“David M. Kennedy: Ambassador for the Kingdom,” Ensign, June 1986, 42
David M. Kennedy:
Ambassador for the Kingdom
It had to be a difficult decision for young David Matthew Kennedy—to accept a mission call and leave behind his bride of less than two months, Lenora Bingham. But he chose to do the will of the Lord, expressed through a prophet, and his decision opened the way to a life of service that has had a significant impact on the Church.
Since 1974, Brother Kennedy has served as personal representative of the First Presidency and as ambassador-at-large for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His assignments have taken him to nearly every corner of the globe, to help open doors for missionary work, gain official recognition for the Church, and prepare the way for area conferences.
Before the call to his present position came, David Kennedy had filled a variety of prestigious business and government roles. He had been president and chairman of the board of a major international bank, secretary of the treasury of the United States, U.S. ambassador-at-large, and U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But perhaps none of this would have come to be had it not been for the decision by David and his beloved Lenora to heed that inspired mission call back in 1925. It was in England that he came under the influence of two members of the Council of the Twelve who presided there while he worked at the mission headquarters in Liverpool—Elder James E. Talmage and Elder John A. Widtsoe. Both had an important influence on his life.
“President Talmage was a great model of the value of education,” Brother Kennedy says, “and President Widtsoe strongly encouraged me to go to Washington, D.C., for my education, because in that city it would be much easier to work days to support my family and go to school nights.”
The Kennedys eventually did go to Washington, in 1928, for an education. David gave up a partnership in a creamery business in Roosevelt, Utah, and declined an insistent grandfather’s invitations to join the family bank in Randolph, Utah.
Later in his life, he would turn down a variety of lucrative offers from banks and other institutions in a series of career choices that eventually led—he feels it was not by chance—to broad experience involving friends and contacts all over the world. At the inaugural dinner for the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University on 17 November 1983, President Gordon B. Hinckley, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, commented that Brother Kennedy “has opened doors for the President of the Church in a great variety of lands. He has introduced President Kimball to the political leaders of those lands, as well as to leaders of commerce, industry, and education.
“Everyone seems to know David Kennedy. He … is a citizen of the world who seems to enjoy first-name acquaintance with men and women of great consequence in their respective lands.”
Because of his work and his calling, Lenora and David Kennedy have traveled the world together during the past twenty-five years. That is something she could hardly have expected when she married the young man from northeastern Utah.
Randolph, where David Kennedy was born on 21 July 1905, is in one of the state’s most sparsely populated rural areas. George and Katherine Johnson Kennedy, David’s parents, owned a ranch where he spent his growing years.
Lenora and David met in Riverdale, Utah, while David was attending Weber College in nearby Ogden. They were married in November of 1925, and he left for his mission to England in January of 1926.
After that mission came their family. The Kennedys have four daughters, all married, with children of their own. Marilyn Taylor and Carol Davis live in Salt Lake City. Barbara Law lives in Wilmette, Illinois, and Patricia Campbell lives in North Ogden, Utah.
They remember their father as a strict but loving person who worked long hours but still seemed to find time for his family because he did not pursue a heavy social schedule.
“Father made each of us feel that we were his favorite,” Carol says. “He didn’t treat us equally, he treated us uniquely. He loves to give surprises, and the gifts that he brought from his overseas travels were always tailored for the individual child and given very privately.”
Brother Kennedy had worked for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., for sixteen years when he left in 1946 to accept a position in the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company of Chicago. That decision would lead not only to great opportunities in business, but also in Church service.
During his time with the bank, he was a counselor in the presidency of the Chicago Stake for fifteen years. He served under President John K. Edmunds and worked closely with Ariel Williams and Paul Jespersen, who also served as counselors for different periods during those years.
President Edmunds, who was later president of the Salt Lake Temple, recalls that his friend David Kennedy was “a good counselor who always supported me. He didn’t hold out against decisions after he had offered counsel.”
Brother Kennedy was also a person of “quiet wisdom who was very close to the Lord,” Brother Jespersen says. “The gospel was always first in his life, and despite his wealth and accomplishments, he was always humble, never belittling anyone.”
His kindness, graciousness, and spirituality are legendary among business and Church associates in the Chicago area.
Picture the chairman of the Continental Illinois Bank rushing out of his home in his bathrobe early on a Saturday morning to bring back a young student couple for breakfast. They had wanted to leave without disturbing the Kennedys after staying in their home overnight.
Or consider the study in priorities that came out of an LDS businessmen’s group in Chicago to which David Kennedy belonged. Two of his Chicago associates recalled a group function at which each member was asked to introduce the man on his right. Most of the introductions identified worldly positions and achievements. But when Brother Kennedy’s turn came, he said simply of the person to his right, “Here is a man of God with a strong testimony of the gospel.”
Elder James E. Faust of the Council of the Twelve has shared an office reception area with Brother Kennedy and has worked with him on numerous international projects. Elder Faust describes Brother Kennedy as a warm, cordial human being who can make people of all stations feel comfortable. “He rings true. He is not pompous. In fact, he still retains some of the same traits he had as a young man growing up on a ranch in Randolph.”
Elder Carlos E. Asay of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy comments: “Brother Kennedy is no ‘kingdom builder.’ He does his work quietly, without intruding on others.”
Both Elder Asay and Elder Faust place special emphasis on the role of David Kennedy’s wife, Lenora, in his success. Elder Asay calls them a “marvelous duet.”
Sister Kennedy has seen her husband through some difficult times. Three experiences illustrate dramatically how the Lord sustained him in what turned out to be a “schooling” for his present church service.
In 1948, shortly after he was named vice-president of the Continental Illinois Bank, he was struck by an attack of viral pneumonia so serious that doctors told him he would never be able to return to full employment in a situation involving any stress.
With that prognosis, Brother Kennedy offered his resignation at the bank, but his employers refused to accept it, saying they would make do until he was better. A suggestion that he be released from his calling in the Chicago Stake presidency received a similar response.
His doctors said a dry climate and rest would be necessary for any kind of recovery, so David went to stay with his mother-in-law in Ogden.
A few days after his arrival, Elder Matthew Cowley of the Council of the Twelve knocked at his mother-in-law’s door. Elder Cowley said he had come to give Brother Kennedy a blessing. “His blessing ordered me to get well,” Brother Kennedy recalls. “There was no equivocation. He pronounced a complete restoration of my health. I felt at the time that I was well and should jump out of bed, but I just couldn’t do it. If I had had enough faith, I might have been able.
“As it was, my recovery was rapid, and within a few months I was spending a few hours at the bank each day.”
Some years later, after he had become chairman of the board and moved the bank into international activities, he developed a bleeding ulcer. President N. Eldon Tanner, then Second Counselor to President David O. McKay, placed David Kennedy’s name on the prayer roll for the Thursday meeting of the Council of the Twelve and the First Presidency in the Salt Lake Temple. With Elder Harold B. Lee, then a member of the Twelve, acting as voice, a petition was made on behalf of Brother Kennedy “because there (was) still work for him to do in the Kingdom.”
It was also Elder Lee who in 1969 encouraged David Kennedy to accept an invitation to serve as secretary of the treasury in United States’ President Richard M. Nixon’s cabinet.
“David’s health was still not very good in 1969,” Lenora Kennedy recalls. “I didn’t feel that he could hold up to the physical rigors of that responsibility in government, but he responded anyway.”
On the morning that President Nixon was inaugurated, President Tanner came to the Kennedys’ hotel room and gave David a blessing of health and strength. “With that blessing,” Sister Kennedy says, “I felt relieved about David serving. He worked almost night and day while he was secretary of the treasury, and his health was perfect.”
Speaking of his present “labor of love” in his Church calling, Brother Kennedy conveys a great sense of urgency. The volume and sensitivity of the work he has done during the past dozen years make detail difficult, but there are indications of the way the Lord uses His servants who are prepared to further His work.
Brother Kennedy was with President Spencer W. Kimball and other Church leaders at an area conference in Sweden in 1974 when, without advance warning, President Kimball asked him to go to Portugal to “get the Church recognized.”
“Although Portugal had been discussed before,” Brother Kennedy recalls, “this was not the sort of thing you did without all kinds of preparation. Besides, the Portuguese military had just overthrown a long-time dictatorship and most of my contacts in government were no longer in power. The timing did not seem right at all.” Nevertheless, he responded to the prophet’s request.
When Brother Kennedy arrived in Portugal, he discovered that the United States ambassador was not in the country. However, the U.S. charge d’affaires told him the timing was perfect to request recognition of the Church because the military government was eager to move toward democracy. As Brother Kennedy worked with the head of the Portuguese Department of Justice, things fell into place as if the whole matter had been planned for months. With official recognition granted, a mission was established in December 1974 and meetings began in January 1975.
In 1977, Brother Kennedy was sent to Poland to seek recognition for the Church in that nation. The U.S. ambassador told him flatly that it would be “impossible” to obtain. But the Polish Ministry of Religion turned out to be receptive and accepted an application for recognition. Then, the months of waiting began.
Finally, Brother Kennedy felt impressed, while on a visit to Japan, to cancel his planned trip to Korea and arrange instead to visit Poland. On arrival, he found the scheduled meeting at the Ministry of Religion had been moved up a day.
He went to the meeting after a night of intense work with a Church attorney and translator. But, even without opportunity to present the additional material they had prepared, he was informed that recognition had been granted to the Church. That meant meetings could be held, though proselyting would not be allowed. Later, Brother Kennedy returned to Poland with President Kimball.
In addition to his personal qualities, David Kennedy has a philosophy about working with others that has contributed significantly to his success in Church and in business.
Commenting on the challenges he faced at the bank and in government, he says, “I wanted men working with me and for me who were more capable than I. You must give people as much freedom and development as they can take. If they went ahead of me, I was glad to have it because it benefits everyone. When men left our bank for higher positions, that gave subordinates a chance to move in and be successful.”
Sidney L. Jones, under secretary for economic affairs at the United States Department of Commerce, knew Brother Kennedy in Chicago during the 1960s and then worked on his staff at NATO in 1972–73. “David Kennedy created by far, measured in light years, the finest staff ever assembled at the Department of Treasury,” he comments. “He had the courage to hire excellent people and give them their rein. He was not afraid of competition from his subordinates, which is the mark of a great man.”
“People perform to their potential when you show them and their ideas respect and consideration,” Brother Kennedy says. “Men and women need to feel important in the job that they are doing. If they are not doing the job well, then you must find solutions that will help them be successful. Whether it is in the Church or in the work place, leaders should find men and women with ability, then give them the opportunity to serve while showing patience and concern, but not undue pressure.”
Lenora Kennedy illustrates that quality of leadership in her husband with a story of a young man who worked with David at the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C.
“At the time, David was a bishop and the young man was a nonparticipating Latter-day Saint with habits that did not square with Church involvement,” Sister Kennedy recalls. “David took the man for what he was, treated him with respect and consideration, ate lunch with him frequently, but never criticized his faults. Finally he asked the young man to assist with a painting project at the chapel. His genuine caring led the young man to reinvolvement in the Church, and eventually to leadership positions.” That relationship is typical of David Kennedy. Though he has walked with prophets, presidents, and statesman, it still is not his way to give any thought to his own importance. He continues to reach out to others.