“President N. Eldon Tanner Dies,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 6
“The greatest achievement in life,” said President N. Eldon Tanner, “is not the acquisition of money, position, or power. In my opinion, it is to come to the end of one’s day having been true and loyal to his ideals. I can think of no achievement greater than that.”
The “day” of President Tanner’s mortal life drew to a close in the early morning hours of Saturday, 27 November 1982, at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. With his passing, members of the Church paused to reflect on the exemplary life of a man devoutly committed to serving God, family, and his fellowman.
President Tanner’s death was attributed to cardiac arrest. He had been in ill health for some time, having suffered from Parkinson’s disease for several years. However, he had continued to fulfill his responsibilities as First Counselor in the First Presidency and had worked in his office at Church headquarters until just before the Thanksgiving holidays. He was 84.
Twenty-two years in the leading councils of the Church—nineteen of them as a Counselor in the First Presidency—made President Tanner a familiar and beloved figure to Church members of all ages. He served as Second Counselor to Presidents David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith, and as First Counselor to Presidents Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball. He was the first man to serve four Presidents of the Church as either a First or Second Counselor in the First Presidency. (Two others, Joseph F. Smith and George Q. Cannon, served four Presidents of the Church as Counselors, but not as First or Second Counselors in the First Presidency.)
Nathan Eldon Tanner was born on 9 May 1898 in Salt Lake City, the first of eight children born to Nathan William Tanner and Sarah Edna Brown Tanner, Utahns who had gone to Canada by covered wagon to homestead in Aetna, a tiny settlement near Cardston. His childhood was happy but filled with many responsibilities. As the eldest of eight children, he was expected to help on the farm and was often given responsibilities in the care of his younger brothers and sisters. On one occasion, the entire family was ill with smallpox. For three days and two nights he had no sleep as he tenderly cared for the sick.
“An event that happened when he was about fifteen,” wrote President Hugh B. Brown, “is indicative of his character. He was thrown from his horse while herding cattle. When he got to his feet, he discovered that three fingers on his left hand were broken at the knuckle joints and were twisted back against his hand, with the bones of the middle finger protruding through the flesh. With characteristic pluck he grasped his fingers, straightened them, remounted his horse, and rode to a doctor, who marveled at the boy’s spunk. The bones were all correctly in place, and the doctor had only to stitch up the flesh.” (Ensign, Nov. 1972, p. 14.)
Such spunk was doubtless responsible for many of his life’s successes. Determined to obtain an education despite heavy responsibilities on the farm, he completed nine grades of schooling in Aetna, attended high school in Cardston, a night academy in Raymond, and later the Calgary Normal School. In 1919, his first teaching position was combined with administration when he became principal of a three-room school at Hill Spring. Here he met and fell in love with one of the teachers at the school, Sara Isabelle Merrill. They were married on 20 December 1919; when the Alberta Temple was dedicated in 1923, they were among the first couples to be endowed and sealed for eternity.
With a growing young family, Eldon supplemented his teaching income by running a general store in Hill Spring; he also served as a health officer and participated actively in the community. In 1929 the family moved to Cardston, where he was asked to be principal of a public school and serve on the town council.
Heber G. Wolsey, currently managing director of the Church Public Communications Department, was a student in that Cardston school where “Mr. Tanner” was principal and eighth grade teacher. On the first day of class, Brother Wolsey recalls, the young educator entered the classroom and said, “Boys and girls, we’ll be together for seven hours a day for the next year. In that time I only want to teach you one thing.” And then he walked to the board and wrote, in two-foot-high letters, “THINK!”
“To supplement his teaching salary,” wrote Sister Tanner, “he sold suits and insurance, milked cows, raised chickens and a vegetable garden. When he was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1935, in the first Social Credit Government, he was chosen as Speaker of the House. He had never even attended a session of legislature, and was now to act as chairman of that august body of sixty-three members. We were given an elegant suite of rooms in the legislative buildings, to use as we liked, and … it seemed that he had fallen into the ‘lap of the Gods,’ but only he and I knew the hours, day and night, that he spent studying parliamentary procedure. This was the beginning of jobs which he was given, which he said were far beyond his ability to cope with. He has always had favorite sayings and slogans. One was: ‘The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight; but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upwards in the night.’ And he tried to accomplish what he set out to do by doing just that: By rising at five A.M. to teach himself typing when he was running the store in Hill Spring; by searching the scriptures at the same hour when he was made bishop and later called to the General Authorities of the Church.”
Eldon’s perseverance and stability made him a valued asset in both governmental and ecclesiastical circles. In 1936 he was appointed Minister of Lands and Mines in the Provincial Cabinet, a position which was later expanded to include two departments—Mines and Minerals, and Lands and Forests. In this capacity he sponsored legislation to govern development of natural resources, especially petroleum, which became the pattern for other Canadian provinces to follow and helped to make Alberta the first province free from public debt.
While acting as Minister in the Alberta government, he earned the well-deserved nickname of “Mr. Integrity” because he refused to compromise by accepting gifts of any kind and was strictly honest in his dealings. That affectionate title followed him through a lifetime of success based on principles of fairness and integrity.
After sixteen years of distinguished government service, Eldon Tanner turned his energies to industry, serving first as president of Merrill Petroleum, Ltd., and director of the Toronto Dominion Bank of Canada. In 1954, answering an appeal from government officials, he agreed to become president of Trans-Canada Pipelines, Ltd., and direct construction of a $350 million, 2,000-mile pipeline across Canada from Alberta to Montreal. Upon completion of the project one authority observed, “It was the greatest undertaking since the building of the transcontinental railroad and was accomplished in less than four years.”
Overshadowing his governmental and business concerns were always the two most important interests of this remarkable man’s life: family and the gospel. He and Sara reared five daughters. Twenty-four grandchildren and fifty great-grandchildren have also joined the family.
Helen Tanner Beaton remembers her father as a warm, compassionate man who cared deeply about his family: “Daddy was branch president in Edmonton, Cabinet Minister in charge of two major government departments, and president of the Boy Scout Association. But he still got up with us in the night if we were sick, prepared breakfast every morning, and set up the washing machine and rinse tubs every Monday morning at 6:00 A.M. If we were new babies, he would get up and bring us to mother and then he would take us back to bed. He did that for five girls.”
For many years of his life in Canada, President Tanner was deeply involved in Scouting as a member of the Canadian Scout Committee and as Provincial Scout Commissioner. He received the Silver Acorn and the Silver Wolf awards, the latter being the highest honor given to a Scouter in Canada. Yet he never lost sight of the young people themselves. Once when asked why he was interested in the Boy Scouts when he had no sons, he replied, “Well, I want to help boys to be worthy of my daughters.”
From his youngest years, Eldon Tanner was committed to Church service. In 1932 he became counselor to a bishop in Cardston; two years later he was made bishop of the Cardston First Ward. He became president of the Edmonton Branch in 1938, was later called to the high council in the Lethbridge Stake, and in 1953 became the first president of the Calgary Stake, which office he held until his call as an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1960.
“The Calgary Stake was standing first in the Church,” recalls Sister Tanner, “and now with the pipeline behind him it looked as though everything was just going to be easy. We built our new home, moving into it in May of 1960. On October 8, 1960, President McKay called him in as a General Authority of the Church, which made all of his other accomplishments seem trivial and unimportant.
“Now, indeed, he felt inadequate. None of his past seemed to have prepared him for this tremendous task. True, he had been bishop for six years and a branch president for fifteen, and a stake president for seven years, but this work had been principally administrative. He felt that his knowledge of the scriptures was scanty; his public speaking had been mostly on political and technical lines.
“His … appointment to the Quorum of the Twelve made him feel even more humble. However, I personally feel that all his past life led up to this point. Every decision, small and great, that he has made has been prayerfully considered with the Church in mind.”
The Tanners moved to Salt Lake City on 1 February 1961. As they made plans to furnish their newly purchased home, Eldon Tanner was called to accompany President McKay and President Brown to London to attend the dedication of the new Hyde Park Chapel. Four days later, Elder Tanner was asked to prepare to remain in London as president of the West European Mission.
Soon after he became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in October 1962, Elder Tanner was appointed president of the Genealogical Society of the Church, in which assignment he served enthusiastically until his call to the First Presidency in October 1963. At the death of President McKay in January 1970, he was named Second Counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith. Following President Smith’s death in July 1972, he became First Counselor to President Harold B. Lee. President Lee’s death in December 1973 brought Spencer W. Kimball to the presidency; President Tanner was sustained as his First Counselor.
Part of his devotion to community included becoming a citizen of the United States, which he did on 2 May, 1966. Questioned later about the seeming “desertion” of his native Canada, his response was that “we have responsibilities to the community in which we live. In order to fulfill our obligations, we need to be practicing citizens of the nation which shelters us.”
President Tanner’s sense of community complemented his service as a General Authority. He was a member of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Lake Rotary Club, a member of the boards of directors of several Utah corporations, and vice president of the Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University and the Church Educational System. In 1978 his integrity and accomplishments were cited by the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which saluted him as “a man of superior character, a successful businessman with deep spirituality, a great leader esteemed by millions of people around the world.”
Upon President Tanner’s death the First Presidency issued the following statement:
“With the passing of President N. Eldon Tanner the entire Church feels a tremendous loss. He has served as a Counselor to four Presidents of the Church. He has carried much of the burden of administration during these many years. His wisdom and inspiration have been of incalculable benefit as the Church has moved forward with its divinely appointed mission.
“None has been more steadfast in carrying the responsibilities of high office. None has been more faithful in the execution of duty.
“His unflinching testimony of God the Eternal Father and of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ has been a strength to millions over the earth.
“Our close association has been a warm and beautiful experience. Oh, how we shall miss him.
“He has likewise been a strength to the people of this community and state, as well as to those of the entire nation and the people of Canada. His acumen in business was internationally recognized, as was his integrity, which became the hallmark of his character.
“As we mourn his passing our hearts reach out to his bereft companion and children. May that peace which comes alone from God comfort and sustain them.”
My beloved brothers and sisters, and our esteemed friends and neighbors, this is indeed a sad occasion. In the passing of President Nathan Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency, we all share with Sister Tanner and her five devoted daughters—Ruth, Isabelle, Zola, Beth, and Helen—together with all other members of that wonderful family, a deep sense of grief and loss. His passing is a profound loss to this noble family, to the Church, and to the world. Oh, how I have prayed that he could continue to stand by my side until my own summons should come! My heart cries out to him, and for him. Oh, how I loved him! Oh, how I shall miss him!
President Tanner met with us in our First Presidency meeting last Tuesday. He was not strong, but he was alert and carried forward in his usual magnificent way. He did not come to the office on Wednesday, but on Thursday he enjoyed Thanksgiving Day at home with his family. Late Friday night, he personally called on the telephone to inquire after my health and that of Sister Kimball’s. In less than four hours after that phone call, the Lord released him from his earthly labors, and he slept away.
How can we measure the true greatness of a man? Only by his many accomplishments in life, which are known by all? Or shall we count, too, the many quiet, thoughtful, Christlike acts of love that are known to but a few and to God? Almost with his last breath he was inquiring after the welfare of others.
Nearly ten years ago, I stood at this same pulpit and spoke at the funeral services of our beloved leader, the late President Harold B. Lee. I said then that “a giant redwood has fallen and left a great space in the forest.” (Ensign, Feb. 1974, p. 86.) In a similar vein Edwin Markham has written concerning the death of President Abraham Lincoln:
And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down
As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,
Goes down with a great shout upon the hills,
And leaves a lonesome place against the sky.
(“Lincoln, the Man of the People”)
Oh, how lonesome it will be without Nathan Eldon Tanner.
In 1962 when President Tanner was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his uncle, President Hugh B. Brown, who had watched him grow up and knew him well, said of him, “He is a man of outstanding executive ability, unquestioned integrity, and throughout his public career he has been known, even by his political opponents, for his rugged and undeviating honesty. … He is a humble man of great faith, courage, and constancy, a devoted husband and father, and a devoted and capable church leader. Few men are chosen for high office in the Church who have a richer heritage and more varied background of training and experience than Nathan Eldon Tanner.” (Improvement Era, Jan. 1963, p. 40.)
In all of his important positions in civic affairs, government, industry, and business, he has been proud to identify himself as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has been unswerving in his loyalty and devotion to the principles of the gospel. There has never been a time when he has not been active in the Church, beginning as the president of his deacons quorum while a young boy in Canada, and concluding his earthly ministry as a Counselor to four Presidents of the Church.
As I reflect upon our lives, I feel as though I have always known President Tanner and have felt a special kinship with him. Our life experiences have been quite similar. We each came out of humble and obscure circumstances, being reared in remote villages in far-off places. Our lives have spanned much of Church and world history, and we have witnessed many momentous and wonderful events.
During the last ten years in our daily contacts in the First Presidency, I have been blessed indeed with his counsel, his companionship, and his example. He has been a tower of loyalty and strength. No President of the Church has ever been more richly blessed nor more ably assisted, as together President Tanner and I have served unitedly with President Romney and President Hinckley. I look forward to a continuation of this cherished friendship and association in the eternities to come. President Tanner and I have traveled the world together holding solemn assemblies, area conferences, and dedicating temples. What a joy it has been—he being accompanied by his beloved Sally, and I by my dear Camilla. Oh, how we shall miss him!
At the October 1960 general conference, when President Tanner was first called as a General Authority, he accepted his call by saying, “I would like to assure … [the] members of the General Authorities and you my brethren and sisters that I shall do my best and am prepared to dedicate my life and my best to the work of the Lord.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1960, p. 924.) The entire Church membership can testify to the fact that no man has ever kept his covenants and promises with greater sincerity and integrity.
Nathan Eldon Tanner was one of the great and noble men of our time. He was recognized as a giant among men. In the annals of Church history he will be remembered as one of the most influential counselors in the First Presidency of the Church.
Over the years, I have admired the deep loyalty and great spirituality of this humble soul. I have noted his great love and affection for the President of the Church as they sat side by side in the temple, with Brother Tanner’s hand affectionately placed on the arm of the chair over the hand of his beloved leader. …
Now may I share with you the collective tribute of the Quorum of the Twelve to President N. Eldon Tanner:
“The Quorum of the Twelve unitedly join in expressing our love, respect, and sympathy to Sister Tanner and to all of President Tanner’s family. We, as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also desire to join in expressing a special tribute to President Tanner.
“In addition to serving the Church and the communities in which he lived, President Tanner was, and is, held in special respect and esteem among the Brethren. His personality was a powerful presence on the scene, a personality to which the Brethren responded in both admiration and unity.
“Clearly, President Tanner’s management genius and his many talents were especially suited for this particular time to serve the needs of a growing, worldwide Church. But his splendid character would have made him a leader in any dispensation!
“He gave to all of us the example of high, personal achievement combined with humility and meekness. President Tanner was, and is, a remarkable blend of extraordinary ability and extraordinary humility. His constant concern was to make a contribution, not to receive recognition.
“His perspective of eternity permitted him to meet squarely the many and difficult problems of the day, a lesson which should not be lost upon those of us who must lead the Church into a troubled, but assured, future.
“His life epitomized ‘constancy amid change’—but also serenity amid adversity! His leadership inspired unity and love amongst all of us.
“And how he impressed us by staying at his post, giving his all, until released. His final sermon was given to us visibly as he endured well and gracefully to the end!
“The death of a righteous individual is both an honorable release and a call to new labors. We say, from rich experience, how blessed are they who will now be served directly by this spiritual giant!
“God bless the family and the memory of President N. Eldon Tanner.
“We of the Quorum of the Twelve pay this tribute to our beloved brother and fellow worker in the kingdom of God.”
President Tanner had a deep-seated respect for all mankind. This respect was not conditioned on agreeing with him on all issues or having the same religious convictions—even though his were the foundation of his life. He showed his respect in many ways, one of which was his art for listening. President Tanner gave his full attention to the speaker. He would hear him out and never demean another’s opinion. He made an individual feel important.
President Tanner exhibited sincere humility. He had great confidence in himself, yet he sought out the opinions of others. He did not have to prove himself to others or to himself. Consequently, his ego never got in his way.
His decision-making resulted in almost flawless judgment. He gathered all possible facts before making a decision, never making an impetuous or off-the-cuff decision. He had an unusual talent for setting bias and prejudice aside, if such existed. He did not make the mistake of having pet projects that would tend to warp judgment. He did, however, have some pet sayings:
“I’d much rather be part of the solution to a problem than a part of the problem.”
“It isn’t important who is right. What is important is what is right.”
“The world would be a better place if people were not so concerned about who gets the credit.”
President Tanner developed the power of concentration to an unusual point. For example, one day a group was making a very detailed and technical presentation which lasted over two hours. There was very little time for discussion. At the conclusion, President Tanner said something like this: “Recommendations one and two can be implemented with little difficulty. Recommendation number three needs more study, and your chart covering this portion of the presentation needs to be redone for the following reasons (which he listed). Recommendation number four will require much more study and appears to be untimely at the moment.” And this experience occurred after his eyesight had been seriously impaired. He had not seen the chart; it had been described to him.
You have heard that he was active in civic affairs and that he was a builder—that he was responsible for the rejuvenation of Salt Lake City’s downtown area and much new construction in Utah and elsewhere. True, he was. But his greatest achievement as a builder was building bridges over the chasms that often separate peoples. He would work with anybody of good will to span a gulf of misunderstanding—and span many he did. Afterward, he would give all of the credit to those with whom he worked, and in this fashion he was responsible for building many other “bridge builders.” …
Nathan Eldon Tanner loved freedom; but more than this, he understood freedom. … He knew that freedom was not free, but required a highly self-disciplined people. Lastly, he knew that human freedom was fundamental to all progress in human endeavor—that no person can be a true convert to any ideal unless that person be free to make the choice. As a free man, President Tanner made his choices early in life and made them very well. He believed in personal involvement; he believed in serving.
I [wish to] share [some of President Tanner’s] wise counsel with all of us today because as it is appropriately applied in our lives, President Tanner’s influence and image will never die.
President Tanner [has] said, “One day a grandson of mine said to me: ‘I have observed you and other successful men, and I have made up my mind that I want to be a success in my life. I want to interview as many successful people as I can to determine what made them successful. So looking back over your experience, grandpa, what do you believe is the most important element of success?’
“I told him that the Lord gave the greatest success formula that I know of: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ (Matt. 6:33.)”
President Tanner continues: “Some argue that some men prosper financially who do not seek the kingdom first. This is true. But the Lord is not promising us just material wealth if we seek first the kingdom. I know this from my own experience.” (Ensign, June 1982, pp. 2–3.)
Now and in days passed by, President Tanner has been referred to as “Mr. Integrity,” “a giant in our city,” and “a total man.” Today, I think. … he can be properly identified as “a man of constancy amid change.”
He knew how to make continuous efforts in the right direction under all circumstances. He would never shrink from hard contests. He wasn’t one to delay an important decision. He was always comfortable with truth and right. He was too big to be petty. He was a man of warmth and tenderness. He was a family man. Sally was his sweetheart, and his daughters and their families were his joys.
He prayed constantly to endure faithfully to the end. His brilliant mind and sweet spirit never failed, even if his eyes and limbs did. He was sharp, keen, and alert to the end.
When tragedy, disappointments, or misconduct occurred in high places, his comment was never, “Oh, No!” or “How could he?” It was always, “What can we do to help?”—and then found what we could do to help.
I feel a terrifying sense of loss and a tremendous loneliness in President Tanner’s passing. …
Few know how hard he fought to keep going. First, his eyesight largely failed, and it was a terribly discouraging thing for him. As months passed, he experienced increased difficulty in enunciating his words as a result of the disease which afflicted his body. He grew weaker. Walking became more of a burden. But he firmly resisted the use of a wheelchair and insisted on standing on his own feet. He had a spirit of independence and self-reliance to the very end.
I mention his physical infirmities only to emphasize that, although his body weakened, his mind remained alert and clear. His wisdom did not fail, nor did his judgment diminish. To the very last he spoke decisively and wisely. It is a marvelous and wonderful thing when an individual at 84 retains his mental acuity and his capacity to reason and is able to call up the experiences of the past as they pertain to the problems of the present.
His service to others was immense. He gave generously of his own means to help not only good causes, but individuals in distress. He knew by personal experience the meaning of hard work and the struggle to survive in an adverse environment. Farm life is not easy anywhere. It is particularly difficult in western Canada where the seasons are short and the winters long and bitter. He was family breadwinner during those hard years when the Great Depression hit western Canada. His principle in those circumstances was to make do with what you had and to work a little harder to improve it. His daughter Ruth has remarked concerning life in those dark days of the Depression: “All the other kids seemed to feel poor, but we never did; we were too busy”. …
The Church was the foundation and the superstructure of his life. All else, great as it was, was secondary. His forebears had paid a terrible price for their faith in Joseph Smith as the restorer of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Eldon Tanner never let anything come between him and the sacred responsibilities to which he had been called as a servant of the Lord. …
Now he is gone. We mourn, but we do not mourn as those without hope. For him we know that death has not been a dark and fearsome thing. He had lived his life well as a gift from the Creator. His passing has been a going home to loved ones who have preceded him. It has been a going forward in advance of those who will follow. President Tanner’s faith in the grand design of God was the lodestar of his character.