Mormon elder Robert Hales dies, in another blow to church’s ageing leadership

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 10:13am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 10:13am

Top-ranking Mormon leader Robert Hales, who left a successful career as a businessman to help guide the church, has died from causes related to his age. He was 85.

Hales died peacefully on Sunday in a Salt Lake City hospital surrounded by his wife and family, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said.

The New York City native was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and business executive before he was chosen in 1994 as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a high-level governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Hales missed this weekend’s church conference after he was hospitalised several days ago for treatment of pulmonary disease and other conditions. At the conference’s final session Sunday, leader Henry Eyring announced his death to 20,000 people in attendance and millions watching live broadcasts around the world.

“We will miss him. His wisdom and goodness have blessed our lives for many years,” said Eyring, one of two top counsellors to the church president. “We express our love to his sweet wife and carer, Mary, and extend our heartfelt condolences to the family.”

Hales is the fourth top Mormon leader to die in the last three years. Quorum members Boyd Packer, L. Tom Perry and Richard Scott died in 2015.

A replacement will be chosen for Hales at a later date. Funeral plans are pending.

Hales’ combination of experience in private business, time spent in the military and deep roots in the religion made him emblematic of Mormon leaders of his era, said Matthew Bowman, associate professor of history at Henderson State University.

He also embodied the Mormon message of the late 20th century: “the steady, slow cultivation of character through self-mastery and work,” Bowman said. He often emphasised discipline and goal-setting in his conference speeches.

Hales was born in 1932 and grew up in Long Island in a Mormon family with a father who was an artist. Hales would recall a special moment he shared with his father when the two visited a wooded area in upstate New York where church founder Joseph Smith said he saw God and Jesus in what Latter-day Saints call the “first vision.” Throughout his life, Hales kept a special painting of the sacred grove in his various offices that his father made for him after that trip.

As a high school baseball pitcher, he dreamed of playing in Major League Baseball. He never realised that dream, but he did get to throw out a first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 2007 as part of Mormon Night at Dodgers Stadium.

Hales earned a business degree from the University of Utah and a master’s in business administration from Harvard University. He was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force, where picked up a phrase, “return with honour,” that he used in speeches.

Hales death leaves five other men among the religion’s top 15 leaders who are older than 84.