With a bright smile and a touch of emotion, President Henry B. Eyring described his call to the First Presidency of the LDS Church as personal and sweet — a time when he felt both joy and a closeness to the Lord, as well as "personal inadequacy."
President Eyring made his remarks to reporters during a televised press conference Saturday, just hours after being sustained by the worldwide membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the new second counselor in the church's First Presidency. He fills the position held by President James E. Faust, who died in August.
President Eyring said he received a telephone call Thursday afternoon from church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who asked if he was willing to join President Thomas S. Monson and himself in the First Presidency.
"It was the most marvelous way of extending a call, which was from the Lord," he said.
He became emotional when he talked about filling the position of President Faust. "He was not only a dear friend but a model," he said. Later, President Eyring described a time when he was talking to another general authority and said, "I always wanted to be him (President Faust) when I grew up."
President Eyring was born May 31, 1933, to Henry and Mildred Bennion Eyring in Princeton, N.J., where he lived as a young boy. His father was a renowned research scientist at Princeton and the University of Utah, whose knowledge of intricate chemistry was widely applied to a variety of scientific fields. The family moved to Salt Lake City from New Jersey in the 1940s so their children could grow up in an LDS environment, and the elder Henry Eyring helped build the U. into a renowned research institution.
With characteristic concern that children feel, Elder Eyring told an audience at Brigham Young University several years ago how he remembers the move to Utah. "I can remember how my cousins helped me," telling him "the kids would stone me with my New Jersey accent. I got rid of it quickly, out of fear. I remember terror as I walked up to the junior high school on the first day.
"A few years later — I don't know how it happened — but after basketball season I left high school and went without my high school classmates to the University of Utah. I can remember those first days — the physics department and the mathematics department didn't seem very friendly to me. I remember my fear.
"I went from there to the United States Air Force and somehow decided that physics would not be my life's work. I thought I needed something else for education, so I tried a place I had heard of called the Harvard Graduate School of Business. I was so naive I didn't know it might be hard to be admitted. I know now that it was a miracle that I was accepted....
"I didn't know what a balance sheet was. I didn't know what a pro-forma cash flow looked like. I was a physics student about to be lost in the Harvard Business School."
After graduation with a doctorate from the prestigious institution, he took a faculty position at Stanford University, where he married his wife, Kathleen Johnson. He recalled that "her first adventures in cooking for us were to find some morning menu that I could keep down on my nervous stomach as I went off to meet those apparently confident Stanford students. I wondered how I could teach them, until I found out that they were scared, too."
While at Stanford, he held teaching and administrative assignments in production management, operations and systems analysis, organizational behavior and management of the total enterprise. He also served as a visiting fellow for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was founder, director or officer of at least two companies in Sunnyvale, Calif.
A consultant to a wide range of private and public enterprises, he was called by the First Presidency to serve as president of Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in 1971, where he served for six years before becoming deputy commissioner of church education. He was later named commissioner, where he served until being sustained as first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric in 1985, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1992, and then as an apostle on April 1, 1995, at age 61.
When asked Saturday about how his educational background as a Harvard MBA and Ph.D. would impact his work in the First Presidency, President Eyring found himself emotional again when relating his observation of decision-making at the top levels of church leadership.
As the new president of Ricks College, sitting in the first meeting he had ever observed with the church's Board of Education, he watched as an academic with a research background in group decision-making. He initially viewed their discussion as "the strangest encounter."
"Here you have the prophets of God, and they are disagreeing in a way you never see in business," when participants most often defer to the chairman. "I thought revelation would come to them all and they would all see things in the same way. It was not like anything I had ever seen in studying small groups in business."
After awhile, the men began to find points of agreement, and he believed he'd seen a "miracle in unity" occur. Waiting for then-church President Harold B. Lee to announce a consensus decision, he was startled to hear him table the discussion after noting he felt "someone in the room who is not yet settled."
Afterward, he observed a member of the Quorum of the Twelve approach President Lee and thank him. With emotion stirred at the memory, President Eyring said he remembers thinking, "We're in another kind of thing here. This (church) is what it claims to be, the true Church of Jesus Christ. Revelation is real here, even in what you call the business side" of church operations.
"President Lee taught me a great lesson" in dialogue, "that we can be open, direct and talk about differences in a way you can't anywhere else. No one is trying to win or make our arguments dominate. We just want to do and to say what is right."
President Eyring is the latest in a triad of Harvard-trained leaders called to serve in key positions by President Hinckley. Presidents recently named at church-owned BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii are both Harvard Business School graduates.
In recent months, President Eyring represented the church in interfaces on highly public issues that involved some controversy. Recently, in Cedar City, he was the church spokesman in issuing an apology to descendants of those murdered 150 years ago in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Some 120 non-Mormon immigrants traveling toward California were killed on the order of local church leaders who commanded an LDS militia.
During a memorial service at the grave site of some of the victims, then-Elder Eyring read a prepared statement by the First Presidency acknowledging that local leaders led and carried out the murder of unarmed civilians. The statement expressed "profound regret" for the massacre, which has long been a source of historical dispute and embarrassment to the church.
Elder Eyring, along with Elder Russell M. Nelson, his colleague in the Quorum of Twelve, also were assigned last summer to visit with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who made a public political comment aimed at presidential candidate Mitt Romney, suggesting Latter-day Saints do not believe in God.
In a telephone conversation with the two apostles, Sharpton apologized. The two church leaders accepted the apology and said the matter was closed.
Contributing: Twila Van Leer and Nicole Warburton