As he was growing up in the small, LDS community of Rexburg, Idaho, Elder J. Richard Clarke probably faced his most serious challenges on the basketball court, where he devoted much of his energies.
But the Lord has a way of spiritually schooling potential leaders for service in the Church. And after high school and a short stint in the Navy, the spiritual development of the newest member of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy began in earnest.Early in 1947, he was called to serve in the South African Mission. He and his fellow missionaries arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, ready to go. Unfortunately, the ship to Africa on which passage had been booked for them wasn't. So the group was sent to the Texas-Lousiana Mission for temporary service.
"They the mission leadersT just assigned two junior companions to go out and tract in the neighborhood to occupy us until we got word that our ship had come in," he recalled. "What that did was put us up against some great growth experiences, talking to ministers and working in the Bible Belt."
Most of the missionaries were military veterans and more mature than the average 20-year-old missionary, but the Southern ministers had little trouble exposing the Mormon elders' "woefully" inadequate knowledge of the scriptures, Elder Clarke said.
"They gave us good reason to be humble," he explained. "All we could do was bear testimony, because they were so much more adept at teaching religion than we were. In those days, we thought we had to prove everything out of the Bible."
In May 1947, the missionaries boarded a ship bound for South Africa. Off the coast of Brazil, the ship had trouble with its boilers, hit some rocks and nearly sank. It took six weeks to fix the problems.
"We lived on board ship all the time, even though we were dry docked while the ship was being repaired," he said. "So we spent many hours every day studying the scriptures and discussing Church doctrine among ourselves and with the crew members.
"The crew members were a pretty rugged bunch, so they tested the foundation of our commitment to the gospelT pretty well."
Fortunately, one of the missionaries had brought a box of Church books. During their 84 days on the ship, the missionaries read and studied from this miniature library - no doubt motivated by their experience with the ministers in Texas and Louisiana.
"We read about 20 ChurchT books on that trip," he said.
This purposeful study of Church doctrine helped develop a strong foundation for a successful mission and life, he said. When he returned from his mission, he impressed Barbara Reed, a young woman from Ririe, Idaho, with his spiritual stature as much as he did with his 6-foot-1 frame, dark hair and dark eyes.
"I didn't know him before he left on a mission," she said. "I met him just as he returned. And when I met him, he exhibited a great love for the scriptures and a dedication to be obedient."
They were married in the Idaho Falls Temple in 1950. They have reared a family of four sons and four daughters, one of whom is deceased.
Elder Clarke graduated from BYU with a degree in marketing and business administration. He moved his young family to Boise, Idaho, where he worked in the insurance industry for 25 years as a general manager. Before his call as a General Authority, he was in charge of recruitment, training and supervision for the agency's 60 professional salesmen.
In 1976, he was called as second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, serving with Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown. For 81/2 years, he traveled throughout the world, helping to direct the temporal affairs of the Church. He was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1985. Serving as a General Authority has given him greater appreciation for the work that goes on at Church headquarters.
He compared the large, worldwide Church organization to a battleship and wards and stakes to rowboats and PT-boats. A battleship doesn't change directions as quickly as a rowboat or a PT-boat. In the same way, decisions or changes for the Church as a whole are so far-reaching that they are made slowly and deliberately. But at the ward and stake levels, decisions and changes can have an immediate effect.
Meeting with the members at the local level, sharing their problems and successes, being in their homes, meeting their families and seeing the gospel working in their lives, make Church service worthwhile and fulfilling, he said.
"It may be just someone coming up to you after a meeting and saying: `That's exactly what I needed this weekend,' `I've been wrestling with a problem' or `Thanks so much for leaving your home and coming out to meet with us.' "
Sister Clarke said her husband works well with people and helps them stretch and grow.
When Elder Clarke presided over the South Africa Cape Town Mission from 1985-1987, their goal, she added, was to help the missionaries develop integrity, commitment and a feeling of urgency for the work.
Elder Clarke said, first and foremost, he and his wife tried to love their missionaries "and to do everything we could to help them stretch, to be someone excellent - someone they could be proud of.
"We wanted them to be excellent teachers and finders, and we wanted them to control their time and make sure their time was valuable to them. We wanted them to love the scriptures."
He instituted a program to have all the missionaries prepare to give a doctrinal talk for each zone conference. The missionaries didn't know until the meeting began who was giving the talk.
In 20 months, Elder Clarke said, the missionaries had prepared 20 five-minute talks on 20 gospel topics.
He taught the basics of missionary work to the missionaries and worked to help them become good teachers of the gospel.
Elder Clarke's philosophy is the same today. With his call to the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, he became executive director of the Family History Department. As his first order of business, he said he would seek answers to some fundamental questions about Family History:
-"What is it that each member of the Church can do to gain a testimony of personal Family History activity?
-"What is expected of people in Family History callings?
-"What will it take to mobilize the tremendous power of the individual members of the Church to do Family History work?"
It's a no-frills management style that has succeeded for Elder Clarke in the past.
"Adherence to fundamentals is hard work," he said.
For example, he explained, in football, the fundamentals are the not-so-glamorous jobs of blocking and tackling. Learning the fundamentals, he added, "isn't too romantic and exciting."
But it has worked for him as a young missionary, as an insurance executive, as a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric and as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
Elder Clarke commended the work going on in the Family History Department, especially in areas of acquisitions, research, planning and advanced technology.
"But as in missionary work," he said, "I feel impressed that the greatest challenge we have is to get members feeling the Spirit that is uniquely part of family history."