M. Russell Ballard, who went from hard-driving car dealer to longtime Latter-day Saint apostle, dies at 95 (2024)

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)As a young missionary, M. Russell Ballard preaches in a market square in Nottingham. England, in 1949.

M. Russell Ballard’s career was cruising.

He had been the top car salesman at his dad’s Nash dealership before taking over the business, traveling to Motor City to share his successful formula for revving up auto revenue and winning the right to peddle Ford’s hot new model: the Edsel.

After a strong start, though, sales sputtered and, ultimately, the Edsel fabulously and famously flopped.

Ballard and other dealers lost millions.

“It was a devastating experience,” he recalled in a 1986 interview with the Ensign magazine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The first part of my business career it seemed like everything worked. I was a little intolerant, I think, of those who were having trouble in business. But then I had trouble, and that helped me gain empathy and understanding for people who struggle similarly.”

It would hardly be the last humbling for Ballard. More would come as the hard-driving businessman, who shifted gears midlife to become a mission president in Toronto, accepted increasingly weighty church assignments, rising from a general authority to the presidency of the Seventy and, eventually, one of the faith’s leading apostles.

Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and second in the line of succession after Dallin H. Oaks to lead the Utah-based church of 17 million members, died late Sunday night at home surrounded by loved ones.

He was 95.

“President Ballard was never indecisive,” 99-year-old church President Russell M. Nelson said Monday in a news release. “He knew exactly what the Lord taught and how it could be applied in one’s personal life and bring joy and happiness.”

[How the next Latter-day Saint apostle will be picked and who does the choosing.]

Oaks, who sat beside Ballard for more than three decades among the apostles, said he “always loved his warm manner. He was a man to be trusted. And he was a man who trusted you.”

Ballard is survived by his seven children, 43 grandchildren 105 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. Funeral details are pending.

‘Greatest sales job’

Signs of future full-time church service appeared relatively early for a young Ballard, who was born Oct. 8, 1928, in Salt Lake City to Melvin R. and Geraldine Smith Ballard. In college, his University of Utah fraternity brothers, recognizing his devotion to his Latter-day Saint faith, called him “the bishop.”

As a 21-year-old missionary, he became the first counselor in the presidency of the British Mission.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) M. Russell Ballard as a missionary in Great Britain in 1950.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)President M. Russell Ballard, as a young missionary, preaches in a market square in Nottingham in 1949.

After returning home, he found his future bride, Barbara Bowen.

“I met her at the University of Utah ‘Hello Day Dance,’” Ballard explained in a previously published biography on the church’s website. “A friend of mine thought I ought to meet her, so he tagged in to dance with her, danced over to where I was, introduced me, and I danced with her 30 seconds before I was tagged out. That was the beginning of a courtship of 11 months.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to marry her, but she didn’t share the same feelings. It was a little hard convincing her. I kid[ded] her … that getting her to agree to marry me was the greatest sales job I ever did.”

The couple married in the Salt Lake Temple on Aug. 28, 1951. They went on to have two sons and five daughters. Barbara died Oct. 1, 2018, at age 86.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Wedding photo of M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and his wife, Barbara, Aug. 28, 1951.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Elder M. Russell Ballard waves as he leaves the stand with his wife, sister Barbara Ballard, after the Saturday morning session of the 188th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City in March 2018.

Six days later, during General Conference, her heartbroken husband concluded a moving sermon about the redemption of the dead with a touching tribute to his wife of 67 years and a testimony about forever families.

“How grateful I am to know where my precious Barbara is,” Ballard said, “and that we will be together again, with our family, for all eternity.”

Latter-day Saints believe husbands and wives, with their children, can be together as families in the afterlife.

He mentioned his beloved Barbara again several years later, when Utah — amid its annual Pioneer Day celebrations — declared July 23, 2021, M. Russell Ballard Day for his “lifelong commitment and advocacy for the Days of ‘47″ activities.

“I sometimes wonder when I am alone — Barbara’s not with me; she’s been gone for three years,” the humbled apostle said, “have I done any good in the world today?”

Church service begins

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Members of the Ballard family playing a game in 1980. Barbara Bowen Ballard died Oct. 1, 2018. M. Russell Ballard has died at age 95.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) M. Russell Ballard seated with his wife, Barbara, and their children in an undated photograph.

Soon after his marriage, Ballard took on the “bishop” title for real and thus began a lifetime of “doing good” through significant service to his religion.

“He’s extremely devoted to his family, and they’ve always come first,” his wife told the Ensign, the church’s magazine for adults that was replaced by the Liahona in 2021. “He was a bishop for many years and held lots of church jobs, but those responsibilities have never been to the detriment of his family. When he was home, he made the time count.”

Ballard, in turn, credited his wife, who often had to shoulder the household load while he was away on church business.

“I married the right woman,” he said. “Without the help and direction of Barbara, our family relationships would not have happened as well as they did. It was hard to be the bishop, the owner of my own business, and at the same time father of these children that came along, but somehow it worked out.”

The couple’s second child, Holly, praised her parents as role models for all their kids.

“We felt like the best place to be was to come home and be there in that environment because our parents were very good with each other,” she said in a news release. “I learned that you need to treat everybody with respect. And they were very good about doing that with us as children.”

In private business, Ballard built a reputation for hard work and a keen sense.

“He always had a job, even when he was little,” his sister, Ann Keddington, told the Ensign, mowing lawns and then taking on more jobs. He was a “smiling, slender, wiry young man with a fun sense of humor.”

He sold more cars than anyone at his father’s Nash dealership and then left in the early 1950s to pursue other interests, according to his church bio. In 1956, he returned and became the big wheel at Ballard Motor Co. — at the same time fulfilling a stint in the U.S. Army Reserve — steering it to greater heights as the country’s most successful dealership. Ford Motor Co. even invited Ballard and his associates to Detroit to share their story.

Ford then rolled out the Edsel. The company recruited Ballard to sell the ill-fated vehicle. He prayed about it, felt leery of the offer, but took it anyway. The car tanked, but Ballard walked away learning a priceless lesson.

“To me, failure is only when you quit trying,” he told the Ensign. “If you keep working at a task and try to do what’s right and honest, ultimately it works out.”

Ballard also had interests in real estate and investment businesses. He became president of Bountiful’s Valley Music Hall, which booked big-time Hollywood acts. After making a splash, the Ensign reported, the venture failed financially — if not theatrically — but Ballard made sure investors had opportunities to recover their money.

A son-in-law, Peter Huntsman, said his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., who died in 2018, was like a brother to Ballard.

“They would take off and go visit facilities and customers of Huntsman Corp. and on the same trips, visit missionwide gatherings,” Peter recalled. “It was a time when Russ could indulge in his lifelong passion for business, and my dad could play the role of a preacher. Dad had a bit of [early Latter-day Saint apostle] Parley Pratt in him. By the end of their week or two on the road, Dad was ready to get back to business and Russ back to preaching.”

The pair would frequently fly-fish together in Driggs, Idaho, on the Snake and Teton rivers, Peter added. “Russ was legally blind in one eye and hadn’t very good depth perception when casting a fly. He caught my dad’s hat, shirt and arms more often than he caught a trout.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apostle M. Russell Ballard holds scriptures belonging to Jon Huntsman Sr., his longtime friend, during funeral services for Huntsman in February 2018.

Peter and his wife, Brynn Ballard Huntsman, said the apostle’s life was one “that can only be celebrated. He was a devoted disciple of his Savior, a friend to all those with whom he came in contact and a proud and loving father and husband.”

In 1974, Ballard was called as president of the church’s Canada Toronto Mission. Two years later, he was appointed to his faith’s First Quorum of the Seventy. In 1980, he became a member of the presidency of the Seventy.

After influential Latter-day Saint apostle Bruce R. McConkie died in 1985, the then-57-year-old Ballard received another unexpected church assignment.

“We were just ready to leave the house to go to [General] Conference,” wife Barbara recalled in the church bio. “The phone rang, and it was President [Gordon B.] Hinckley, who asked my husband to come to the office. He thought he would perhaps be called on to speak in conference, since one of the speakers was ill.

“We were relaxed on the way to President Hinckley’s office and discussed what Russell might talk about if called to speak. When we got to the office, President Hinckley called my husband to be an apostle. I almost thought, ‘Please say that again. I don’t know if I heard correctly.’ Russ looked at me with tears in his eyes. It was a sobering experience.”

Ballard told the Ensign: “It was an overwhelming call. Some of my associates in the Quorum of the Twelve tell me there is an ongoing feeling of humility and wonderment at the call.”

Perhaps, given his pedigree, the apostolic assignment should not have surprised him. Ballard was a descendant of Hyrum Smith, brother of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, and the grandson of two early 20th-century apostles: Melvin J. Ballard and Hyrum M. Smith.

In fact, both of their pictures hung on his office wall. He also displayed busts of his great-great-uncle the Prophet Joseph Smith, his great-great-grandfather Hyrum Smith, and his great-grandfather President Joseph F. Smith.

“I’ll often sit in my office wrestling with assignments I have, thinking about how to better do things,” Ballard said, “and gain a great deal of strength looking at their countenances and realizing they’re not very far away.”

That legacy of leadership propelled him in his church service.

“I am constantly aware that I have a duty just by virtue of the fact that I have a connection,” Ballard recalled, according to the church’s news release. “I hear them saying all the time, ‘Get with it; do something worthwhile. Get going, boy; don’t just sit there.’ They were doers. They had to be doers.”

Latter-day Saint historian Benjamin Park pointed to Ballard’s familial ties in a social media post Monday.

“We’re entering only the second era in which there are no Smith family members as apostles. (The other was 1972-1985, between Joseph Fielding Smith’s death and Ballard’s ordination.),” he stated on X, formerly Twitter. “... Just a reminder how despite how global and large the ... church has become, it is still not too far from its origins as a family faith.”

Ballard himself reminded his son Craig, a 19-year-old missionary at the time, that “the blood of prophets flows in your veins.”

“Well, no pressure there,” Craig remembered thinking. “[My father] looked at [those busts] every day in his office … and I think he felt he had to do his best. He instilled that in the rest of us.”

Craig had trouble at first sharing his dad with Latter-day Saints around the world, the release stated. So the apostle decided to take the boy along on one of his church trips to Tonga and Samoa.

“When we got off that airplane, for the first time I realized how others saw him,” Craig said. “Many had walked for two days to come and just get a glimpse of an apostle. That’s when it changed from a burden to a blessing for me to know this person intimately.”

The pen and the pulpit

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) M. Russell Ballard speaking in 1985 after being called to be an apostle for the church.

During his church service, Ballard, at times, oversaw the church’s curriculum, correlation and missionary departments. He helped develop “Preach My Gospel,” the faith’s primary proselytizing tool. He also wrote a 1997 book, “Counseling With Our Councils: Learning to Minister Together in the Church and in the Family,” and updated the volume in 2012.

In a time of increasing racial, sexual and political polarization, Ballard became a strong voice against bigotry.

In the fall 2017 General Conference, he warned Latter-day Saints that any form of bigotry is anti-Christian.

“We need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism and nationalism,” he declared. “Let it be said that we truly believe the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are for every child of God.”

Amid 2020′s coronavirus pandemic, social unrest and contentious U.S. presidential election, Ballard called on people of all faiths to “pray for your country and for your national leaders.”

“This is not about politics or policy. This is about peace and the healing that can come to individual souls as well as to the soul of countries,” he said. “... Humbling ourselves and seeking heaven’s inspiration to endure or conquer what is before us will be our safest and surest way to move confidently forward through these troubling times.”

Ballard also encouraged Latter-day Saints to reach out to others and be more inclusive in their interactions with neighbors, co-workers and strangers.

“Get to know your neighbors. Learn about their families, their work, their views. Get together with them, if they are willing, and do so without being pushy and without any ulterior motives,” he said in an October 2001 conference sermon. “Friendship should never be offered as a means to an end; it can and should be an end unto itself.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Elder M. Russell Ballard on a visit to Suriname in 1990.

He tried to change the course of everyday conversations, especially in Latter-day Saint-dominated Utah, to be less exclusionary.

“I believe it would be good if we eliminated a couple of phrases from our vocabulary: ‘nonmember’ and ‘non-Mormon.’ Such phrases can be demeaning and even belittling,” he said in a speech delivered 17 years before the church launched its campaign to excise the use of the Mormon moniker as shorthand for the faith and its members.

“Personally, I don’t consider myself to be a ‘non-Catholic’ or a ‘non-Jew.’ I am a Christian. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is how I prefer to be identified — for who and what I am, as opposed to being identified for what I am not. Let us extend that same courtesy to those who live among us.”

Ballard then urged Latter-day Saints to exhibit more understanding with neighbors who have issues with Utah’s predominant faith.

“If neighbors become testy or frustrated because of some disagreement with [the church] or with some law we support for moral reasons, please don’t suggest to them — even in a humorous way — that they consider moving someplace else,” he said. “I cannot comprehend how any member of our church can even think such a thing.”

He noted how early Latter-day Saints were driven from their homes by intolerant neighbors. “If our history teaches us nothing else,” he said, “it should teach us to respect the rights of all people to peacefully coexist with one another.”

In 2016, Ballard instructed Latter-day Saint religious educators to tackle head-on any tough questions their students may have about the faith’s past.

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and the teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” he said. “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”

Instead, the longtime apostle told the educators to turn to church-published essays, which confront Mormonism’s thornier theological and historical issues.

“I’m talking about polygamy. Of seer stones. Different accounts of the [church founder Joseph Smith’s] ‘First Vision.’ The process of translation of the Book of Mormon. Of the Book of Abraham. Gender issues. Race and the priesthood. Or a Heavenly Mother,” he said. “... It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand.”

Ballard’s blunt advice won praise from Latter-day Saint scholars, including Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess, who said she “cheered” his directive.

In 2021, he and fellow apostles Jeffrey R. Holland and Quentin L. Cook returned to familiar turf: Great Britain, where all three had served their missions. Holland and Cook, in fact, were companions.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostles M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook visit the docks in Liverpool on Oct. 25, 2021. It was from this place that many early Latter-day Saints set sail for America.

During the nostalgic journey, Ballard went to Scotland’s Tranent (outside of Edinburgh), where his great-grandmother Margaret McNeil was born in 1846, a church news release reported. She lived there until she was 10, when she and her family crossed the Atlantic to settle in Utah. He also visited the cemetery where her grandparents are buried.

“When you come here, the footings of my foundation are here, the blessing of being who I am,” Ballard said at the time. “It is wonderful to see it.”

In his waning years, the church leader became embroiled in controversies surrounding Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard (the two are not related).

The apostle had struck up an alliance with the anti-human-trafficking activist, referring to Tim as a “family friend” in a 2019 speech in Massachusetts.

By fall 2023, however, those ties had frayed. The church even issued a stinging rebuke of Tim Ballard, accusing him of exploiting his relationship with the apostle in support of OUR and Tim’s private business efforts.

“Once it became clear Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and [for] activity regarded as morally unacceptable, President Ballard withdrew his association,” according to the faith’s statement. “President Ballard never authorized his name, or the name of the church, to be used for Tim’s personal or financial interests.”

A few weeks after this tempest hit the headlines, the apostle, just days away from turning 95, spoke at General Conference, for the final time, without mentioning the dispute.

Rather Ballard expressed, slowly and somewhat haltingly, his gratitude for the Book of Mormon, calling the faith’s signature scripture a “marvelous, wonderful gift.”

“We have it,” he added, “because Joseph was worthy to go get the [gold] plates, was inspired by heaven to translate them by the gift and power or god. And to give it to the world.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle M. Russell Ballard, a week before he turned 95, delivers what would be his final General Conference sermon on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

Unable to read from a teleprompter due to failing eyesight, he joked, “I’ll soon be 95. My children tell me they think I’m a lot older than that some days, but that’s OK. I’m doing the best I can.”

Later that day, apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf lauded his colleague from the pulpit, telling him. “You don’t have 20-20 eyesight anymore, but you have 20-20 spiritual vision.”

President Nelson said in a news release that conversion, commitment and consecration “were in [Ballard’s] blood. Can you imagine — we had the privilege of sitting beside a man who is the great‑great‑grandson of Hyrum Smith. And Joseph Smith was his great‑great‑uncle. Every day, I feel a debt of gratitude for the privilege of associating with a direct descendant of those respected and revered leaders. He’s got that same integrity that they had.”

Meeting the pope

(Photo courtesy of the Vatican) Pope Francis met with top Latter-day Saints leaders including M. Russell Ballard (shaking hands) and President Russell M. Nelson on March 9, 2019 in the Vatican.

In March 2019, Ballard accompanied church President Russell M. Nelson for a historic private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. It marked the first-ever face-to-face audience between a Catholic pontiff and a Latter-day Saint prophet.

The religious leaders discussed global relief and the two faiths’ mutual efforts to ease human suffering.

“We explained to His Holiness that we work side by side, that we have projects with Catholic Relief Services all over the world, in over 43 countries,” Ballard said in a news release. “[We’ve] been shoulder to shoulder as partners in trying to relieve suffering. He was very interested in that.”

The encounter marked a return trip for the apostle to the Vatican. In 2010, he had huddled with Catholic leaders there to discuss issues of mutual concern.

“We’re interested in moral values,” he said at the time. “We’re interested in marriage. We’re interested in the family. We’re interested in those basic fundamentals which are of joint interest to people of faith everywhere.”

Ballard also forged close ties with Catholic leaders in Utah. He became a golfing buddy with then-Bishop John C. Wester, who oversaw the state’s 300,000-plus Catholics.

At a reception honoring Wester before his departure to head up the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Ballard lamented his friend’s leaving.

“You are losing your wonderful bishop,” he told the crowd gathered in a Salt Lake City hotel ballroom, “and I am losing one of my very dear friends.”

Now Latter-day Saints have lost one of their dear friends, a driven car dealer who traded in his shot at worldly wealth to become a mission president, general authority and an apostle in pursuit of eternal riches.

— Tribune senior religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.

Editor’s note • Peter Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chair of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apostle M. Russell Ballard departs the rostrum at the end of a session of General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. The next day, he attended his final General Conference.

M. Russell Ballard, who went from hard-driving car dealer to longtime Latter-day Saint apostle, dies at 95 (2024)
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