Ronald E. Poelman, “Elder David B. Haight: Joy in Lifting Others,” Ensign, Sept. 1986, 10
David Haight was busy as the merchandise manager of Salt Lake City’s ZCMI department store one day in mid-1936 when a distinguished visitor walked into his office—President Heber J. Grant. Was it true, the Church president inquired, that Brother Haight was preparing to leave Salt Lake City for a position in California? Yes, Brother Haight answered, apprehensive that President Grant was about to tell him it was the wrong decision.
President Grant’s reply was a surprise. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said, commenting that more faithful young LDS men should leave Utah and get out where their influence could be felt.
“He said, ‘May the Lord bless you,’ shook my hand, and turned around and walked out of the office,” recalls Elder David B. Haight of the Council of the Twelve.
President Grant’s benediction was realized. The Lord did bless David Bruce Haight with success in business and in Church service, and with the opportunity to touch many lives. It seems he was prepared from the beginning of his life for the opportunities that would come.
He was born 2 September 1906 in Oakley, Idaho, a descendant of Latter-day Saint pioneers. His father, Hector Haight, was the town banker, a bishop, and a state legislator. But he died when David was only nine. The boy was reared largely by his mother, Clara, and his older brothers and sisters.
David graduated from high school in Oakley. Then he attended Albion State Normal School, a small teacher’s college, to get a teaching certificate, and Utah State University in Logan, Utah, where he studied business administration.
While working as personnel manager for a department store in Salt Lake City, he met and courted Ruby Olson. They were married 4 September 1930 in the Salt Lake Temple and left the following day for California, where David had a challenging opportunity. The next years saw them move several times in connection with his career: to Illinois, back to Salt Lake City (where that brief interview with President Grant took place), then to several cities in California for short periods before they arrived in Palo Alto in the early 1940s. By then, he was an executive over a group of Montgomery Ward retail stores.
Their two sons, Bruce and Robert, were born in Salt Lake City in the mid-30s, and their daughter, Karen, was born in California.
David Haight felt the need to serve his country during World War II, so he sought and received a commission in the United States Navy. Remembering the military penchant for abbreviations and acronyms, he comments with a twinkle in his eye that he was commander of an “LOD”—Large Oak Desk. In fact, he played a crucial role in organizing the movement of supplies to the Pacific, for which he received a special commendation from Admiral Chester Nimitz.
After the war, he returned to Montgomery Ward as an executive, again in California, then in Chicago. But he went back to Palo Alto to acquire his own business, a group of retail stores, as the 1950s began. Involvement in the local business community led to civic involvement as well, and in the late 1950s, friends nominated him for the city council. He won, and the council elected him mayor. He became one of the city’s most respected and loved mayors.
In 1951, David Haight was called as Palo Alto Stake president, and he served in the position for twelve years. However, local Church service, and his civic involvement as well, became part of the past when he accepted a call to Scotland as a mission president in 1963. After his mission, he assisted Brigham Young University for a time, helping expand its development program. He served as a regional representative. Then, in April of 1970, he was called as an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve. Six years later, on 8 January 1976, he was called to the Council of the Twelve following the death of Elder Hugh B. Brown.
Elder Haight reminisces fondly about the fine people in his past, but he modestly dismisses his long list of service and achievements as history. Characteristically, he looks to the future, to the service it will yet be his privilege to give.
It is an injustice to the man David Haight is now, however, to treat his past too lightly. To do so is to overlook the spiritual growth and development of character that have made him a beloved leader.
He grew up as a normal small-town boy in Oakley. Twice his life was spared when he might have been killed—once when he was catapulted from a runaway buggy and hit a telephone pole, and once when he hit his head diving into a swimming hole. “I think the Lord was preserving his life in his early years,” says his son Robert, because of the service his father would render later in life.
The initiative and drive that would serve him well later in life showed up when he was a boy. He was the first First Class Scout in the county, and he owned the first Boy Scout uniform in town. He won it by having the cleanest yard of all the eligible boys.
That same initiative came in handy a few years later when he was courting Ruby. The first time he asked her for a date, she already had one that night. It was at 8:00 P.M., so he asked if he could call on her at 6:00. Attractive Ruby had other would-be suitors, but it was David who won her heart.
It was fortunate that Ruby followed her mother’s counsel, given before their wedding, to go willingly wherever her husband’s occupation might take him. The moves were frequent early in their marriage. Their children recall that their mother brought much spiritual strength and consistency into their early lives, while their father was so deeply involved in his career. “She was an incredible force,” says their daughter Karen.
As a young husband and father, David Haight attended Church meetings regularly, served in callings as requested, and enjoyed them. But there came a moment, during World War II, that was a critical turning point in his life as far as serving in the Church was concerned.
One chilly evening he left his wife and three small children standing on a landing dock off Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, as he flew out in a seaplane bound for Hawaii. Lieutenant Commander Haight spent a sleepless night over the dark Pacific in the noisy, vibrating aircraft, taking stock of his life. He realized that all that was of value to him he had left back on that dock, and he wanted them with him for eternity.
He felt his commitment to Church service had not been all it could have been. He promised the Lord that if his life were spared through the war, he would accept whatever call came to him and do whatever it required. It represented, says his son Bruce, “a redefining of his life’s goals”—the closing of one door in a way, and the opening of another.
He never aspired to Church positions, however, or felt that calls ought to come to him. When Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve came to Palo Alto to reorganize the stake presidency in 1951, David Haight had served as a bishop’s counselor and was the most recently called member of the high council. He felt sure he did not have what the Lord required in a member of the stake presidency. But the next day he was sustained as stake president.
“He really did a great work while he was Palo Alto Stake president. He had vision. He could see the growth coming,” says Ruby Haight. He oversaw the construction of a stake center and several chapels and acquired the parcels of land where all but one of the present chapels in the area have been built.
But more important, perhaps, he loved the people and gained their love in return. Richard Sonne, who served as a counselor in the stake presidency (he succeeded President Haight as stake president and later was president of the Oakland Temple), said President Haight “always complimented people. He went out of his way to get acquainted.”
President Haight’s leadership touch was light but steady. “He would explain to people, ‘This is what we should do,’ and expect them to carry out their responsibility.”
Today, he is known and appreciated throughout the Church for his focus on and ability to train priesthood leaders in the organization and effective use of priesthood councils and quorums.
Those years in Palo Alto were very busy ones for David Haight. The loving support of his very capable, accomplished wife was a great asset to the family. Their children stress that some of their mother’s spiritual strength, eternal optimism, and love of service undoubtedly have rubbed off on their father through the years.
In the same situation, some wives might have talked themselves into resenting the activities that called a husband away so much of the time. “I was never home holding my hands. I was involved in the PTA, the garden club, sewing, reading, and my own church work,” Ruby Haight says. “I was just happy, I guess.”
In grade school, friends used to call her “Pollyanna,” she recalls, laughing. “But there’s always a beautiful side of things.”
David and Ruby Haight both went out of their way to be of service to others. Their home was open to any who needed a place to stay for a night. “I could come home from college and never know who would be sleeping in our house, who would be eating around our table,” recalls their daughter Karen. Frequently the guests would be LDS students from Stanford University, and many of them would want to talk of deep philosophical issues touching on the Church’s doctrine. Karen recalls her father telling them many times, “The gospel is simple. Don’t complicate it.”
Though he was busy during their growing years, Elder Haight’s children never felt neglected. He went out of his way to be close to them and support them in their activities. “He always made me feel that I was a princess in his life,” Karen says.
“As we were growing up,” Bruce says, “he used to like to go to the high Sierra country and do some hiking and backpacking.” The whole family would go on these vacations to get away from daily pressures. If they could see a sign of civilization, they were not far enough away. “Once we were so far back the only other person we saw was lost,” Robert adds. After these outings, Bruce says, his father would “come back with his battery recharged.”
David Haight taught his children the value of work as they labored side by side with him in his store. Karen recalls that theirs was a business relationship while she was at work in the store; he was “Mr. Haight,” and like any good employee, she tried to outsell everyone else.
Jon Huntsman first came under the Haights’ influence at age twelve, when his family moved to Palo Alto. He grew up, almost, with the Haight children. As a young man, he kept close to his girlfriend, Karen, when he worked at a department store across the street from the Haight retail store. Often when he would go to the Haight store, Karen’s father would have him sit in on employee meetings so he could learn about business. And her father continued to build Jon up in Karen’s eyes, both before and after the young couple was married.
“He cannot be in a crowd, or even with an individual, without saying something that would build them collectively or individually,” Brother Huntsman comments.
His relationship with his wife’s father is an unusual one, Brother Huntsman says; with the exception of his own father, his father-in-law has been the most influential man in his life. “Elder Haight has been a combination of a brother, a close friend, and a father.” Jon Huntsman now heads a successful Utah-based chemical company, and Elder Haight serves on its board of directors.
When David Haight was mayor of Palo Alto, he exhibited “a vast amount of common sense and let the people envision their needs ten and twenty years ahead,” Brother Huntsman says. His foresight, along with his integrity and credibility, helped Mayor Haight bring to fruition a number of civic developments and projects that serve Palo Alto’s needs today. But his warmth and goodness also helped him win friends for the Church. They grew to understand and respect the standards he lived by.
One of his close friends was Wallace Stirling, president of Stanford University, which had benefited from several of the projects Mayor Haight had pushed through. In his civic capacity, the mayor frequently met with the university president. In those meetings, the president was the perfect host. As others were being served coffee or tea, President Stirling would casually open his desk drawer, pull out a can of tomato or fruit juice that he kept there just for this purpose, and slide it across the desk to his friend David.
Still, few of his non-LDS acquaintances realized the depth of Mayor Haight’s commitment to his church—until one night in 1963.
At the end of a city council meeting, he told city officials, citizens, and reporters that there was one additional item of business not listed on the agenda. “I want to announce,” he said, “that as of tonight I am resigning as the mayor of Palo Alto and as a member of the city council, as Mrs. Haight and I have been asked to go to Scotland for the Mormon Church. The meeting is now adjourned.”
Non-LDS friends on the city council tried to dissuade him, but he explained that the call to service had come from President David O. McKay, a man he regarded as a prophet. David Haight felt the only matter to be resolved was when he would be needed in Scotland.
“The Savior talked about putting your hands to the plow and not looking back, and I’ve thought of that many, many times,” Elder Haight says now. “You don’t look back with regrets, with a sense of coveting what you had been involved in.
That day, now nearly a quarter of a century ago, he put his hand to the plow and has never looked back with regret. Calls to higher positions in the Church have brought increased opportunities to serve. But with the increased responsibility, he has not diminished his service to his family. In fact, it has increased as his posterity has grown.
One of the techniques he uses to keep in touch with his family is the three-minute phone call. When Jon Huntsman was serving as a mission president in Washington, D.C., Karen would occasionally pick up the phone to hear her father ask, “Is the gospel still true in Washington?” Reassured that all was well with them, he would hang up. If the talk turns to a problem during these calls, he passes it over with characteristic optimism: “Oh, you’ll work it out.” The important thing for him is to be reassured of their activity and testimony.
Now the Huntsmans’ daughter Christena lives in New York, where her husband, Richard Durham, is going to school. Occasionally she will answer the phone and hear her grandfather say, “I was just looking through the telephone book and saw your number …”
In addition to calls, he makes an effort to be at special occasions—missionary farewells, weddings, baptisms.
A few years ago, Christena had the opportunity to travel with Elder and Sister Haight in Europe. “Sometimes you take it for granted that your grandfather’s an Apostle. And then you see how excited people are just to shake his hand,” she says.
Making time to deal with individuals is one of Elder Haight’s priorities. He counseled one of Robert’s sons: “The Lord isn’t going to be concerned about whether you were a bishop, or stake president, or Apostle. He’s going to be concerned about how you treated people.”
Getting the family together “on his ground means a lot to him,” says his son Bruce. “His ground” is the Haights’ cabin in the mountains, about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City. The annual outdoor breakfast he cooks at the cabin on the holiday celebrating United States’ Independence Day has become a family tradition. More than once it has rained on that day and he has had to cook breakfast while someone held an umbrella over him, Ruby Haight says.
If Elder Haight has a hobby, outside of church work, it is the cabin. Robert says his father repaints it periodically just to be able to work out-of-doors. Bruce adds: “If he had his druthers, I believe he’d like to live up there. He gets a lot of strength and internal self-renewal from it.”
Yet he also finds great strength in contact with people. One of the most enjoyable things about going to conferences with Saints around the world, Elder Haight says, is the opportunity to meet people the missionaries are teaching and then to be able to testify in person that what they have been taught about the gospel is true.
“The miracle of this work is how it changes the lives of people,” he says.
“The modern world can be so vicious and unrelenting. Those waves can be so destructive as they pound and pound and pound against the people,” he reflects.
In a world where Heavenly Father’s children are constantly assaulted by evil and discouraging influences, he says, it is a privilege and blessing “to understand the plan of salvation and teach it to a world that is waiting, hoping that there is something more than what they’ve been exposed to.”
He turns to the well-worn scriptures and gospel reference works in his office and quotes from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.” (Comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 255.) That happiness comes, he says, when people learn that the gospel, lived faithfully every day, is designed to uplift them.
The Church is designed to bring that message of happiness to millions, he says. Six million members “will become twelve million, and then fifty, and then a hundred, and keep going.” And it is the charge of his quorum, he says, to see that the message of the gospel is spread to those ever-increasing numbers.
While members of the Quorum of the Twelve “have been down different trails” during their professional years, he says, “we come together in a special brotherhood. We are special witnesses of Him whom we declare and testify is the Son of God.” As the Twelve go about their work in the temple, Elder Haight says, he has sensed the Savior’s presence.
He reflects back on the day in the Salt Lake Temple when President Spencer W. Kimball received the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy male members of the Church. That revelation, he affirms thoughtfully, “is real and true.”
He bore that witness firmly and publicly during this April’s general conference as he testified that President Ezra Taft Benson was indeed chosen as the Lord’s prophet under heavenly direction:
“Today, the Lord’s church is guided by the same relationship with Deity that existed in previous dispensations.
“This claim is not made lightly. I know there is revelation, as I am a witness to sacred things also experienced by others who administer His work. …
“The calling of Ezra Taft Benson as the thirteenth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will long be remembered, particularly by the seven newest members of the Quorum of the Twelve, who experienced for the first time the holy direction we received in the calling of a president of the Church.” (Ensign, May 1986, pp. 7, 8-9.)
His position as a special witness of the Savior imposes its own challenge, of course. “I’ve always felt it is my responsibility to see that the channel is open,” Elder Haight explains. That requires pleading humbly in prayer “to know the mind and will of the Lord.
“I’m sure that each of us [in the Quorum of the Twelve] may feel that we’re the least. But I know that I am,” he says.
“My great concern is to fulfill my calling totally and fully, with all the ability I have. I know I have been blessed far beyond my natural ability.”