Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reed Benson: A Personal Encounter

I wanted to write this tribute to Reed Amussen Benson since I don't know how long he will be around still. Back in 1985 I was a graduate student in early twentieth century history at BYU. I worked in the religion department at the time for Donald Q. Cannon and Richard O. Cowan. I helped Brother Cowan do research on LDS temples and assisted him in preparing some of the gospel doctrine lessons as well as helping him on his book the Church in the Twentieth Century. I helped Don Cannon work on a few articles such as the Provo Sugar Miracle, Latter-day Visions of the Savior, the Wisconsin Pinery and a few odds and ends on free masonry. At the time I was writing my master's thesis on James E. Talmage: The Man and His Times. I had the first two chapters complete and had submitted them to Tom Alexander. In one of my history classes I had written a paper on Ezra Taft Benson during his time as Secretary of Agriculture during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration.

One day I was walking along near the administration building when a short man with a bald head dressed in a blue Mr. Mac suit came running up to me. He called me Friend Bruno. I didn't really recognize him very well since I had never met him before. He introduced himself as Reed Benson. He said he had heard good things about me and heard I had written a paper on his father and would I bring a copy by his office. He told me he had talked to his good dad Elder Ezra Taft Benson about me since I was recommended as a top researcher and writer. I told him I already had a job and that I appreciated the offer. He told me he needed help writing his fathers biography and eventually also his teachings book.

According to a 2001 biography of Reed Amussen Benson he is "Reed A. Benson is a professor in the Ancient Scripture Department at BYU and teaches a thousand students a semester. He has written for a national news magazine and lectured widely, with numerous TV interviews and press conferences. A former Air Force Chaplin during the Korean War, he was the President of the Kentucky, Louisville Mission. He served as Branch President in Oxford, England and in the Israel District Presidency. Oldest son of President and Mrs. Ezra Taft Benson, he is the father of nine children and grandfather to twenty-four." I think he is semi-retired now as a professor I haven't really spoken to him in about twenty years.

I learned a great deal about missionary work from Reed Benson. He was president of the Kentucky Louisville Mission. He was a master at commitment. He taught me that you need to be bold and to testify. That missionaries need a message to match their mission. He was very influential in converting his father's words in to practice. President Benson was really influential in flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon. Reed was a great spokesman for his message training literally thousands of students who passed through the halls of the religion department at BYU.

Later that day I took my only copy of my paper by. I was so poor at the time that I didn't even have enough to copy the paper so I gave him my original. A few days later he called and said his good dad had read my paper and they both wanted me to work for them. I went and talked talked with Don Cannon who told me that Brother Robert J. Matthews wanted to see me about working with Reed. I was told I was to be a full-time staff member during the two years I was to work on the project and was to be paid $8 an hour.

A day or two later Reed told me that Ezra Taft Benson, who was then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wanted to see me in his office in Salt Lake City. We drove up in Reed's car. When I arrived President Benson was meeting with one of my heroes Boyd K. Packer so I had to wait about ten minutes. Reed wandered off to speak with one of his secretaries who I think was named Betty about some business he needed to take care of for his dad. I learned that Reed was always doing some project or another for his dad from the very beginning. His office was on the First Floor. It was quite different than visiting my old mission president Russ Ballard whose office was on the fourth floor or Elder Kikuchi's who was on the third and later in the Church Office Building. It was a very impressive office.

Finally I was ushered in to the office. Reed was in the office and left to take care of some other things. President Benson shook my hand and said that he had read my paper and that he wanted me to come to work for them. He said you will have to work probably hundreds of hours with no pay and sacrifice your time. Are you willing to do it? I told him I was. He said that he heard from Reed that I wanted to be an institute teacher and that he felt I would make a good one since he knew I was one of the good and trusted LDS historians. He told me that some of the current ones were struggling and we needed men like me working in the ranks.

I asked him if he would give me a blessing prior to working on the project. He told me that he would like to but that the brethren discourage that so that a person receiving wouldn't later claim something was said interpreting it differently than the way it really was given. He told me that I would work out of Reed's office and would work closely with him in writing his biography and later his teachings book. He said since he couldn't give me a blessing he would give me copies of his books and that he personally would sign them.

Ezra Taft Benson went to a closet in his office and removed about nine books which included God, Family and Country, An Enemy Hath Done This, The Red Carpet, Farmers at the Crossroads, Cross Fire, So Shall Ye Reap, This Nations Shall Endure, Title of Liberty, and On Wings of Faith. He took out a pen and said that he was going to personally sign mine and he wanted me to have them as a gift of his appreciation. I had asked Reed coming up how he father signed the dozens of documents and he told me he used an autopen so I knew that his signing them was a special thing since he was a busy man. Elder Benson was very enthusiastic warm and had a vital and active mind. He told me that there were two criteria that needed to be involved in writing his biography and doing his teachings book and that was "It lead men to Christ and that it establish the trutfulness of the Book of Mormon." I spent about an hour with him. He later explained to me where his desire to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon came from.

The next day I went to work with Reed. The first few days I went either over to his house. He had a spacious custom home that had been built by Reed Bankhead's sons he later moved over on Stadium Avenue when he sold his house to Joe Cannon who was head of Geneva Steel. Reed Bankhead was one of Reed's religion colleagues that had a similar John Birch perspective. Bankhead and Reed were really in to the idea that they were opposing communism and other socialist regimes in order to preserve the liberty and freedom of the Free World. I remember that Bankhead, Ron Mann, Gerald Lund, Dennis Wardle and Reed all worked on The Constitution: Our Heavenly Banner. Glenn Pearson might have even had a hand but I do know for a fact the other men did research on it.

I remember that Reed Benson was an exceptional parent. He and his wife May were not able to have children and adopted nine children. They were both very involved in the home schooling movement. They had some pretty elaborate family home evening activities which included things like going to the Utah Jazz basketball games. One time Reed showed me an itemized listing of his expenses. He kept a detailed account of things he did in life which showe he spent close to eight thousand dollars alone for family activities. My kids are lucky they go to the local water park which cost a few hundred. I hardly ever take all eight out to a restaurant. He even took them every summer to Aspen Grove for family camp. They had a weight room and one the nicest libraries I have ever seen in their home. He always had time for his kids who would visit him on occasion at his office. He was a patient and understanding type of a father.

One time I was visiting and they had Book of Mormon reading while I was there. It was very impressive seeing him there with all his kids. One day he told me had to go to school and see what his kids were being taught. Apparently when they got in the older grades a few of them attended a formal school and Reed went to see what kind of curriculum and teachers they had. I learned a lesson or two from Reed I never had a clue that they would let you come right in the classroom and check it out until then.

I remember one of his daughters had her stomach stapled. Reed made sure that she was prayerful about her decision. He was very even keeled about his interactions with his kids. I would have probably have said you must be whacking out of your brain let alone pay for something like that. His kids loved him a great deal.

Not only was he a good parent but he was probably the best son I have ever seen. He sacrificed his whole life to promote his father and his mission. Everything Reed did had to do with religion and serving his father or family. He was the most devoted son I ever saw. He was constantly in touch with his father. He spoke to him a few times a day. Dennis Wardle was constantly telling me about the things he would do. Reed would drop whatever he was doing if his father needed him to do something for him. Usually he did research on whatever topic his father was interested in. His brother Mark was also closely connected to his father and ended up serving as a special assistant. Reed took a beating because of his faithful devotion not everyone realized just how faithful he was. He taught in the religion department so he could be close to his dad. He told me that earlier in his life he was interested in working with Jack Welch and was in the Freeman movement but his dad needed him so that is why he moved to Provo.

To look at Reed one would never know with his bald head and large ears just how dynamic he was. He would tilt his head to the side and start speaking and it was amazing how he would capture his audience and enthralled them with his grasp of doctrine. He was an exceptional scholar of the Book of Mormon and taught thousands of students many returned missionaries. In terms of religiosity I found Reed Benson to be one of the top people in the whole LDS Church. He was as straight laced a Mormon as ever walked the earth. He prayed conscientiously. I would find him on his knees sometimes in the office in the JSB. He would be there some days at four a.m. One cute story about him involved sleep. The poor guy never got more than three or four hours a nigh of sleep. He had special pink Sylvania bulbs put in because otherwise he would fall asleep in the afternoon. One morning he fell asleep at the wheel and drove down the side of the hill just below the Heber J. Grant Building. I tried to make sure he was always properly rested. I even learned to work with a dim light on in his office.

He was actively involved in the John Birch Society but he kept it low key as a religion instructor. It took me a while to catch on to the code. Someone would call him and the conversation would go something like "I am glad you are interested in the freedom movement. There is a meeting but I will have to meet you by the temple since I don't get involved with that here." He would then tell the person to come at certain time where he would be parked waiting for them. He never once pushed it on anyway that I saw. I never had an interest in the John Birch movement and he never offered to take me personally since he respected my preferences. It was cute though when he would call me Comrade Bruno or Friend Bruno.

He was very busy in his life taking care of daily things like teaching his classes, serving in his local callings, taking care of his family, etc. I knew he didn't have a lot of time so I concentrated on doing research on the biography and later the teachings book.

A few months in to the biography we had a change. One day I heard Reed talking to his father. His father said that Marvin J. Ashton had a prodigy named Sheri Dew that worked at This People magazine and that President Benson needed someone that could make him more human and show that side of h im. Reed tried to argue that he and I were writing the book but President Benson said he was convinced by his brethren that was the way he should go. He never liked to go contrary to them. In fact I was apalled that they made him put a disclaimer in his original pamphlet the Constitution Our Heavenly Banner that it was his opinion and not the official viewpoint of the LDS Church. I had a good laugh when as President of the Church he gave it at a general conference. When a Prophet gives an address in an official capacity it becomes the mind and will of the Lord. It actually was a marvelous address and I am far from being an ultra-conservative but even I felt it was an inspired discourse. Anyway Sheri Dew came on board.

Reed was a very busy man so he had his niece Flora Parker who was staying with the President and his wife help Sheri Dew out by gathering the thousands of pages of his addresses in to one place. Reed paid her I believe the same way I was paid which included countless hours of service. Sheri would occasionally call for Reed and sometimes he would respond right away. I can honestly say that the man was given constant assignments from his father that side-tracked him. He was a sweet man and thought the best of those he worked with. One day she called out of frustration and said she was going to quit unless she got the diaries. I have to say I understand Reed's reluctantance to not give them up until he read through them since there were delicate topics in them. I remember assuring her that he would call her and to hang in there. She told me she had writer's block and was going to give up. Reed brought the diaries in within a few days and he and I and Dennis Wardle spent a few hours photocopying them since we didn't want unauthorized copies to spring up on the underground. She was given a copy of his diaries and Reed became more actively involved in editing her writing. Richard Cowan helped her a little bit and soon Reed put his time in moving that project along. I was pleased that she was able to bring it to fruitition. At the time I resented her taking the book I was supposed to write but she had a more journalistic style. I doubt even if I had written it that I would have ended up President of Deseret Book.

Reed, Dennis Wardle and myself began to concentrate on the teachings book. Reed did a few talks extracting quotes. We had to whittle down forty years of talks in to a five hundred page book. I came up with the classification schedule using the church magazines scheme which I only had to adapt using a few topics they didn't have. I had a few volunteers from student wards and Richard O. Cowan's classes do a few talks but in the end Dennis and I did the majority of the selection. We used a numbering system for the topics with the person marking the talk with a pencil using brackets. Then we had two different secretaries Jodie Durrant, George Durrant's son Warren's wife and Jannell Johnson who typed the quotes in WordPerfect. We ended up with forty or fifty floppy disks. Dennis and I whittled it down to about eight hundred pages.

Then the three of us went to the Benson Institute and sat together for about a month condensing it down to the punchiest quotes. Reed made sure that we always started with a word of prayer. He continually reminded us that his dad wanted nothing said that didn't lead men to Christ. Slowly but surely we began wading through the material. It was in the Spring of 1987. Reed called the three of us the three musketeers. Each day we would make our way through about two or three topics as we would have to tell Reed whether that was the best his father said. Reed would argue with us sometimes whether we had already said that and we would discuss how each quote was different or added something different.

I had a couple of great experiences while working with Reed.

When President Benson became President of the Church there was a special solemn assembly. Since Reed and Dennis and I were working on his book he wanted us to attend it as his personal guest. We were given special tickets. I was able to sit with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the service with my wife and children I never had better seats and was able to raise my hand to sustain him.

Another experience involved blessing the living Prophet. One day I got a phone call from Mark Benson that President Benson was in Provo at Dr. Harold Oaks, an eye surgeon's office and that Reed was needed there immediately. Dennis Wardle came about then and so we checked Reed's class schedule and saw he was about to get out of one of his classes. Dennis and I drove in his car over to pick up Reed. We took him down to Dr. Oaks office. President Benson was going blind due to cataracts just like President Kimball had been. Dr. Oaks was busy for several weeks and President Benson had a busy schedule for several weeks to come the only time they could do the operation they discovered was that very day. Dennis Wardle and me and a Church Security guard waiting in the foyer while Reed went back. I asked Dennis why the Twelve didn't give him a blessing he told me that they didn't have time and that his sons had the right to give him a blessing. A few minutes later Reed came out and invited Dennis and me to join him. He had told his dad we were there and so he invited us to assist in the blessing. Mark annointed his father and Reed sealed the blessing. As we stood there I prayed silently to the Lord that if President Benson needed some of my eyesight that I would willingly give it up so he could be able to fill his duties as a Prophet. I learned a lesson that day as the Lord took me at my word. My eyesight has slowly diminished in my right eye. Today I have hugh black floaters but I will always remember Reed's confidence and his father's in Dennis and me. We were considered family.

Reed was always concerned about us. One time his father was given some prime number one Idaho spuds. He told his dad we were living in the basement of a mission president who had his daughter living in the home while he was gone. Reed brought nuts, oranges, and the potatoes. Three families living there ate those potatoes for a week we didn't have much money between us.

Reed always thought people would be great leaders. One day on August 4th 1987 I was at President Benson's apartment which was his birthday and also my own. Reed came out I was sitting at the Prophet's kitchen table waiting and he told me to write in my journal that President Benson prophesied that one day I would be a bishop and stake president. Both he and his dad were certain of it. Another time I had President Benson tell me I would one day be a mission president. I have always been faithful in the church because of their confidence in me. I have remained true to the faith. I remember Reed would tell me that J. Reuben Clark Jr. who was a counselor in the First Presidency even said on his death bed that he wanted to endure to the end. Reed liked telling us personal church history stories. A lot of what I know came from Reed's instruction.

I don't mind that I have never served in high profile ways because I think of Reed Benson who quietly served his whole life and gave his all to the Church or Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint. I hope to be half the man he was when they lay me down in the grave. In the next life I intend to hang around with Ezra Taft Benson and Reed some of the greatest men of God and patriots I have ever known. I believe Reed Benson is the salt of the earth and one of the most faithful sons a man could ever have. Members of the Church owe Reed Benson a debt of gratitute for his life of service.


Allen said...

You mentioned Reed Benson's activity in the John Birch Society. In 1962, maybe 1963, I heard him speak at Sacrament Meeting at the Washington DC Ward. He was introduced as the rep of the John Birch Society, and he spoke about that organization. Since then I've always had a negative attitude towards him, and I was glad to read your post and learn that not only is Reed Benson a spiritual man, he has learned to keep his political positions out of official church things.

Scott Stanley said...

It has been wonderful to read and think about this thoughtful note on my old friend Reed Benson, who with his friend and assistant Bob Lee wrote for me during the years when I was editor of American Opinion and The Review of the News. I knew both men during the time they represented the John Birch Society in Washington and found them to be honorable and faithful patriots in every way. I also remember that, at the height of the Cold War, President Benson would telephone me in the early morning at my home in Massachusetts to say: Withstand! What you are doing in the fight against Communism is God's will and if you are faithful in this test the Communists soon will fail. That was over thirty years ago and yet I still han hear his words, spoken like a father to a much-loved son: "Withstand!" Scott Stanley