Feature Stories

The role a sweet but bold Christmas gift played in the Ballards’ courtship

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Photo courtesy of the Ballard family

On his mission to Great Britain, President M. Russell Ballard learned the importance of follow-up, persistence, and prayer—all principles that came in handy when he returned home and fell in love with a young woman named Barbara Bowen.

Three days after he returned home from his mission, 21-year-old Russ Ballard and a few friends attended the “Hello Day” dance at the University of Utah. The dance was an excuse for the friends to get together, share mission stories, and, if lucky, dance with some young women. It was a friend, Dick Harris, who first spotted a beautiful, blue-eyed blonde sophomore on the dance floor. He wanted Russ to meet her. Without Russ’s encouragement, Dick tagged out the young man dancing with her and danced her over to where Russ was standing. Dick introduced Russ to Barbara Bowen and moved aside.

▶You may also like: ‘That sweet and tender missionary experience’: M. Russell Ballard’s service in England

“Barbara was vivacious and popular, so I got to dance with her for less than a minute before another young man tagged me out,” President Ballard said years later. “That was just not acceptable to me. Having learned the importance of follow-up on my mission, I got her telephone number.”

Barbara Bowen

Of their first quick encounter, President Ballard often said: “The greatest day in my life was the day I met Barbara Bowen.” The moment was not lost on Barbara: “My first impression of Russ was ‘What a handsome boy!’ And he had this wonderful smile and beautiful brown eyes.”

The greatest day in my life was the day I met Barbara Bowen.
President M. Russell Ballard

The next day, Russ made that all-important phone call. The call revealed that Barbara was not just popular on the dance floor—her social calendar was full. A meeting after a university class and a date penciled in on the calendar for two weeks later were the only arrangements that fit her crowded schedule. “Thankfully, my mission taught me to be persistent even in the face of discouragement,” recalled President Ballard.

After a first date, Russ was ready for a second, a third, and so forth, but competition for Barbara’s time was fierce, and he needed to wait his turn. Several young men were vying for her attention, including a missionary she was writing to while he served. “I have always been one who has enjoyed a challenge,” President Ballard said. He asked for the second date and took his place in the queue.

“I was smitten on the second date,” he said. “She was not only beautiful but had a sparkling personality.” The thing that really impressed the returned missionary was how genuine and down-to-earth she was. “People liked her because she was easy to like,” President Ballard said. “She was approachable and friendly to everyone. As a result, she had many friends, both young women and young men, who admired her depth and goodness.”

Barbara was more cautious with her emotions: “I was impressed, but I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship. I was 18 and had three years of college in front of me.”

Barbara Bowen was the daughter of James Russell Bowen and Afton Wilkins. Her parents were good, honorable, hard-working people of modest means. She was born on January 5, 1932, in Salt Lake City. During her childhood and youth she lived with her parents and her sister, Joyce, in a duplex on Roberta Street in Salt Lake City, where she and Joyce shared a room. Barbara had attended Lincoln Junior High and quickly became a leader among the students there. At South High School she was a student-body officer for two years before being named class valedictorian. She was studying English at the University [of Utah] and was a member of the Chi Omega sorority. “As I look back at it, I was pretty audacious, thinking I could just step in ahead of these other young men who were interested in her,” he said, chuckling, years later. “But at the time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. She and I belonged together. To me, it was that simple.”

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Barbara and Russell

Not that there wasn’t anything else to occupy Russ’s mind during those first weeks and months after his mission. University classes demanded his attention, and the Sigma Chi fraternity could not be ignored. Russ was dubbed “the bishop” and was expected to keep his fraternity friends in check. There was also his work as a car salesman at Ballard Motor Company to fit in his schedule.

On one of his first days back at work, Russ met Thomas S. Monson. Of that meeting, President Monson recalled:

“I have known Elder M. Russell Ballard, whom I call ‘Russ,’ since I was a young advertising executive with the Deseret News. … In this capacity I was visiting one day with my good friend Melvin Ballard, proprietor of Ballard Motor Company in Salt Lake City, when he said to me, ‘Tom, I’d like you to meet my son, Russ. He’s just returned from his mission to the British Isles.’ When Russ was introduced and we shook hands … he was enthusiastic about his service in Great Britain, said he had the most wonderful mission presidents in the world, and his enthusiasm for the gospel and sharing it just seemed to exude from him as though he were still in the mission field and was working on Melvin Ballard and me.”

With a myriad of thoughts swirling in his mind—his mission and commitment to the faith, university studies, the pull of friends (especially this intriguing and important new friend Barbara Bowen), and selecting a career path—Russ received an invitation from his great-uncle John F. Bowman, who was a patriarch, to receive a second patriarchal blessing. He felt that Russ’s first blessing, though inspired, was not complete. On October 11, 1950, Russ was offered a patriarchal blessing by the same man who baptized him in the Salt Lake Tabernacle font. A portion of that blessing reads:

“Your great mission here upon the earth will be in preaching the gospel and working for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God, which you will accomplish with marked success. … You will be called, as you have been in the past, … [to] great positions of leadership and responsibility in the church, and will be looked upon by your associates as a man of God, and your influence will always be one for good.”

Engagement

By winter of 1950 there was no question in Russ’s mind that he loved Barbara and wanted to marry her. Every time he was with her, he became more convinced of it. And despite the still-sizable list of suitors who continued to pursue her, Barbara was becoming increasingly enamored of persistent, persuasive, and perfectly charming Russ Ballard—especially after the Christmas present he gave her.

Barbara was becoming increasingly enamored of persistent, persuasive, and perfectly charming Russ Ballard—especially after the Christmas present he gave her.

“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.”

Barbara loved the sweater set, and she was touched by the story of how and when he purchased it. She was growing to love Russ—no question about it. But she just wasn’t sure the time was right for her to marry. “I felt that he knew where he was going,” Barbara said. “He certainly was confident and knew what he wanted in life and how he was going to get there.” Although she loved and honored her father as a great and good man, he was not active in the Church, and so she was moved by Russ’s devotion to the Lord and was as attracted to his sweet love of the gospel as she was to his dynamic personality. “I wanted to marry someone who honored the priesthood and who would go to church with me, who would take our children to church,” she said.

There was so much good in Russ and in her growing relationship with him. The more time they spent together, the closer she felt to him. But she didn’t know for sure that marriage to Russ was the right answer for her—at least not immediately. She was not yet 20 and was excited to continue with her schooling. She was popular, with many young men clamoring for her attention.

And then there was the matter of her mother.

It wasn’t that Afton Bowen didn’t like Russ. She liked him fine. But she felt Barbara was still too young to get married, and she made no secret of that fact. Russ saw Sister Bowen’s perspective as an obstacle that needed to be conquered, and, as was his custom, he decided to confront this issue head-on. One day when Barbara wasn’t home, Russ dropped in on Afton and spent an afternoon talking to her, answering her questions, getting to know her and her background, and helping her get to know him a little better. She was interested in the fact that Russ’s parents were not active in the Church—that seemed to give them some common ground. After three hours of conversation, Russ emerged with great love and appreciation for Barbara’s mother—and with more of an ally in the wooing of Barbara than he had before.

Still, the major obstacle that needed to be overcome was Barbara’s own uncertainty in the matter. “I had already made my decision,” President Ballard said. “I knew what I wanted to have happen here. And I believed it was the right thing for both Barbara and me. But it wasn’t enough for me to know. Barbara needed to have her own witness of this—she had to know for herself that this was the right thing for her to do, independent of whatever prompting or revelation I had received.”

On many different occasions on his mission, Russ had seen miracles wrought through fasting and prayer. And so he suggested that he and Barbara take a weekend away from each other to devote to personal fasting and prayer for Barbara to receive an answer from heaven on the most important decision she would make in her life. Barbara agreed, and they spent a weekend apart, fasting and praying. When Russ arrived at the Bowen home on Sunday afternoon after their fast, Barbara burst through the front door, ran down the stairs, threw her arms around Russ, and told him she had her answer. She spoke of receiving a sure confirmation from the Lord that they were to be eternal companions. They were engaged on April 6, 1951.

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Barabara and Russell cutting their wedding cake.


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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