A lifetime of diligence prepared President Ezra Taft Benson to fulfill his ministry as the Church's 13th president.
His was a life characterized by determination to do his best. That determination surfaced early in life, such as when he learned to drive a team of horses on the family farm at age 4. It continued throughout his life - displayed, for example, in his eagerness to return to work after health setbacks in his advanced years.During his lifetime, he made some eight major changes in his life's work. And each new responsibility groomed him for the next. In each duty his will to seek excellence proved to be a most valuable trait in preparing him for the final responsibility - that of prophet.
Ezra Taft Benson was born to a family that valued hard work and spirituality. His great-grandfather and namesake, Apostle Ezra T. Benson, joined the Church in 1840 during the tumultuous early Nauvoo period, and was an unswerving leader during his life. President Benson's grandfather and father, George T. Benson Sr. and George T. Benson Jr., were hard-working farmers and Church leaders in southeastern Idaho's Cache Valley where he was born.
Baby Ezra, the first great-grandson of the apostle, almost died at birth. The nearly 12-pound baby was in critical condition and the doctor despaired of saving his life. He was saved, President Benson later said, by "the faith of my father, the administrations of the priesthood, and the quick action of my two grandmothers who placed me first in a pan of cold water and then in a pan of warm water alternately." This therapy was effective and "brought forth a husky yell to the joy of all."
As Young Ezra, the eldest of 11 children, learned to do farm work, he was schooled in spiritual matters. At age 12 he was left as the man in charge when his father left on an 18-month mission. "Those days on the farm when father was away were a real test for the family," he often said. "But there came into our family a spirit of missionary work that never left it."
His ability to work hard and stick to a task was developed and refined during those difficult years. Evidence of this came in his 16th year, when as a hardened, enthusiastic youth, he thinned an entire acre of sugar beets in one day. The surprised farmer paid young Ezra with two five-dollar gold pieces and two silver dollars for the nearly impossible task.
His spiritual training began early in life and he was taught by example as well as by precept. His father was a strictly religious man who openly prayed his feelings and practiced as he prayed. Young Ezra absorbed this religious attitude. "He was always just a little bit more spiritual than the rest of us," a friend said of him.
President Benson's mission to England in 1921-23 was a proving ground where success was sparse and adversity plentiful. He continued to find satisfaction through obedience as he served under mission presidents Orson F. Whitney and David O. McKay, both of the Council of the Twelve. While on his mission he developed an abiding love for the Book of Mormon.
And studying the Book of Mormon benefited his work. Once at the South Shields (England) Branch, he planned to speak on the apostasy, but instead spoke on the Book of Mormon. "I spoke with a freedom I had never experienced," he said. Several investigators were subsequently baptized.
Upon returning from his mission, he resumed his courtship with Flora Amussen. She was also attracted, but with reservations. She felt strongly that his potential would be compromised if they were married before he received a college degree. So, while he completed his schooling, she served an 18-month mission in Hawaii. Her experience in Hawaii gave her a missionary background comparable with his, and made a lasting contribution to their mutual accomplishments. Her original goal was also realized during her mission: While she was away, he graduated from BYU.
Upon her return, Flora and "T," as he was nicknamed, were married in the Salt Lake Temple on Sept. 10, 1926, and they left immediately for Ames, Iowa, where he earned a master's degree at Iowa State College.
Afterward, they returned to his home town of Whitney, Idaho, planning a life on the farm. But those plans were short-lived. He was soon hired as county agricultural agent and left full-time farming forever. He was next chosen as state agricultural agent. The family moved to Boise, Idaho, where he soon was called as stake president. Here, he and others launched a marketing campaign to make Idaho potatoes famous. It was this campaign that introduced illustrations of baked potatoes on Idaho's automobile license plates. He continued to receive more education, taking a sabbatical and nearly completing a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley before returning to his post in Idaho.
Then, as an ardent supporter of farmer cooperative organizations, he was tapped as the executive secretary of a national farm cooperative group based in Washington D.C.
After consulting with the Brethren, he accepted the post. He was soon called as president of the Washington D.C. Stake. Life in the nation's capital was a whirlwind. Here he worked long, pressure-filled hours consulting with Congress on legislation, meeting with leaders of cooperatives, traveling and speaking. It was a pattern developed in Idaho that he would follow for the rest of his life. And for the rest of his life, he would continue making top-level contributions, be they agricultural, political, or spiritual.
An interlude to his life in Washington came when he was called to the Council of the Twelve in 1943, but he would later move back to the nation's capital in the 1950s to serve in the Cabinet of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Following World War II, he was called in 1946 as president of the European Mission, one of the most challenging assignments of his life.
He was the first of the Brethren to visit the war-ravaged members of Europe after the war. In a few words, he summed up the conditions he saw: "The aftermath of war is usually worse than the actual physical combat. Everywhere there is the suffering of old people, innocent women and children. Economies are broken down, the spirits of the people are crushed, men and women bewildered. . . . It is a saddening thing to see people who have lost their freedom." (Ezra Taft Benson, p. 227.)
In 1952, he was named Secretary of Agriculture. Four years earlier, he had been informed that he would be considered for the Cabinet post of Secretary of Agriculture if Thomas Dewey were elected president in 1948. Dewey, however, wasn't elected. His quick selection for that post by President Eisenhower came as a surprise to him. He later described what it was like to supervise a mammoth and over-producing agricultural program: "I felt like somebody who was suddenly asked to take over a train hurtling through the night at 90 miles an hour with the throttle stuck open and the brake lever thrown out the window."
He worked to help farmers market whatever they could. For example, he encouraged packaging milk in small cartons, and developing vending machines to sell cartons of milk in lunchrooms. He got the idea from his wife.
After eight years as Secretary of Agriculture, Elder Benson returned to service in the Council of the Twelve. He was called again to preside over the European Mission in 1964-65, returning to the European countries he'd visited earlier. Under his direction, the missions continued to develop.
Next, he supervised work in Asia from 1968-71. He became president of the Council of the Twelve Dec. 30, 1973, when President Spencer W. Kimball was sustained as president of the Church.
As president of the Council of the Twelve, he applied his talent as administrator to implement the programs begun by President Spencer W. Kimball. This last calling before he became Church president provided his final grooming before taking the helm as prophet.