Howard W. Hunter: from Professional Musician to Apostle and Prophet

Contributed By Gerry Avant, Church News senior contributing editor

  • 16 July 2019

Howard W. Hunter formed a five-piece orchestra called the Croonaders. He is in the center, holding a saxophone, although he played several instruments. The band played for Boise-area dances and performed on the tour ship SS President Jackson.

In 1985, I wrote a series of articles about members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of whom was Elder Howard W. Hunter. In 1994, he became the 14th President of the Church.

The series focused on the Brethren outside their service as General Authorities. Don Grayston, then a Deseret News photographer, and I visited Elder Hunter in his home one day in May 1985. I asked Elder Hunter to tell me about some of his interests beyond his Church service.

He told me about his music career, playing for dances and other activities, as a volunteer as well as a professional.

He ended that phase of his life in 1931, shortly after he married Clara May Jeffs. He returned home from a musical gig, wrapped his saxophone, clarinet, and violin in chamois, and packed them away in boxes. Except for a few special occasions and family gatherings, they had remained in storage.

I asked him if he ever took out one of the instruments. He got up from his chair, went to a closet, and removed a black case. Inside, his clarinet was nestled in royal-blue velvet. He assembled the rosewood instrument, fingered its keys, which were stiff from years of disuse, and, tentatively, blew into its mouthpiece.

The only sound that came out was air brushing against a hollow tube. “It’s been too long,” he said. “The reed has dried out.”

He tried again, continuing to puff into the instrument until he coaxed from it a sweet, mellow sound echoing past memories. Then, sitting on the end of a piano bench in his living room, he played snatches from several melodies that were favorite tunes from his days as a professional musician on a cruise ship to Asia and on a radio program in Los Angeles, California.

“I just decided I couldn’t be a musician,” he said of the night he packed away his musical instruments. “I would have had to travel and play lots of nights. I didn’t think marriage and life on the road would be a good combination for us.”

He became an attorney and businessman before he was sustained October 10, 1959, to the Council of the Twelve Apostles.

During a 1985 interview in his home, Elder Howard W. Hunter—then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later President of the Church—holds a clarinet from his earlier years as a performing musician. Photo by Church News archives.

A young Howard W. Hunter holds a saxophone.

Although he left his music career, he retained a deep love for music. “I still get the urge to play from time to time,” he said. “And my toes can’t stay still when I hear an orchestra.”

He recalled being about six years old when he ventured into music. “My mother thought it would be a good idea for me to study piano,” he said.

I thought his mother had a good foresight. He grew to be six feet tall and had hands so large they easily could have spanned an octave and a half on the piano.

In Boise, Idaho, where he grew up, he learned to play the violin, marimba (he won one in a contest), and drums. He formed a band. He switched to playing clarinet and saxophone for practical reasons. “I got tired hauling around big drum sets and marimbas every time we played, so I started playing something I could tuck under my arm,” he said, giving out one of his characteristic full-voiced laughs.

He explained that his job with the band was just another experience from which he earned money. He always had a job. As a youngster, he delivered magazines to homes and sold newspapers on street corners. “I yelled out the headlines,” he said. One he particularly remembered was on November 11, 1918, announcing the armistice of World War I. That was three days before he turned 11.

During our visit, Elder Hunter rummaged through a stack of photos and found a picture of five young men with musical instruments. On the drum was written “Hunter’s Croonaders.” Pointing to the fading photograph, he laughed and said, “Weren’t we something!”

He really was “something.” That group was formed after he graduated from Boise High School in 1926 and enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle for a short time. He and his band auditioned for, and were awarded, a contract to perform aboard the SS President Jackson, a cruise ship making a five-month tour to Asia. They had a full daily schedule, playing light, popular music during the lunch hour, classical music during dinner, dance music in the ballroom, and theater music to accompany silent movies aboard the ship.

When ashore, they played in hotels and dinner clubs in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Manila.

Elder Hunter recalled that when he later traveled with BYU’s International Folk Dancers in 1984, which took them to China, he asked a guide if he had heard of the French Club, one of Shanghai’s elite dining places. The guide said he had, and, as a matter of fact, the club was still there. “He took me by there,” President Hunter said. “It looked just like it did when my band played there.”

He said his love for music had taken him on a route leading to his greatest happiness—marriage to Clara May Jeffs, whom he met in Los Angeles at a Gold and Green Ball. But when he met her, his days as a musician were numbered. Soon after their marriage, he decided to give up music.

In 1939, he received a juris doctorate from Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles. He graduated just two-tenths of a point below the highest grade in his class and became one of Los Angeles’s leading attorneys.

Howard and Clara Hunter had three sons, the first of whom died in infancy. She died in 1983. Elder Hunter married Inis Egan in 1990.

After serving 36 years as an Apostle, he became President of the Church on June 5, 1994, at the age of 86. He died less than a year later, on March 3, 1995, at age 87.