“Irene Bates: The Adventure of Testimony,” Ensign, Mar. 1977, 45–47
I almost missed Irene Bates at the Los Angeles airport. I knew she was English, a grandmother, had graduated summa cum laude at UCLA the summer before, and had been selected as valedictorian. So I expected to meet a British matron with spectacles and a formidable vocabulary.
But the lady I met was a laughing woman with crinkling eyes, a clear accent, and a mind thoroughly awake. She is delighted by the wrynesses of life, endlessly nourished by the love in her family, and still awed by the great miracle of the gospel.
Before we left the parking lot we were up to our eyebrows in a conversation that lasted the whole day, the fulfilling kind of conversation that usually happens only with very good friends between midnight and 2 A.M. every other year.
She had written out “all that biographical trivia” so we wouldn’t waste good talking time on it, but it was fascinating, too. Born and raised in Manchester, England, she and her husband joined the Church in 1955, followed later by their four children. They saw the Church in their area grow from a mission with fifteen districts to six stakes and six missions by 1967, when business interests, among other things, led them to Utah.
She had been in the stake Relief Society presidency and Bill had been stake president when they moved—the new leisure without these Church jobs was a shock. “I enjoyed the rest and the chance to read for about six months,” Irene confessed. “I’ll read anything—seed catalogues if there’s nothing else around.”
But then she noticed that those wonderful dinner-table conversations were beginning to pass her by. She was isolated.
“Even as a young mother with my babies, I hadn’t felt lonely,” she describes. “Bill was gone a great deal, but I could take my children anywhere in the pram. The shopkeepers knew me and there were always great discussions going on in the shops and on the bus. But in America, I was always in a car—a capsule.”
Her daughter Lynda took brisk action. ”You should go to school, Mother,’ she told me. Well, the thought had never entered my head. I’d left school at the age of fourteen (that was the rule, not the exception, in my time), and I was sure I couldn’t do it.
“Lynda didn’t even listen. She got the applications, filled them out, signed me up, and there I was, walking about the University of Utah just feeling great!
“It satisfied a hunger in me that must have been there for years.” She transferred to Santa Monica College when the family moved to California in 1971, then to UCLA where she graduated with a B.A. in sociology.
Her hunger for learning had always been at once stimulated and satisfied by the gospel. “When it came to service,” she remembers, “I realized that what I was mattered as much as what I did. I had to be interesting myself, not just interested in others. I couldn’t be much of a sounding board for my husband and children if I were merely a piece of blotting paper.”
Her affection and gratitude for the missionaries who nourished her mind as well as her spirit are still vivid after all these years. “What a debt of gratitude we owe them!” she exclaims. “They were willing to go through our questions with us right to the end. Sometimes they lasted hours into the night, but I remember one early lesson on the atonement that changed my whole view of the world and certainly changed my relationship with the Lord.
“Maybe I’m overconfident,” she says seriously, “but I don’t think it’s unhealthy to express contrary views and values, if you pursue the discussion to the logical end. For young people, it’s their spiritual survival that’s at stake. You can’t tell them they can’t ask questions, and you can’t stop discussions before they’re resolved.”
She pauses, thoughtfully, “I think the thing that really bothered me about mere conformity is that it short changes the gospel. It has answers, but we need the excitement of personal discovery so that the truth becomes our own.”
She laughs at her own intensity. “I have to be careful not to think everyone should get the same things out of the gospel that I do. Take Relief Society, for instance. I like knowing what the other sisters honestly feel and think, so I like discussions rather than lectures. But some sisters like lessons where they can just relax and listen to a presentation. I think the gospel feeds us all in different ways.”
Her husband, Bill Bates, Manchester engineer and California film distributor, came home for lunch then. “I know how lucky I am,” she had said of their marriage. “He hasn’t just been tolerant. He’s encouraged me to do things and he’s been proud of me when I’ve done them. I know there are men who wouldn’t have wanted their wives to do what I’ve done—but if they only knew how much fun Bill and I have really talking. You can’t have much of a conversation about the ironing.”
And conversation is the way they create their own environment. They wake up early so they talk. Irene laughed as she told me, “The last time our son John was home, we woke him up about 7 A.M. with our laughing and arguing, and he shouted to us, ‘Can’t you two sleep?’
“But,” she sighs blissfully, “Bill and I change the world in our conversations.”
Do they always agree? She bursts into a gale of laughter, “Oh my, no! It’s the differences we enjoy. Of course, Bill will argue just to get me fired up sometimes. I’m normally quite a placid person, you know.” Placid? It’s my turn to laugh.
Seeing Bill and Irene together for even five minutes makes it clear that they’re each other’s best critics and most fervent fans. “Everyone thinks I brag about Rene,” he says. “That’s what made me happiest at commencement—everyone could tell that I wasn’t just partial.” He adds, glowing, “She got a standing ovation, you know.”
I asked why he’d encouraged his wife’s education. “Because I abhor waste!” he exploded. “All the things Rene was capable of and she was being wasted!!” Like her, he’d stopped school to go to work at age fourteen, and he owned his own business as a teenager. But he became an engineer by pedaling his bicycle to night school four nights a week, arriving home at 10 P.M., sometimes too tired to eat.
For both of them the object of their ambition is not money or power—it has been service. And for them that’s not a project but a reflex. They keep in touch with friends, visit shut-ins, fellowship strangers. Even afshe had moved to California, Irene wrote to a patient in a Salt Lake County hospital as long as he lived.
People are definitely first priority with the Bateses. Their callings show their concern. In addition to serving as stake president in Manchester, Bill has been counselor in stake and district presidencies, ward MIA superintendent, mission MIA superintendent, and Sunday School superintendent. He now serves as stake missionary, and was building fund chairman for their newly dedicated chapel.
Both Irene and Bill have served as Sunday School teachers. Irene has also taught in Primary, MIA, and Relief Society, and served as ward Primary and Relief Society president and counselor in the stake Relief Society presidency.
Commitment to demanding service grows straight out of the roots of a deeply loving home. Irene remembers her mother as “the best and wisest woman I’ve ever known. It broke my heart if she ever said she was disappointed in me.”
In fact, Bill was initially attracted to young Irene because her parents, volunteer leaders of a spontaneously formed youth group, were so endlessly kind. “Rene was kind in the same way. We big tough men weren’t about to do anything so sissy as dance,” he remembers, grinning. “Of course, we couldn’t, until Rene taught us how. And besides that, she was very attractive, you know. Long, golden hair, blue eyes, and all that.”
They took care of Irene’s mother, an invalid, until she died. Her eighty-six-year-old father is a frequent and entertaining visitor from England, while Bill’s mother, now living in Salt Lake, regales them with tales from his side of the family.
Three of the children, Lynda, John, and Nicholas, live close enough that spending part of Sunday together is an unbreakable tradition of eating, playing with the grandchildren, and talking, talking, talking. When Peter, the eldest son, comes from Salt Lake several times a year to join them, the gatherings are especially joyous.
“I love to see them together,” says Irene. “It makes me happier than anything else to know that they care about each other.” She laughs, “I know I can die in peace!”
In peace, yes. Love and faith are the foundation of that peace.
But placidly? Never. Not a chance.