“Elder Robert L. Backman: Be Where The Lord Can Find You,” New Era, May 1982, 9
Sometimes when we read the stories of God’s chosen leaders, we feel as if they have sprung up ready-made, like fountains under Moses’ staff, but it is not so. The choices that make men great are being made in grade school and high school and in the workplace, long before the call to prominent service comes. And growth is often the swiftest when times are hard and life hardly seems worth living, when trusting in the Lord and obeying his word are the hardest. And for those who do trust, help unlooked for can spring up in the strangest places—peace in the midst of war, hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness. This article is about one leader in the kingdom of God who found peace and hope and light because he was true when it was hard to be true. His story is probably very similar to that of thousands of faithful men and women who love the Lord and their fellowmen. We will begin his story when he was just the age at which young people begin reading this magazine.
When Robert L. Backman was 12 years old, his father was called to be president of the South African Mission. Young Robert soon found himself living in Capetown and attending Rondebosch High School, a very strict English prep school. “The first weeks of school were a difficult time for me. I was strictly a minority and felt like a curiosity. I cried myself to sleep at night more than once, particularly when missionaries I had come to love went home. I wanted to go home with them.”
At school, Robert was indeed something of a curiosity. “Everybody wanted to hear me speak, so at recess they’d gather around me and try to provoke me into conversation, and then they’d try to mimic my accent.” Appalled at his student’s barbarous American twang, one cultured British teacher undertook to reform Robert’s speech. “Martha came down the garden path carrying a large basket of tomatoes,” he would intone in his most cultured diction, each vowel floating heavenward like a balloon. Then the young American would deliberately repeat the phrase with a Yankee accent so heavy that the good professor would shake with anguish. “He’d slam his ruler down on the desk he was so angry. We had a contest. I was just as stubborn as he was and bound and determined he wasn’t going to break me of my accent. He never did.”
To make matters worse, many of the parents of students didn’t want their children becoming too friendly with this young foreigner who might not only corrupt their speech but, since he was a Mormon, might undermine their morals as well. To a boy that age, belonging is very important, and so all this was difficult to accept.
There was another problem. After the easygoing pace of schoolwork in the United States, Rondebosch was academically tough. Robert studied English, French, Latin, math, chemistry, physics, and a couple of history courses all in the same term, attending school from 8:00 till 4:00 five days a week and till 1:00 on Saturday. And every night there was a crushing load of homework.
Discipline was also strict. Once a young school fellow made a remark that Robert took exception to, and a fight ensued. The two antagonists were ushered into the office of the headmaster, who politely asked them to please touch their toes. “He then pulled out a bamboo rod with a little steel tube right up the middle of it and gave us six good ones across our bottoms to teach us not to fight.”
But while the first weeks went badly at school, Robert turned more to the Lord and his religious faith for support, performing his duties as a deacon with great pride. His young faith grew strong. “I don’t think I’ve ever doubted. I’ve questioned. I’ve been exposed to a lot of other philosophies in my schooling, but I’ve never really had any doubt. I have always believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I’ve never had any question about the Savior and his mission, his death and resurrection. I suppose that part of that is due to my exposure to the missionaries quite early in my life. They buttressed me during those traumatic years when one ordinarily might be having some of those real doubts.”
And so, gradually, an unhappy situation became a happy one. “I got used to it and won my way, as youngsters usually do, and I ended up playing some rugby on the junior squads and made friends at the school and began enjoying myself.” Even the heavy academic demands turned out to be a blessing. “It was really a good discipline to my life and set me in some study patterns that have been of great benefit to me ever since.” And though it must have seemed merely a question of survival to young Robert at the time, it was a battle won, and his spiritual strength increased.
When his father was released as mission president, Robert returned to Salt Lake for his senior year of high school. Academically he was fully prepared for college work and simply breezed through his high school courses. But in other ways he suddenly found himself confronted with one of the hardest challenges of his life. “Socially I was really out of it. I had been attending an all-boys’ school. When they put on a play at Rondebosch, they even had boys take girls’ parts because there were no girls available. So I couldn’t dance. I’d never had a date. I didn’t know the social graces that come through associating with girls. I was very shy and bashful around them. I couldn’t drive a car. I was not familiar with American sports. I was tall and skinny. I only weighed 130 pounds soaking wet. And I was absolutely miserable. If I saw a girl coming down the long hall of East High, rather than meet her and blush, I’d turn around and walk clear around the school. I never had a date that senior year in high school. I remember my mother trying to bribe me to get a date, and I wouldn’t do it. I just felt miserable!
“I don’t think I could have felt less confident about myself than I did. It was the hardest year of my life. I made this mistake: I came from South Africa and thought, ‘Well, you’d think these boys would want me as a friend’; so I waited for them to come to me, forgetting that I was coming into a pattern of boys who knew one another, and it was for me to fit into that pattern. Instead, I just sat there and moped and felt sorry for myself. It was a miserable year. It was horrible. I can really relate to a lot of young people who have difficulties at that time in their lives because of the way I felt about myself.”
Following high school, Robert attended the University of Utah for two years. Unfortunately, his low self-esteem went with him. And there were other worries. World War II was looming on the horizon, and like most students, Robert enrolled in ROTC. If war was inevitable, as it appeared to be, he felt it was better to go in the army as an officer. But at the end of his sophomore year, he had to make a decision. Should he go on with ROTC or go on a mission and probably end up in the infantry when he came back? “I wrestled with that decision. Should I go on and get my commission or do as I ought to do and go on a mission and take my chances? Most of my friends chose to stay in college. Very few of them served missions.”
But Elder Backman was not like most of his friends. He chose to serve the Lord. “There are so many decisions you make as you go along and you really can’t say why, except that somebody was on your shoulder making suggestions. And I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that anything good that’s happened to me since, I can trace directly to that missionary experience. I feel so strongly about that that whenever I have a chance to talk to young people, I tell those boys that if they miss that chance to serve a mission, they’re cheating themselves out of the greatest experience of their lives. I feel that keenly about it. I’ve had a lot of schooling since then, but I don’t think I could have gone to any university in the world for any length of time and have the experience equal what that two-year period in my life did for me. I don’t know whether I did any good. I didn’t baptize a single soul on my mission, but I sure converted me.”
But like most success stories, it didn’t start out being that easy. Not long after making his decision, Elder Backman found himself all alone on a train heading for Dayton, Ohio, after meeting briefly with his mission president in Chicago. “Bear in mind that I was this little kid who had no self-esteem. By the time I got to Dayton, I was so scared, so homesick, that I was almost literally sick. I got off the train and there was nobody there to meet me! I got a taxi and went to the apartment of the missionaries and sat on the front doorstep all afternoon waiting for them to come home from their work. If I’d had enough money, I would have bought a train ticket and been on the train heading back to the safety and security of my home.”
As unlikely as it seemed in that moment of homesickness and depression, Elder Backman was about to experience one of the transforming moments of his life.
“The missionaries finally arrived and made me feel welcome. That evening they had a cottage meeting that we were to attend. During the course of the cottage meeting, they invited me to participate with them in singing a song as a quartet. So without any rehearsal we got up and sang ‘More Holiness Give Me.’ Right then and there as I was singing those words, such a feeling of peace and serenity and belonging came upon me that it filled my whole soul. I knew absolutely that I was right where I belonged, doing just what I should be doing. For the first time in a long while I felt completely at peace.”
When Elder Backman finished his mission, he was soon drafted. “When I went down to make my appearance, who should show up but my mission companion of 15 months. He was drafted the very same day. Here was another of those examples where the Lord had his hand on me. Instead of being isolated and going into the army by myself, here was my beloved missionary companion by my side. We went down to Camp Wolters, Texas, for basic training. The first six weeks we were there, we got transferred six different times to different outfits, always together. By that time in the war there was a heavy need for infantry, so we were being trained as infantry replacements. I don’t know what I would have done without my missionary companion. We were always transferred together. In fact, along with us were five other Mormon boys, all returned missionaries. We formed a cluster that sustained us all during those 17 weeks of basic training and gave us the strength and courage to face that kind of challenge. You can imagine going from the mission field into the army!”
At the end of basic training every one of those Mormon boys was sent to the Pacific. “The whole bunch of us went overseas together. I’ll never forget going out of San Francisco harbor and under that bridge. You just can’t describe the feeling of leaving this land and wondering if you’re ever going to see it again.”
He helped care for his seasick companions on the month-long voyage to New Guinea. “We thought that they would surely give us more training before they put us into combat, but they didn’t.” In New Guinea the Mormon group was finally split up, as each member received a different assignment, Elder Backman being placed with the 43rd Division. “But just think! We remained together all that time, and my beloved missionary companion, whom I still love to this day like a brother, stayed with me all that time. I just can’t conceive of that all just being happenchance.”
The realities of war are sobering to a person of any age, but to a young man just off a mission they were especially so. “I had some interesting experiences in the war, and one of them really impressed me. I was in Hollandia, New Guinea, at the time. We had Hollandia itself secured, but the Japanese were in the jungle all around our perimeter. I got such a despondent feeling wondering if I’d ever get home again. I felt hopeless. Then one day I went up into a stand of mahogany trees within the perimeter all by myself, and I knelt down and poured out my heart and asked the Lord to give me some understanding of my situation. I didn’t see any vision, but such a peace and calmness came over me that when I came down from that hill, I was a different man. I knew that everything was going to be all right, that I’d get home safe and sound. And though I experienced some ticklish situations during the war, that feeling never left me.”
But Elder Backman’s most memorable experience was not to come in the heat of combat but in the glow of the Spirit. “We were isolated, and I thought I was the only Mormon in the 43rd Division. But while I was in New Guinea, Roy Darley came through. He was a Mormon chaplain, the only Mormon chaplain I saw all the time I was overseas. For some reason he set me apart as a group leader, which gave me the responsibility to seek out Mormon boys wherever I went and hold services. We left New Guinea not long after that and went up into the Philippine Islands for the invasion of Luzon. Just before Easter of 1945, I happened to meet the chaplain of the 43rd Division and discovered to my amazement that his aide was a Mormon, a boy from Salt Lake. This aide said, “There are other Mormons in this division.” So we went to the chaplain and asked for permission to hold a service. He was very cooperative. He even publicized in all the units of the division that we were going to have this service. We were fighting east of Manila in the Sierra Madre Mountains at that time, so we were in combat conditions, but we were permitted to set up a service at the rear command post of the division. The service was to be held on Easter morning.
“Keith Wallace, the chaplain’s aide, and I went down there and found a little place that had been bombed out. All that was left were some walls that would give us a little bit of privacy. We got some ammunition boxes and formed a pulpit and a sacrament table. We found some empty casings from some of the larger shells. Then we picked some little wildflowers that had survived combat and put them in the shell casings for decoration. We secured a field organ we could pump, and we were ready. We didn’t know how many soldiers would be coming to the service.
“Then the trucks started coming in. We ended up with about 50 men! There came those GIs, all dirty and unkempt, still in their combat fatigues, unshaven. They stacked their rifles outside the little building and sat on their helmets as chairs. We held the most spiritual service I’ve ever attended. We administered the sacrament out of our mess gear. You should have seen the tears shed and the feelings that were shared! That testimony meeting was a priceless experience. Some of the men had not had the sacrament in all the time they’d been overseas, and you can imagine some of the hair-raising experiences they had had and the stories of lives being preserved. Several of them stood up and said, ‘This meeting has changed my life.’ Of all my experiences in the war, this Easter Sunday meeting was the greatest. It surely made me feel good to share the brotherhood of the gospel with those men.”
Through a rather amazing series of circumstances, Elder Backman was soon transferred from the infantry to the Signal Corps and raised to the rank of staff sergeant. At the end of the war he went into Japan with General Douglas MacArthur as the code clerk for all the 11th Corps. It was his responsibility to provide the codes used by all the army units in the area.
“We lasted through the war, leading to another great day coming home. We landed at San Pedro, California, and as soon as we hit the shore, I got down on my hands and knees and kissed the earth. It was so good to be back.”
With Elder Backman’s homecoming began a period when his investment of obedience and diligence bore bountiful fruit. He graduated with a law degree and became a successful attorney. The years brought him many honors—presidencies in prestigious organizations, political office, and a growing reputation. In the Church he served in many callings. Among other things he was a member of a bishopric and a stake presidency, a high councilor, president of the Northwestern States Mission, a counselor in the general superintendency of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, the general president of the Aaronic Priesthood MIA, and a Regional Representative.
But his most important calling, as he sees it, was raising seven lovely daughters with his wife Virginia. “I have learned that a man is not complete without a woman at his side. I’ve also learned that life reaches its fullest enjoyment when you have a companion who’ll sustain you through thick and thin. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I’m just not complete without her.”
And his daughters? “They’re the joy of my life. They’re my wealth. They treat me like a king. It’s been a choice experience to be the man of the house without any competition. I’ve insisted that any young man who wanted to marry one of them come and ask me for her hand.” So far, six young men have braved the experience, and 22 grandchildren have joined the family. “When I was a boy, I was so shy. I had a hard time understanding how to get along with girls. I didn’t know how to relate to them. Well, I think I’ve learned a little bit now by virtue of being in the same house with eight of them all these years.”
While Elder Backman learned about girls at home, he learned to love and understand and serve young men in his Church assignments. An Eagle Scout himself, he became a stalwart in the world of Scouting, as much at home sitting by a campfire as conducting a meeting. And he knew the power of the Aaronic Priesthood. Even as a young man in South Africa he had felt proud of his priesthood. “I was the only Aaronic Priesthood holder in the whole branch in Capetown. I felt a special pride because I didn’t feel they could hold a service without me.”
On March 10, 1978, he was called to be a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. Two days after that interview he had a very special experience. “When my wife and I went down to share my call with my father and mother, it was one of the special evenings of my life. I don’t think I could have given my dad any other gift that would have made him more proud and happy. All my life I’ve wanted to make my parents proud of me because they made me proud to bear their name. Some of the most satisfying experiences that I’ve had have been when I’ve been able to do that very thing.
“I’m so grateful to my parents. The pattern of life they have established and practiced has been a powerful example to me in everything that I’ve done. My dad was a bishop. Some of my earliest memories are of running up to sit beside him on the stand in the 34th Ward in Salt Lake City. From that time on, I don’t remember when my dad didn’t have a responsibility in the Church. His pattern of life was that family and service in the Church came first and everything else was secondary. He taught us the payment of tithes and offerings, giving of our time and our talents and our means. One thing that thrilled me was when he was released from the stake presidency and made an adviser to the Aaronic Priesthood. He took that new calling and ran with it, just as he had when called to be a counselor in the stake presidency. That taught me a great lesson. My mother fully supports him in everything. She has had many responsibilities herself, including several years on the General Board of the Relief Society. My father is now 88, and my mother is 84. They recently returned from a trip to China. They have loved life all their lives.”
Elder Backman remembers with joy an experience he had while president of the Northwestern States Mission. “I invited my dad and mother to come up to visit us, and we took them to a district conference in the Bend District of Oregon. I asked my parents to sit beside us on the stand during the general session on Sunday morning. I asked dad to stand up and bear his testimony. He stood up there at the pulpit with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I know now to a greater degree how our Father in Heaven must have felt when he said, ‘This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ I just sat there and cried like a baby.”
In 1979 Elder Backman was called as general president of the Young Men. And so the unbroken chain of sharing is forged. He received strength from his goodly parents, made it his own through love and obedience, and now shares it with the youth of the Church.
What is his message for them? “Based on my personal experience, it is that they must recognize that they are children of God with potential to become as he is. If that is true, there’s no excuse for failure. And there is the seed within us to succeed at anything we want to do in life. As I look at young people today, I think, ‘If they just had self-esteem, the recognition of their own self-worth.’ That’s where it’s got to start. It’s difficult to serve valiantly until you get some faith in yourself and your own identity. I think often service and self-esteem come together. The sooner we learn that happiness comes through service, the sooner we’re going to come to a realization of our own potential and our own worth. That’s why my mission was so important in my life. I was able to forget myself and my troubles and my own worries and concentrate on serving others. I came to a realization that I am a son of God, that I have potential to perform great service, and that my happiness is dependent on the kind of service I render.
“When I was called by President Harold B. Lee to be president of the Aaronic Priesthood MIA, I had a most interesting conversation with him. He talked about the young people of the Church and about the challenges they face in growing up in this world in which we live. He expressed his deep concern about the fact that some of them could go through Primary, Sunday School, Mutual, priesthood quorums, and seminary and come out the other end without testimonies.
“He said, ‘Do you know why I think it is? Because our young people have grown up spectators.’ Then he gave me a challenge that I’ve never forgotten and that I’d like to pass on to the youth of the Church. He said, ‘Bob, I challenge you to provide a program that will prepare this generation to meet the Savior when he comes.’
“If our young people could just realize how important they are in God’s eyes, coming to earth when they have and being the royal generation they are! I envy them the years they’ve got ahead of them because this Church is bound to grow and develop, and they are going to be its leaders. They are going to have some of the most exciting, fulfilling experiences that man or woman has ever had if they’ll just be where the Lord can find them.”
Elder Backman lives up to his own words, serving the Lord and his fellowmen with joy and enthusiasm. There is a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he travels around the Church or works in his office, ministering in the affairs of the kingdom. As chairman of the General Church Scouting Committee, he exemplifies the Scout motto, Oath, and Law as he meets with boys and leaders of boys. He has a special empathy for young men because he has not only been where they are, but he can actually remember being there. Like them, he has had challenges and sorrows and troubles, but he has overcome them by always being available to the source of all help. He has always been, and always intends to be, where the Lord can find him.