“Spencer Kimball and Recharging the Battery,” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 22
John Whiting ran a gas station not far from our home in Salt Lake City, and whenever the car needed service or repair, my father always said, “Take it to Johnny.” He was our mechanic, and I gave little thought as to why. Then one day after my father had died, John came to my office. He said he would like to tell me some things I might not know about his relationship with my dad.
John’s own father had died when John was six, so he was reared mostly by his uncles, who were ranchers. As a youth, he participated often in church, but not if good hunting or fishing beckoned.
After a two-year stint in the military, John returned to Salt Lake City and married his high-school sweetheart, Effie. That was in 1947. He worked for a while washing cars, then found a job at a service station that he eventually bought. John knew a lot about sheep and horses and cattle and the service station business, but he didn’t know much about church.
One night during the winter of 1949 he decided to close the station a little before nine. He usually kept the station open from seven in the morning until ten at night, but because there was a blizzard he had not had any business for two hours. Just as he was closing up, he got a phone call.
A man’s voice said, “My car is broken down. It won’t start, and I’m cold and tired. Will you help me?”
John said, “Sure. What’s wrong with your car?”
“I think the battery is dead.”
“Where are you?”
The man identified a place more than two miles away from the station.
John said, “Why don’t you go over to the gas station that is right there and ask them to help you?”
“I did, but they won’t help me; they’re getting ready to close.”
John replied, “I’ll lock up and come find you.”
When he got to the stranded motorist, John found a short man in an overcoat and hat, his face pitifully cold. John had the man wait in John’s heated car while he checked the stalled car. When John inspected the battery, he found that the cables were almost corroded away with acid. He removed the battery and told the man, “The best thing I can do is to take this battery back to the service station and put a charger on it to see if the problem is with the battery.”
The man said, “Maybe I need a new battery.”
“Well, maybe you do, but first we ought to go back and charge it. If I put the voltmeter on it right now and put it under load, it is just going to show you need a new battery. The most honest way to find out is to see if the battery will take a charge.”
“That sounds good. I’m grateful to you.” The man was so cold that he didn’t say much else.
When they got to the service station, John took the battery and washed all the corrosion off and put the battery charger on it. Since he had left the service station without finishing the cleanup, he went back to that task. The man went into the office and read.
The battery charged up for about an hour. It was almost eleven o’clock at night when John put the voltmeter on the battery and found that it had two dead cells. He said, “I’ve tried my best. Looks like you need a new battery.”
“Thanks. Have you got one?”
“Sure. And you’re in luck.”
“Why am I in luck?”
“First, I sell batteries. Second, I’ve got the right battery for your car. Third, it’s on sale.”
“How much is the battery?”
John said, “The battery sells for $17.95, but it’s on sale for $14.95.”
The man said, “I don’t want to pay $14.95. I want to pay $17.95.”
“No. It normally sells for $17.95, but it’s on sale for $14.95.”
“Well, I want to buy the battery, young man, but I don’t want to pay $14.95.”
“Okay, I can take your old battery down and put it back in your car, but your car still won’t run and you’ll have to go get a battery somewhere else.”
“That is not the point. I want that battery, but I want to pay $17.95.”
“Apparently, mister, you misunderstood me. I said that the battery is on sale for $14.95. That is what it is going to cost you—$14.95. Now if you want to pay me $14.95, you can buy the battery. If you don’t, I’ll put your old battery back in your car and take you home.”
“My, you’re an obstinate young man!”
“No, I’m really not. That’s just the way it is.”
“All right. Let’s put the new battery in.”
John checked the battery to make sure it had a full charge, then they returned to the stranded car and put in the new battery. The car started right up.
When John finished tightening the cables and closed the hood, his customer said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I don’t have any money with me.”
“You know what?” John said. “You don’t look like a flake to me; you look like the kind of man who will pay me.”
“I will. What time will you be in the station in the morning?”
“I’ll be there at seven.”
“Well, I’ll be there by eight. Is that okay?”
John opened the station the next morning at seven o’clock. He took a work order and filled it out, but left the name blank because he hadn’t learned the customer’s name. He wrote up the bill as $14.95 plus tax.
At about eight o’clock the man drove up, and John went out to meet him. He handed the customer the work order. The man said, “Say, that still isn’t right.”
“Oh, golly,” John replied, “let’s not go through that again. The battery is on sale for $14.95.”
“But you’ve charged me nothing for your labor, and I want to pay the labor.”
“Mister, you don’t understand. I’m selling; you’re buying. That’s the price. That’s all there is.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I really want—now, you put down five dollars for your labor.”
“I’m not putting anything down; that’s the ticket.”
“Look, you really helped me last night. If you only knew how cold and tired I was, you would know how much I appreciated that.”
“Well, I appreciate the business.”
“You were very kind,” the man said, then handed John a credit card. John went into the office and stamped the credit card. When he brought it back, the man took the slip and signed his name. It was “Kimball,” so John wrote “Kimball” on the work order. The man handed the credit card back to John and said, “Now, would you look at this, my boy. Look at that name.”
John did. The name was “Spencer W. Kimball.”
“Does that name mean anything to you?”
“No. ‘Spencer W. Kimball’ … No, I don’t know. No.”
“Are you a member of the LDS church?”
“Yes, I am.”
“And that name doesn’t mean anything to you?”
“Oh, my! You’re one of them church guys!”
“Yes, I’m one of those church guys.”
“Yes, I’m one of the Apostles.”
“I’m sorry, Apostle Kimball.” And John called him “Apostle Kimball” three or four times.
“You know, my boy,” Dad said, putting his arm around John, “in the Church we’re usually not called ‘Apostle’ but ‘Elder,’ so will you just call me ‘Elder Kimball’?”
“Sure! I’ll call you anything you want me to call you.”
Dad then asked for John’s name.
“Well, my name is John Whiting, but my mother calls me Johnny.”
“Then that’s what I’ll call you.”
“I’m really sorry, Elder Kimball, not recognizing that name. I really am. I feel bad. But I’ll change.”
Dad smiled. “Now, I want to tell you something, Johnny, and I want you to listen to what I’m telling you. You don’t know it now, but in time you will. You have just made the best customer that you will ever have as long as you are in business. But it is predicated on one thing.”
“On whether this is the way you treat all your customers. If you treat me differently because I’m an Apostle than you do that man over there, I won’t be around very long.”
“I only know one way to do business,” John said.
“Then you’ve just got the best customer you’ll ever have.”
That was in January 1949. When John left Salt Lake City to move to Palm Springs, my father had traded with him for nearly twenty years. At least ten members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency had traded with him as well, because Dad would bring his friends, introduce John, and say, “You can trust Johnny. He has taken really good care of me.”
From that beginning John adopted Elder Kimball as a kind of father figure and learned many principles of the gospel from him. In time, John became elders quorum president in his ward and then was asked to be a counselor in the bishopric. The idea terrified him. It wasn’t that John was afraid of work—he was afraid of speaking in front of the entire ward. He was told that every few months he would need to give a talk and bear his testimony. John knew that when he did, he would get emotional and start crying. And that would embarrass him.
He came to our home and told Dad about his predicament. Dad told him that the opportunity to serve was wonderful, then sat down with him and helped John prepare a talk. With that help and encouragement, John accepted the call and gave his first talk. In the five years he was in the bishopric, John told me, Elder Kimball helped him prepare about twenty talks.
When at conference time John went to the general priesthood meeting in the Tabernacle, he said that Elder Kimball would see him and wink. Afterward, he would come down and shake John’s hand. The first time that happened, John thought, Here he is showing that he is my friend, right in front of all the General Authorities—me, a little old service station guy.
John had started swearing in his early youth. He didn’t use the Lord’s name, but he would say every other swear word with the same casualness that another person might say, “Please pass the butter.” The words just came out. Then one day he read an article by President Kimball on profanity in the Ensign. For the first time he fully realized how offensive vulgar language was. He read and reread that article and thought, President Kimball is writing that article to me. He is not just writing to members of the Church in general; he is writing it to me. So John made a personal commitment to stop swearing. And he did—“cold turkey,” as he put it. He wished he could apologize to all the people he had offended with his swearing.
Of his long relationship with my father, John said, “I’ll be indebted to him into eternity, because he helped me to appreciate my Savior, Jesus Christ. He helped me to appreciate my priesthood and my family. He helped me find my testimony. I have tried to help other people as he helped me. I guess that’s how the gospel works—it’s a payback system. But even though I’ve spent ten years in two bishoprics and seven or eight years on the high council and have done a lot of things for a lot of people, it is still nothing compared to what President Kimball gave me.”
I have often reflected on the story John Whiting told me. I can confirm that Spencer Kimball really was the person John believed him to be—a man of warmth, compassion, and integrity, and one who valued those same qualities in others.
He welcomed opportunities to serve. Over the years he spent great effort seeking to improve the lot of Native Americans. And as President of the Church he petitioned the Lord often and fervently to know the divine will concerning extending the priesthood to all worthy men. No one rejoiced more than Spencer Kimball did when God approved the extension of temple blessings to all who meet His standards of faith and conduct.
Spencer Kimball loved to see spiritual batteries fully charged. To the end, his own battery stayed charged with the power that God grants those who love purely and live worthily.