SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon leader Robert D. Hales was memorialized Friday as a wise, quick-witted and devoted church servant at a public funeral Friday in Salt Lake City.
Hales, 85, died Sunday from complications related to his age. He is the fourth top leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to die in the last three years.
Referring to him as “Bob,” fellow leaders lauded Hales’ courage in dealing with health issues that began in 1991 after his first heart attack to help guide the religion by providing unique insight and influence.
Hales was a member of a top church governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since 1994 and served in lower-tier church panels for two decades before that. The New York City native was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and business executive before going to help guide the church.
Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum, said Hales’ New York candor and wonderful sense of humor will be missed by fellow leaders.
“With the courage of jet pilot, the tenacity of a champion athlete, the humility and devotion of a disciple of the Lord, Elder Hales has completed his life’s mission in a most exemplary way,” said Nelson, next in line to become church president. “He has passed the tests of mortality and returned home with highest honors.”
About 2,500 people attended the public funeral inside the religion’s historical Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang hymns chosen by Hales’ wife and family.
Hales was born in 1932 and grew up in Long Island in a Mormon family with a father who was an artist. As a high school baseball pitcher, he dreamed of playing in Major League Baseball. He never realized that dream, but he did get to throw out a first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 2007 as part of Mormon Night at Dodgers Stadium.
Hales earned a business degree from the University of Utah and a master’s in business administration from Harvard University.
Hales was 42 when he was called into full-time church service, leaving behind a business career. He had been president of the Paper Mate pen company, as well as an executive at a television firm and at the manufacturing company that made Vaseline.
Quorum member Henry B. Eyring said Hales was a legend in the business world but that he didn’t hesitate to leave his career to join church leadership when he received a call from a top leader in the religion informing him of the offer.
Eyring said that to Hales, hearing that call “was the same as hearing the Lord’s voice.”
He worked his way up through church management tiers until he was called to Quorum of the Twelve Apostle in 1994 and joined other men who left successful careers to fill what they consider a church calling. Other Quorum members included former Utah Supreme Court Justice Dallin H. Oaks and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who was an executive with Lufthansa, the German airline. Nelson was a surgeon.
Hales’ combination of experience in private business and deep roots in the religion made him emblematic of Mormon leaders of his era.
Hales died at a hospital surrounded by family in between conference sessions Sunday. Hales’ death comes after fellow Quorum members Boyd K. Packer, L. Tom Perry and Richard G. Scott died in 2015. Mormon leaders in the governing body serve until they die.
A replacement for Hales will be chosen at a later date, likely at the next church conference in April. Most new Quorum members come from lower-tier councils.
Church President Thomas S. Monson, 90, wasn’t in attendance at the funeral because of his ailing health. He also missed last weekend’s conference and hasn’t been going regularly to meetings at church offices because of limitations related to his age since May.
Nelson, 93, is the man next in line for the church presidency. He appeared in good health again Friday as delivered a speech during the funeral.
During the final prayer, Quorum member Ronald A. Rasband made note of saying that Hales learned during his days as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force that became his personal motto, “return with honor.”
“We know most assuredly that this dear servant has returned with honor,” Rasband said.