in the basement. Suddenly he stopped. ‘Hal,’ he said. ‘We were working this same kind of problem a week ago. You don’t seem to understand it any better now than you did then. Haven’t you been working on it?’ [A little annoyed, Hal admitted to his father that he had not.] ‘You don’t understand. When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?’ When I told him no my father paused. It was really a very tender and poignant moment, because I knew how much he loved me and how much he wanted me to be a scientist. Then he said, ‘Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.'”
Hal finished his education at the University of Utah and graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in physics in 1955. At this time, the Korean War had just ended. During the war, the number of Mormon missionaries sent out was greatly restricted. By the time Hal graduated, he had been commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and was not able to serve a mission. Prior to departing, Hal received a priesthood blessing from his bishop. In the blessing, he was promised that his military experience would be his Mormon mission. This promise was fulfilled, in that Hal was sent by the Air Force to the Sandia National Laboratories near Albuquerque, New Mexico, for temporary schooling. Two weeks after his arrival, he was called as a district missionary in the Western States Mission. Circumstances were such that he stayed on there for the full two years of his duty.
With his military service completed, Hal was determined to finish his education, but not in physics. He entered Harvard Graduate School of Business in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he completed his master’s degree in business administration. Upon completion of his degree, while trying to decide what field of business to enter, he realized that there was no type of business that strongly attracted him. He remembered his father’s advice: “Find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.” That’s when he knew he would be teaching business; helping others understand how to take a complex process and work it through. Hal continued at Harvard and completed his doctoral degree in business administration. Before he had completed his dissertation, he was accepted as an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Palo Alto, California.
Marriage and Family
The decision to complete his education at Harvard proved to have twofold benefits.
During the summer of 1961, Kathleen Johnson was attending summer school. After a sunrise service where Hal was attending, Kathleen was coming out of a grove of trees when Hal caught sight of her. Not only was he struck by her beauty, but he recalled the words of Mormon Prophet David O. McKay: “If you meet a girl in whose presence you feel a desire…to do your best…such a young woman is worthy of your love.” Kathleen and Hal were introduced the next Sunday, when their courtship began. They dated throughout the rest of the summer and then by mail and phone after Kathleen returned to California. Hal and Kathleen were married in July, 1962, in the Logan Temple. Over the years, this couple would be blessed with six children—four sons and two daughters.
Family was always first in Hal’s life. Kathleen stated, “Hal has taught the gospel in our home with great clarity and conviction. And, to make it all the clearer for us to understand, he has lived it.” No father was a better example to his wife and children.
Hal modeled his family life after his own childhood. Where his father promoted creative thinking and hard work, Hal did the same with his own children. Every family member was a contributing member and knew that they were important to the family puzzle; whether it was in the family dynamics or in creative thinking.
Hal encouraged intellectual discovery and spiritual growth in each of his children. He never pursued any sport unless he could do it with his children; so he promoted tennis, basketball, and swimming as the family activities. Saturday mornings were spent building bookcases or planting flowers and supplementing family home evenings.
As stated earlier, Hal was accepted as an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1962, before he finished his doctoral degree in business administration. The nine years spent teaching at Stanford were rewarding in part because he was allowed the freedom to design the classes he taught. Hal returned to Boston for one year, where he served as the Sloan Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Hal was now a part of the business world, where he served as an officer and director for Finnigan Instrument Corporation and became the founder and director of System Industries Incorporated, a computer manufacturing company.
Life seemed to be going well for the Eyring family. However, that was to change. Hal remembers, “One night Kathy nudged me and asked, ‘Are you sure you are doing the right things with your life?’ I was surprised. Now remember my situation. I have tenure at Stanford. I am the bishop of the Stanford ward. We are living next to her parents. I love what I’m doing. It’s like the Garden of Eden… And then she asks me that question. ‘Couldn’t you do studies for Neal Maxwell?’ You have to understand something. Neal A. Maxwell was the commissioner of education [for the Mormon Church] at that time. Kathy didn’t even know him. I didn’t know him.”
Kathleen later recalled that she knew there was something more important that Hal should be doing. She knew that he loved teaching at Stanford, but felt there was something he could teach that could truly change lives.
Hal was determined to pray about it. At first he felt he had received no answer—then the phone rang and Commissioner Maxwell was on the line asking if Hal could come to Salt Lake City. Hal did go to Salt Lake, and Commissioner Maxwell asked him, “Hal, I’d like you to be the president of Ricks College.” Hal didn’t even know where Ricks College was or if it was a two- or four-year college. He did know the importance of the call and did not treat it lightly. Upon bended knees, he prayed until the answer came. Quite simply, the Lord answered his prayers, “It’s my school.” Knowing that this was the answer, Hal returned to California and began making plans to leave Stanford and move to the small town of Rexburg, Idaho. On December 10, 1971, Henry B. Eyring was inaugurated as president of Ricks College.
The opportunity to serve as president of Ricks College proved to be a wonderful opportunity for President Eyring and his family. It gave them the opportunity to grow closer to each other. President Eyring was able to teach religion classes with one of the other faculty members, and his dedication to the youth of Ricks College will be remembered for generations to come. President Eyring believed: “The formal education we receive makes up only a small part of what we need to know. Life is more than a career; life is a mission. Life has a purpose, and its purpose requires learning across a wide spectrum. We should be learners throughout our lives.”
While at Stanford, Hal served for four years as the bishop of the Stanford First Ward, a student ward in the Palo Alto Stake, and taught early-morning seminary.
Serving as president of Ricks College from 1971–1977 led President Eyring into close association with the General Authorities and other leaders of the “Mormon Church.” Wherever he went and whomever he met, his influence improved lives.
His Church service included time as a regional representative and a member of the Sunday School General Board. He spent eight years with the Church Educational System—three as deputy commissioner and five as commissioner of education. In 1985, President Eyring was called as First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, and in 1992, was called to serve in the First Quorum of Seventy. As a Seventy, he again served as commissioner of education.
The position as Commissioner of Education provided him the opportunity to travel and meet the seminary teachers and youth of the “Mormon Church.” Elder Eyring said, “It was a wonderful reminder that the strength of the Church lies in the simple faith and dedication of its members.”
In 1995, President Eyring was sustained by the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As an apostle, he had the opportunity to serve as a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. “When you know something to be true, you should act upon that truth. Jesus Christ lives; he has ‘tied himself to us.’ Only we at great effort can break the tie. I pray with my whole heart that we will understand what it means to be bound to a God who loves us, who will let us climb freely—but is ready, should we slip, to break the fall.”
1 “Elder Henry B. Eyring”: Molded by “Defining Influences”, Ensign, Sep 1995, p.10