Latter-day Saint Life

5 of the sweetest stories from President Ballard’s ministry

President Ballard visiting the Cara Tepe refugee camp.
Image from Facebook

For nearly 37 years, President M. Russell Ballard served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Prior to that call, he served as president of the Canada Toronto Mission and in the First Quorum of the Seventy. He also served as a bishop twice.

The numbers alone show that President Ballard’s decades of Church service are remarkable. But how much do you know about the man behind the calling? Here are five stories that show some of the sweetest insights into the Apostle’s life, testimony, and ministry.

“Hang in There”

In the summer of 2020, President Ballard was visiting his son Craig, who had been injured in a bicycle accident, in the hospital. Just down the hall was 17-year-old Sarah Frei, who had been in a car accident that resulted in her being paralyzed from the waist down and having her legs amputated.

Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard shares how one of Craig’s therapists asked President Ballard if he had time to visit Sarah. According to the biography:

“President Ballard readily agreed and went to Sarah’s room to meet her. In Sarah, he found a strong, confident, faith-filled young woman, and he was touched by her faith and determination. Before leaving, he gave Sarah a blessing and then maintained regular contact while she was in the hospital. As they finished their phone calls, President Ballard would ask her, ‘What do I want you to do?’ Sarah would repeat, ‘Keep up your courage and hang in there!’”

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President Ballard and Sarah Frei.
Deseret Book.

▶ You may also like: ‘Nothing can stop her’: How teen Sarah Frei’s faith and love for the Savior prepared her to be a paraplegic and double amputee

The Oreo Reminder

About a year ago, President Ballard shared a touching story on Facebook of why he kept an Oreo on his desk in his office.

He explained that several years previously he visited with individuals at the Cara Tempe refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. While there, a 9-year-old boy named Amer who had just arrived on the island after making a treacherous trip across the Aegean Sea had been given a package of Oreo cookies by some volunteers.

“In what was one of the most selfless acts I have ever experienced, this sweet boy offered me the first cookie. In fact, he refused to eat anything until I first took one. I couldn’t help but be profoundly touched by the selflessness of one so young who had so little,” President Ballard recalled. “Here he was, with nothing but the clothes on his back (which were still wet, I might add), and yet the first thing he thought to do was share a treat with a stranger. I now keep this cookie on my desk as a reminder to reach out to those who struggle around the world.”

The Pink Sweater Set

Anxiously Engaged details how while President Ballard was serving a mission in the British Isles he made an unusual purchase of a pink sweater set:

“During my last trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, on my mission, I was walking along this street lined with shops selling these beautiful cashmere sweaters, a Scottish specialty,” President Ballard said in 2020. “Suddenly I see this delicate pink sweater set, and I’m just drawn to it. I looked at it carefully—I even paid attention to the size. But then I asked myself, ‘Who am I buying this for?’ There was no one who I had in mind for it—I just knew I wanted to buy it.”

When he got home and was unpacking from his mission, he showed the sweater set to his mother. “What in the world are you going to do with this?” she asked.

Ever confident, Russ replied, “I’m going to find the girl who fits it and I’m going to marry her!”

So when Russ gave the pink sweater set to Barbara for Christmas in 1950—a bold move, considering they weren’t even dating steadily at the time (“you’ve got to be aggressive when you’re fighting off the whole student body,” he explained)—he wasn’t at all surprised to see that it fit her perfectly.

“She looked absolutely stunning in it,” he said. “Of course, she looked stunning in everything.”

▶ You may also like: How Elder and Sister Ballard’s love story was shaped by a sweet but bold gift

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Photo courtesy of the Ballard family

A Touching Tribute

In his October 2019 general conference address, President Ballard began by explaining that he prepared his October 2018 general conference talk to highlight the 100th anniversary of the Prophet Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the spirit world. Just a few days after submitting his talk for translation, his wife, Sister Barbara Bowen Ballard, passed away.

President Ballard delivered his talk, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” just six days after Sister Ballard’s passing on October 1, 2018. The following day her funeral was held. A year passed before his October 2019 address, and he shared some beautiful insights of the love he had for her.

“Barbara and I were blessed to ‘live together in love’ for 67 years. But I have learned in a very real way what it means to ‘weep for the loss’ of those we love. Oh, how I love and miss her!” he said.

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President M. Russell Ballard and Sister Barbara Ballard in the Marriott Center on Brigham Young University Campus in Provo on Tuesday, November 14, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Reflecting on the many responsibilities Sister Ballard took upon herself over the years, President Ballard then talked about some precious moments he and his wife shared at the end of her life.

“Now that she has moved on, I am happy that I chose to sit next to her when I came home from the office during the last few months of her life, to hold her hand as we watched the endings of some of her favorite musicals—over and over again because Alzheimer’s would not allow her to remember that she had seen them just the afternoon before. Memories of those special hand-holding sessions are now very, very precious to me.

“Brothers and sisters, please do not miss an opportunity to look into the eyes of your family members with love. Children and parents, reach out to each other and express your love and appreciation. Like me, some of you may wake up one day to discover that the time for such important communication has passed. Live each day together with hearts filled with gratitude, good memories, service, and much love.”

A Love for His Ancestors

President Ballard had a deep love for his family history. Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith are his great-great-uncle and great-great-grandfather, respectively, and a Church News video filmed at the Prophet Joseph’s birthplace highlights President Ballard’s love for his ancestors and his conviction for sharing the gospel.

“I’ve got the bust of Joseph F. Smith and Joseph and Hyrum. And I look at them, and I think I hear them say, ‘Get going boy, and do something worthwhile. Tell the world what’s happened,’” he says with emotion in the video. “So to me, I get nudged big time when I see them and see what they did and what they gave. Then I feel obligated to do everything I can to declare and to teach that the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ is once again upon the earth. And that’s because in this little cottage on December 23, 1805, a little boy was born named Joseph.”

The video also highlights the true friendship between President Ballard and Elder D. Todd Christofferson, who accompanied President Ballard on the trip.

“The members of the Twelve—[and] I think the Church generally—has great appreciation [and] love for President Ballard. He has carried on and is carrying on the tradition of service and faith and missionary zeal and everything else that characterized the Prophet Joseph Smith and Hyrum. We love him, we’re grateful we have a chance to be associated with him,” says Elder Christofferson in the video.

“Ah, thank you,” President Ballard replies, patting Elder Christofferson’s back.

Elder Christofferson then puts his arm around the senior leader’s shoulders and responds, “I mean it.”

Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard

In Anxiously Engaged, accounts of this dedicated missionary, husband, father, business leader, and Apostle—accompanied by photos throughout—offer a close-up look at President Ballard’s life, faith, and testimony. As readers come to appreciate the meaningful difference he has made in the lives of the Lord’s children around the world, their own testimonies of his role as a prophet, seer, and revelator will grow.

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