Interview Transcript Available Below
Prior to his calling as a general authority seventy, Elder and Sister Groberg (Jean Sabin) lived in Idaho Falls, where Elder Groberg worked in a family-owned residential and commercial construction and land development business with his brothers. He was an eagle scout and holds a BS degree from BYU and an MBA from Indiana University. He served as bishop, mission president in Tonga, and regional representative, before being called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976. In the latter service he served for a time as area president over the Asia, Utah South and North America West areas at various times. On church assignments the Grobergs have lived in Utah, Hong Kong, Idaho Falls, Argentina, Tonga and Hawaii. They have owned a home in Bountiful, Utah since 1978 and served as temple president and matron of the Idaho Falls Temple following service as an active general authority. Elder Groberg has authored five books, typically at the urging of others. His first book, dealing with his experiences as a young missionary in Tonga, was made into a 2001 movie, The Other Side of Heaven, starring Anne Hathaway and Chris Gorham. It was filmed in New Zealand and the Cook Islands and was directed by Mitch Davis. Elder Groberg wrote the book at the urging of President Thomas S. Monson, a member of the First Presidency.
- Why The Other Side of Heaven (Eye of the Storm) Was Written (1:30)
- Serving as Bishop (12:00)
- Called to Serve as Mission President (17:41)
- Serving as a Regional Representative—tantamount to present-day Area Authority Seventy (33:18)
- Serving as a General Authority (35:39)
- Serving as President of the Idaho Falls Temple, 2005-2008 (58:10)
Kurt Francom: Today, I’m not too far from my home in Bountiful, Utah, in the home of Elder John Groberg. How are you?
John Groberg: Just fine.
Kurt Francom: Good, I appreciate you taking some time for us to chat. We actually ran into each other. You were at the BYU Bookstore during Education Week.
John Groberg: Right.
Kurt Francom: Is that something you typically do?
John Groberg: No, that was the first time I’ve done it, in fact.
Kurt Francom: Oh, really?
John Groberg: Maybe the second.
Kurt Francom: And you were kind enough to sign some books for me, and I was a bit nervous, I said, “Hey, would you ever consider doing an interview for my podcast?” And here we are. I appreciate you being open to that.
John Groberg: Thank you.
Kurt Francom: Now, how long have you lived here in Bountiful?
John Groberg: We’ve been here since 1978. That is, it’s been our home base. We’ve lived in Hong Kong and Argentina and Tonga and Hawaii and Idaho Falls, and during that time we just rented it out, but we’ve been here just shortly after I was called as a general authority. They asked us to be in the Salt Lake area.
Kurt Francom: Now, I’m sure many listening that are … you were giving conference talks before I was even born, but I remember you and obviously, on my mission, I was serving in Sacramento, California and I remember the day that my mission president called us and said, “Hey, guess what? I’m taking you to a movie.” And we thought, “A movie, wow. On our mission, we can go to a movie theater?” And there we went and saw The Other Side of Heaven.
And so tell us about that. How did that movie come to be? And for those maybe not familiar with you and your background, what context could you give us?
John Groberg: Well, the genesis of it was when I was serving as mission president in Tonga the youngest member of the Quorum of the Twelve at that time, was Thomas S. Monson.
Kurt Francom: Oh, wow.
John Groberg: And so he was our supervisor. He came many times to Tonga while Jean and I were serving as mission president. And I guess he heard a lot of stories, and shortly after, I was called as a general authority. He talked to me one day and said, “John, you need to write a book about your experiences as a missionary in Tonga because that’s a chapter of church history. If you don’t write it, it’s going to be lost because the way your mission was is not the way missions are going to be much in the future.”
Kurt Francom: That’s for sure.
John Groberg: And so I said, “Okay.” Because I never thought of doing that. And then a little while later, he said, “How are you coming?” And I said, “Well I’m still thinking about it,” and then a little while later, “How are you coming?” And I said, “I’ve got an outline and as you deal with President Monson, you know that, and I’ve learned it over time is that you do what he says it, when he says it.
Kurt Francom: It sounds like he wasn’t going to let it go either.
John Groberg: And so he quickly realized, he says, “Okay, John, I’ll give you one year. I want the manuscript on my desk one year from today.”
Kurt Francom: Oh my goodness, a deadline.
John Groberg: So I ended up writing the book and when I handed it to him, he read through the manuscript I guess, and said, “This is very good but it doesn’t say anything about when you were Mission President,” and I said, “Well, you said when I served as a missionary in Tonga,” and he looked at me and said, “You don’t consider being a mission president a mission?” Because see, he didn’t serve as a young missionary, but he did serve as a Mission President, and of course, I said, “Oh yeah, I’m sorry.” And he said, “You got to write another book. I’ll give you two years on this one, about when you were a Mission President.”
But anyway, that first book at the time, it was called In the Eye of the Storm and years later, a person that had been with Disney read the book, and at the urging of some friends, he decided to become an independent filmmaker. Mitch Davis is his name. And when he read it, he just thought, “I’d like to make a movie of this.” And I had nothing to do with that at all.
But when they came to me and said, “We’d like to make a movie, we’d like to buy the movie rights,” They said, “They’ll have to talk to the First Presidency.” It’s not my book, they asked me to write it and they’ll have to get permission from them. So they did and the First Presidency said as long as you stay close to the book, you don’t wander off like sometimes-
Kurt Francom: Like they do in Hollywood.
John Groberg: We’ll give you permission to do so.
Kurt Francom: And did they wander off too far?
John Groberg: No, the book is like 300 pages and you can only get about 100 pages in a two-hour movie, so they had to leave a lot of things out. And then they combined a lot of events, but everything happened, but the sequences may be slightly different and sometimes they would combine two events into one. But yeah, everything happened and we didn’t even see the movie until it was finished. We just trusted that they would do right, and first time we saw it, President Hinckley, when it was done, said, “I would like to see it before it goes public,” and so he called a special meeting in the Legacy Theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and all the General Authorities that were in town that day, came. And Jean and I came and that was our first time to see it.
And as we sat next to President Hinckley and President Monson and President Faust at the time, we were scared because we didn’t know what the movie was going to be like, but it turned out they enjoyed it, when it was over. I felt a little more comfortable as time went on, when President Monson would say “Yeah” or positive comments and President Faust leaned over a couple times said, “I liked that,” and President Hinckley similarly.
But when it was finished, President Hinckley got up and just said to Mitch Davis who was in front, just poked him with a cane and says, “Good job young man. I like it. I think this movie will do a lot of good. We’ll see you.”
Kurt Francom: And off they went to the next meeting. And didn’t you have a cameo in the movie during the wedding scene? Is that right?
John Groberg: That’s right, at the wedding scene. I know President Monson has often told me. He said, “You know my favorite part of the movie?” And I says, “What?” And he says, “Seeing you and Jean wave goodbye to yourself when you get married.” We just happened to be in New Zealand, actually on another assignment, when they were finishing up there, and they said, “You’ve got to be in this scene.” So I’m hiding behind the camera and my wife’s got a big floppy hat on and we had a couple of other family members there. But anyway, you wouldn’t notice it unless you’re looking for it.
Kurt Francom: Exactly. Now, when President Monson asked you to put this manuscript together, you’ve gone on to write other books, so was this kind of … were you a writer before this?
John Groberg: Not really, no, that was really the introduction. I wrote that one and then as I mentioned, that second one was about when I was Mission President. Both of those were by assignment and I just had the feeling, well since it appears that they’re helpful to a lot of people, maybe I ought to continue writing. And so I’ve written actually, a total of five books now.
Kurt Francom: And even some as recent as the last few years, right?
John Groberg: Yeah.
Kurt Francom: And really, a lot of them have paralleled some of your service. As a Temple President, you wrote about the temple. As you approach a book project, or is it an idea that comes to your mind? “I think that would be a good book. I’m going to dig into that.”
John Groberg: I actually just have, from the beginning, I didn’t really think much of … my missionary experiences, even though they’re relatively unusual at the time, they seemed just normal to me. That was just the way things were. But as I see the principles that come from them, that are helpful to people and as I received literally, thousands of letters of appreciation, I realized, you don’t go about it to become famous or to get praised. But if it does help people, then it’s worth the effort.
It’s a lot of work, as you know, writing a book is a huge project. It’s not something that I just sit around and say, “Hey, I’d like to write a book.” But as I think, what should I do with my life? And you know, the Lord’s given me these various experiences and if they’re helpful to other people, then I shouldn’t hold back. So that’s kind of the way I approach it.
Kurt Francom: Yeah, I definitely want to go into some of those topics that coordinate with some of the callings you’ve had, but I think a lot of people are familiar with you, obviously, as the missionary in The Other Side of Heaven, but also as the member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. What was your life like before that call to the Seventy? Obviously, you were Mission President. What other callings before that, of leadership, did you have opportunity to serve in?
John Groberg: After my mission, my first mission, we went on to school for a few years, got an MBA from Indiana after graduating from BYU. And Jean and I were married just shortly after I returned from my mission. Then we moved back to Idaho Falls, where I went into a family business. My father was into insurance and real estate and farming and I just kind of went in to help and we ended up going into construction and land development, which my father was one of the most wonderful men you could meet. But he grew up in the Depression, and he was very very opposed to getting into any kind of debt. And it’s hard to build houses without getting loans.
So my brother came, graduated from the Y, and came up and helped and we worked for quite a few years, just in building, sort of in connection with, but separate from my father. Because he just simply refused to sign anything. But it worked out very well. So that’s what we did, is we built homes and some light commercial. We didn’t ever get into any … we were never very big, but it was a successful business.
Kurt Francom: And this is in Idaho Falls area?
John Groberg: This is in Idaho Falls and then actually, a year after I came back from Indiana to Idaho Falls, they called me as Bishop of our Ward, and it was a young ward in a growing area. We had … I started, we had about 500 members, and a year and a half later, we had over 1,100 members in our ward. It was one of those growing areas.
And I talked to the Stake President about dividing it and, he says, “You can’t divide it until you have a place to meet,” because all the buildings were full. The whole town was growing.
Kurt Francom: And back then it wasn’t like today, where all of a sudden, a church pops up. There’s some funds, that have some fundraising-
John Groberg: At that time, we had to raise 50% and the church would come up with 50%. So it took us a little while, but we eventually got the building built and the person that was assigned to come and dedicate the building was Gordon B. Hinckley. He was a member of the Twelve at the time. And so anyway, we finished the building. Then after that, I was called as Mission President.
Kurt Francom: So you went from being Bishop to Mission President.
John Groberg: Right.
Kurt Francom: Wow. During that time as bishop, is there a certain principle or concept? Like if you were to give one piece of advice to a new bishop, from your experience as a bishop, what would that be?
John Groberg: I don’t know that I can limit it to one.
Kurt Francom: It’s tough, right?
John Groberg: But I think obviously, the most important thing is to rely on the Spirit of the Lord. I know a lot of promptings that you receive are very counter intuitive. I’ll just give one quick example, I remember of a lady who was a member, but not active and her husband was not a member. But they had a couple of children, but they didn’t come. I talked to them and he said, “Look, we go fishing and camping on weekends and so we’re just not available. I’m not even interested in.”
And I remember of going to a training. Stake Conference … it wasn’t Stake Conference. I guess it was, from some general authority, and part of the training was you never call people on the phone. And that’s right, you should call them in the office.
Kurt Francom: As far as extending a call.
John Groberg: But I was in the office, bishops office, and I just had this … I was going over the list. I had a list of all the people in the ward. In those days, we had IBM cards that had everyone’s name listed on it. And I just had it divided into two categories. One is people with callings and the other was people without callings. And so I just prayed about who should be where and the objective was to get everyone with a calling. That was kind of the feeling I had.
And this particular time, I looked at this card of this girl and normally, would just set it aside, because her husband has said, “We’re not going to be interested.” And I just had the feeling, just give her a call, right now. And call her to the primary. And I hesitated for a minute, but the feeling was, give her a call right now.
So I picked up the phone and gave her a call and talked to her and said, “I’d like to extend a calling to you, and she says, “Bishop, you know that you’ve already talked my husband and he says we’re not here on Sunday.” I said, “I know, this is a calling to the primary.” In those days, primary met on Wednesday-
Kurt Francom: During the week.
John Groberg: And it was just after school and the kids all just came to primary and I said, “No, this is the primary and it’s on Wednesday and you can bring your kids and it wouldn’t interfere with your weekends at all, and I’m sure your husband.” She says, “He happens to be here right now, let me just ask him.” Because he worked out of town quite a bit, but he was there right then, and he said, “If it’s Wednesday, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our weekends.”
So she accepted the call and over time became quite active, and of course, when the kids, when they did the primary program they said, “Oh, come on Daddy, please come to the program.” Anyway, to make a long story short, within a few years, it wasn’t immediate, but within a few years, he took the missionary lessons. He joined the church, they got sealed in the temple and so forth. And I thought it was just that moment, right then, that needed …
So I think that’s the thing, is to respond to the Spirit, and then look at everyone not for their problems or talents or anything, but just the idea, they have an opportunity to help build the Kingdom of God. How does our Father in Heaven want them to do it at this particular stage in their life? That was the idea, was 100% participation, if we possibly could.
Kurt Francom: Yeah, wow. So then you went from being Bishop on your mission. How soon did you find out you were going back to Tonga? Was that pretty soon in the process?
John Groberg: Actually, there was a very unusual thing. Today, you know, they interview people ahead and find out what their work schedule is. I actually was serving as Bishop and enjoyed the work that I was doing there, and had no idea that anything was coming. And one day, Jean called and said, “John, you better come home. There’s a letter,” and I said, “What kind of a letter is this?”
Kurt Francom: And how old were you? Just to put this into perspective.
John Groberg: I was 27 at the time. No, I was 27 when I was called as Bishop.
Kurt Francom: Oh, gotcha.
John Groberg: Sorry. And I served for just short of five years, about four, basically, five years. So I was 31 when he called me as Mission President. But anyway, when Jean said, “You better come home,” and I said, “Well what is it?” She said, “It’s a letter from Salt Lake.” I said, “Bishops get lots of letters from Salt Lake.” She says, “Yeah, but this one says Elder John H. Groberg, not Bishop John H. Groberg.
Kurt Francom: My goodness, right on the envelope.
John Groberg: And so I came home and there was a little FP up in the corner, which I learned later meant the First Presidency. So opened it and the letter just said, “Dear Elder Goldberg, you are hereby called to serve as a Mission President.” This was in late April, and, “You’re to report to Salt Lake in the middle of June for a mission president seminar,” and that was it. And I just I said … Jean was expect … we had four daughters at the time. She was expecting a child. I remember my first question to her was, “How quick can you have this baby? We’ve got to be in Salt Lake,” on June the 20th or 25th, whatever date it was.
And so I didn’t know quite what to do. I kind of talked to our Stake President and asked if he knew anything. I didn’t tell him because it said to not say anything until … it actually said, until you receive an official letter, and I wasn’t sure if this was the official letter. And so I could tell the Stake President didn’t have any clue of what was going on. And so I just kind of kept quiet, and a few days later, a good friend of my father’s came up, and he had just been called as Mission President to Hawaii from Woodbury.
And as he was talking I said, “You seem to feel free about talking about going to Hawaii,” and he said, “Yeah, when they talked to me, they said don’t say anything until you get the letter, and once you get the letter, then you can tell people.” I said, “Oh, okay.” So when he left and that evening I talked to my folks and said, “I guess this is the letter then. So we’re going to go on a mission.” That’s the way it happened.
Kurt Francom: So in that initial letter, it didn’t say anything about Tonga.
John Groberg: No.
Kurt Francom: It came as another letter.
John Groberg: Yeah.
Kurt Francom: Did you get any phone call from Salt Lake?
John Groberg: No. Just within the next day or two, we got these applications and passport things and it said, to Tonga.
Kurt Francom: So it wasn’t even the official like, you’re hereby called type of letter.
John Groberg: It says, “You’re hereby called to serve as Mission President.”
Kurt Francom: Okay, but not when you find out where, right?
John Groberg: No, that was a couple days later. That kind of came through Murdoch Travel, at the time.
Kurt Francom: Oh, really. Interesting. Were you hoping to go back to Tonga? I would imagine, I think every missionary-
John Groberg: Oh, we would love … I think that’s true, every missionary would like to go back to where they served.
Kurt Francom: And then the travel arrangements come. Now, I think when a Mission President is called, let’s gather the family, the letter is here. We’re going to open the letter and read it, but you didn’t have that type of scenario.
John Groberg: No, we didn’t, but of course, when we did find out and everything, because we had to take passport pictures, I remember Jean, this was kind of the end of April and the baby was born about the middle of May and we were waiting on passports because she had to be born on and I know on her passport it says, age, one day. So just as soon as she was born, we got her picture and of course Jean was still in the hospital and I know when Jean saw the passport pictures, because I just kind of worked with the kids and she was really a gas. Because some of the girls had jam on their faces and … “You could have cleaned them up a little bit.” I said, “I just wanted to get the passport pictures done.”
Kurt Francom: It sounds like you’re a husband. Many of us can relate to … that’s great. So you go off the Tonga and I’m sure, this was a three year assignment and interacted back with the people you’re familiar with, and to be honest, I didn’t know there was a book about your time as a missionary. I have to check that out. What about the mission stands out, as far as your personal leadership development?
John Groberg: I think the main thing again, was on an individual basis. I think I’ve learned quite well, because it’s been pounded into me, that groups are fine and you have to deal with them, but the Lord cares about individuals. And if you’re going to get help from the Lord, yes, he does give revelations that apply to everything. For instance, as Mission President, I had the impression that we needed to hold a 50th anniversary jubilee, golden jubilee for the church being in Tonga for 50 years. So that was a general, overall.
And those come, but I would say 99% of the impressions I had were call this individual or talk to this person or something like that. Of course, as a mission president, you deal with the missionaries one-on-one, and at the time, we had no stake. So all of the members were in wards or branches and districts, so they all came under the Mission President.
Kurt Francom: I would imagine that was your first feeling of being a general authority, right? That everybody looked at you like you are the general authority of this country. You had to be proactive about reaching out to the one, because it’s easy to go to meeting to meeting, but to be proactive in reaching out.
John Groberg: Calling district presidencies and branch presidencies, working with the district presidents, and my experience was that you just worked. When you got the right person in the right place, then you give them as much authority as they possibly can handle, and try and stay out of their way, other than giving them direction. But I would say that I was very blessed, because there were good leaders there. The Tongan people are wonderful leaders. They have their problems like everyone else does, but just generally speaking, they were loyal, they were true and they were hard workers.
Kurt Francom: And I think that, just from your mission experience as a younger missionary from The Other Side of Heaven, just the raw faith of these people. And some of those experiences were, and I loved the experience that you also mentioned in one of your conference talks of … I forget the exact verbiage, but I will be the Lord’s wind or something like that. What a great principle of sometimes that miracle doesn’t come and we have to be the miracle. That’s great. Anything else about that your time as a Mission President? Obviously, we could talk several hours on this, but that stands out about leadership.
John Groberg: Well, I think the idea that the Lord’s going to solve all your problems is maybe kind of overblown. What he does is he gives you the strength to handle but he doesn’t solve them necessarily, other than … he doesn’t make them go away, he just gives you the strength. One of the big things was the birth of … we had five daughters, the first, that we took with us down there. And I was good friends with the King and the Queen, because I had known them on my first mission, when it was Prince and Princess.
Kurt Francom: Not too many people can say that phrase. You said, “I was good friends with the King and the Queen.”
John Groberg: The Queen often said, because Jean was expecting, partway through the mission and the Queen said, “You’re going to have a boy, you’ve got five girls, time to have a boy now. You’ve come to Tonga to have a boy.” And we did. When the baby was born, it was-
Kurt Francom: There in Tonga.
John Groberg: In Tonga. It was a boy, but unfortunately, he was born with some congenital health problems, they turned out to be kidney problems we didn’t know what they were and they didn’t … and so, you just think automatically, well, we’re here, we’re doing the Lord’s business and he wants us. And then when all of a sudden, it dawns on you that you’ve got a child that’s really really sick and probably isn’t going to live, he just got totally dehydrated.
President Monson came through. He was up and down and up and down. President Monson was there and saw he was in a pretty good state at the time, but we told him that he’d been up and down and he just observed and said, “Keep me informed.” And then we went to Fiji, we toured the mission together and Fiji was part of our mission at the time and he left for New Zealand and I went to the airport to fly back to Tonga.
And at the airport, I got this call and one of the airport attendants, it’s a fairly small airport, and I flew in and out a lot, so they knew who I was. And he said, “Mr. Groberg, you have a telephone call,” and I said, “I’ve got to catch this plane,” and he said, “I’ll hold the plane for you, take this call.” And it was Elder Monson, he was calling from New Zealand, he said, “John, how’s the baby?” And I said, “I was just going back. I got a call from Jean saying that he’s kind of taken a turn for the worse.” And he said, “I’m here in a barber’s office getting my haircut but I just had the impression. Call President Groberg and tell him to have his wife go to the States and take the baby.”
So I got back to Tonga and John Enoch, our little son, was really in bad shape. Totally dehydrated, top of his head was caved in, his eyes were way back in his head and listless, just not even crying. It was just a pathetic sight. And of course, we prayed and prayed and then we found out that the saints and the missionaries all fasted and prayed. And even the Queen and many people who weren’t members of the church fasted and prayed also.
And I got this knock on the door, when it just looked like he was fading out and some of the leaders came and they just said, “President Groberg, we just wanted you to know that he’s going to be all right. We fasted and prayed and the Lord told us he’s going to be all right, but you do need to follow the advice of the Brethren.” I told them that President Monson or Elder Monson at the time, had asked us to take him to Salt Lake, but the doctors there said, no, he wouldn’t last, so don’t even consider that. But they said, no, you need to get him.
At the time, they did the very best they could, but they just didn’t have the equipment. They didn’t know what was wrong with him. They knew he needed fluid but they didn’t have any baby needles, so there was no way they could get-
Kurt Francom: Like an IV or something. Wow.
John Groberg: And they couldn’t get it into his veins because he was so dehydrated and collapsed, everything was … and just then, a doctor or a TMP, they called him a Tongan Medical practitioner, just arrived back from training in Australia, actually, just the day before, and he said, “They taught me a procedure called a cut-down and you do something in the ankle and you balloon up the vein, then you can stick an adult needle in.” And he did it and he got the IV and his eyes came back a little bit and he filled out and so the doctor said, “I think you can take him to … I think he’ll last,” to America.
Kurt Francom: Wow, what a miracle.
John Groberg: So, but then of course, the big problem we had is how did we get him into America, because they don’t have an embassy in Tonga, an American Embassy, and so we couldn’t get a passport. But I talked to the British Consulate there and he gave us what we call a certificate of identity and we called the American Consul in Fiji and he said, “We’ll accept that.”
So anyway, Jean and the baby got back, and they found that he had a very serious kidney problem, but they were able to operate and fix it and he’s now married and he served a mission in Brazil and has a son that served a mission in Bolivia and one that’s presently serving in Ecuador.
Kurt Francom: I’m so glad there’s a happy ending to that. What a great story. Miracle, for sure. So you come home from your mission and was it just a few years later you were called as a-
John Groberg: When I came home from my mission, we arrived home in July, and in August they called me to be a regional representative.
Kurt Francom: And that would be an area authority now?
John Groberg: Right, it’s the same as an area authority.
Kurt Francom: And for those, are you set apart as a Seventy? Or ordained to the office of the Seventy?
John Groberg: At that time, we were just set apart as a regional representative, they called it a regional representative. I was living in Idaho Falls, and the region they gave me to supervise was the South Pacific. So I commuted, I would go to state conferences, so my commute to Tahiti and Tonga and Samoa and Fiji and-
Kurt Francom: You spent a lot of time on an airplane.
John Groberg: 25,000 mile commute, round trip, for conferences, but it was wonderful.
Kurt Francom: And was that … I would imagine it was every weekend, you were-
John Groberg: No, no, I probably went four or five times a year is all. Because I would combine stake conferences and hold one in Samoa, one in Tonga and one in Hawaii maybe, or something like that. But that went on for seven years and then-
Kurt Francom: And during this time, you’re running your business, living your life and you’re being a father.
John Groberg: Yeah, and so we had more children and business and so forth, but I was gone, normally I was gone for two weeks, sometimes up to three weeks. Four or five times a year, so that took a big chunk out of my work schedule. But fortunately, my brothers were very helpful and the way things went on. In seven years, they released me as a regional representative. After seven years.
Kurt Francom: Was that a typical timeframe for a regional rep?
John Groberg: It was. They kind of indicated five to six years. This went on seven and … so when I was released in December, I just thought, okay, well that’s wonderful. And then I got a call from Elder Hinckley and he wanted me to go on a … he was going to create a new stake in … I can’t remember where now and wanted me to come with him and I just mentioned, and I said, “I’ve just been released as regional representative.” He says, “What does that have to do with it? You’re going to come with me or not?” I said, “Yes, I’ll come with you.” And so at the April conference, they called me as a general authority.
Kurt Francom: What do you remember about that interaction of actually receiving that call? How did that work back then?
John Groberg: I just got a call from Salt Lake, from Arthur Haycock, and he said, “President Kimball would like to visit with you tomorrow morning at eight o’clock. Can you come here to Salt Lake?” And I said, “Sure.”
Kurt Francom: And you’re in Idaho Falls.
John Groberg: I’m in Idaho Falls, so I drove down. I didn’t tell Jean anything about it because I assumed that I knew they were planning a regional conference there, and I just assumed that he would want to talk to me about details.
Kurt Francom: And so Jean didn’t go with you.
John Groberg: No, and so I went in and President Kimball just talked to me for a few moments and called me as a general authority, and it was a wonderful wonderful experience. He’s a great man and I said, “Yeah, sure. Is it alright if I tell my wife?” Because this was just a few days before conference. And he said, “Oh sure.”
Kurt Francom: And during that time, there wasn’t this emeritus status of Seventy. So did you receive this as if this is the rest of my life calling?
John Groberg: That’s right, he said, “You’re here, I’m calling you to serve as a general authority for the rest of your life.”
Kurt Francom: Oh, wow.
John Groberg: And so it was a wonderful … I had great great interaction with President Kimball and President Monson and President Hinckley. Anyway, it was just a wonderful wonderful period of time.
Kurt Francom: And during that time, it was full of visiting stakes and did you go back to the-
John Groberg: Well, what happened is my first assignment, I was living in Idaho Falls, as you know, sustained at April conference. Then they said your first assignment will be to move to Hawaii and supervise all of the Pacific Islands. Hawaii’s closer than Salt Lake. And then we were there for a couple of years and then they called us back to Salt Lake. That’s when we came here.
Kurt Francom: And moved into this home. During that time, visiting, I guess, maybe thousands of stake conferences during that time, and a lot of time, you are a companion to maybe an apostle or another Seventy or area rep. I love these stories where they talk about … “I was going to a stake conference with Elder Maxwell or whatever it is and he taught me this great principle.”
Any specific story that comes to mind? I’m sure there’s many of them, but any that come to mind?
John Groberg: Well, of course I’ve been to many stake conferences with President Monson, with President Packer, all of the Brethren and Neil Maxwell. I remember Bruce McConkie, Elder McConkie, I should say. Elder on all of these. Some of the ones that I remember at the time going with LeGrande Richards, for instance, and I remember, we went to a stake conference in Arizona, and we flew to Phoenix, but it was up in Holbrook, so we drove up and I asked him a few questions. And he said, “Are you really interested in church history?” And I said, “I really am,” and he says, “All right, but once I get started it’s hard to turn me off.
And so for several hours he just taught me church history, everything he remembered from … and he was a real character. He had a way of telling stories, but as I look back, every one of them had a principle involved and basically, the principle was be obedient. Just be obedient to the Brethren, and I remember of going with Elder Maxwell when he was kind of in the latter stages of his cancer treatment, and it was up in Logan, and again, we drove him up. I remember of him saying, “I normally don’t do this, but I have a feeling that I’m not going to be around very long, so I want you to conduct the sessions, have the intermediate hymn right after an hour and then just turn the rest of the time over to me.” He said, “I normally don’t take that long, but I just feel like I should take that last hour, because I don’t think I’ll ever get back here.”
And again, I thought, what a humble thing. Normally, you think humility is just saying a few words, but he was not feeling well and he had that impression I should spend this last hour or most of the hour, and he just bore testimony, basically, and taught. So you just … it was all over the board and I remember others saying, “I really feel like a half an hour is plenty,” and others longer and shorter, and I realized you just have to go by the Spirit. There’s not one size that fits all.
Kurt Francom: What did you learn, either from these Brethren you went with, or others as you went to different stake conferences, about just running a meeting and organizing a meeting, presiding over a meeting. Any thoughts that come to mind about that?
John Groberg: One of the things I learned very quickly was that it’s hard work. I remember being with President Kimball on several occasions and he just interviewed and interviewed and interviewed and he just talked to everyone. And others didn’t quite. They would talk to, but not to the extent. Everyone is different, I just learned. The Lord touches different people, but I remember one time President Kimball saying, “Okay, I’m going to lay down for 12 minutes,” and he said, “I want you to stand by the door and don’t let anyone in for those 12 minutes.” And literally he laid down on the carpet floor and-
Kurt Francom: Like in a Stake President’s office? Wow.
John Groberg: And by the time I closed the door, he was out, and I thought, “I’ll time,” and so it got close to 12 minutes, 11 minutes or something and I thought I don’t know whether I should go in-
Kurt Francom: Don’t want to wake him up or startle him.
John Groberg: And I just heard a knock on the door and he said, “Okay, ready to go.”
Kurt Francom: Wow, next interview, huh?
John Groberg: Next interview.
Kurt Francom: Wow, that’s interesting. And I think that’s helpful to see. What I’m hearing you say is that every general authority that may visit a stake handled it differently, and approached it through their own inspiration and in spirit and there wasn’t a right or wrong way, necessarily.
John Groberg: Yeah, that’s right. There’s about three principles that really stand out. Number one is you go by the Spirit. Number two you express a strong testimony and number three you express love for the people. And that comes out in the testimony and it comes out as you respond to the Spirit. So while I say everyone is different, they’re all alike in that sense. They all bore strong testimony, they all exuded love for the people and they all followed the promptings of the Spirit. And that’s where the difference … and that’s what the scriptures say, there’s differences in administration. This stake needs this, this stake needs this. This, and so forth.
But I was very blessed. I remember Elder McConkie on a few occasions, I was with him in Arizona and he was suffering at the time, just like Elder Maxwell was, and I remember him going through and I said, “Now, is there anything I can do to help you?” And he said, “Yeah,” and he went like going 100 miles an hour and he says, “When I’m through I’m through, I want that to be the end,” not other things after. And I thought he gave his all and then that was that.
Kurt Francom: He drew a boundary there.
John Groberg: Yeah.
Kurt Francom: So when the meeting is over, I don’t want following meetings.
John Groberg: Yeah, he just said … it’s kind of hard to explain. He wasn’t like closed or anything like that. It was just like, okay, this is it, let’s just get to the airport and go. Whereas I was with President Monson, at a temple dedication and I remember the security people saying we’ve got to go, the plane is waiting. He says, “Tell them to wait a little longer. I’ve got people I want to talk to.”
So the idea is the Spirit touches different people in different ways at different times, but I think those principles of following the Spirit, expressing love and bearing strong testimony, that’s what a calling as a general authority is, to testify of the Savior, testify of the Prophet, Joseph of the restoration, and do it in a loving way and yet be responsive to the Spirit.
I remember once when we were living in South America and going to a stake conference in Chile, and it was the first time … maybe not the first time, but one of the first times where we sustained the Stake President, there were some, “No.”
Kurt Francom: Oh, some opposition.
John Groberg: Once in awhile I’d seen it, but this was like quite a few, and I really had the impression, don’t let this pass, take care of it right now. And so we stopped the conference and I called the people in. They had some very serious concerns, but it wasn’t done behind the back. I had the Stake President there and anyway, we were able to reconcile everything, but it was something that had to be done. It had to be reconciled. It wasn’t just something that would have gone away.
Normally, if there’s one or two, you talk to them or have them talk to the Stake President or something. That’s the only time I felt that impression to do that, but we did and it worked out.
Kurt Francom: I’m curious. Did it end up being a different Stake President that was called?
John Groberg: No, we got it worked out. There were some very serious misunderstandings.
Kurt Francom: You just had to address and clear up?
John Groberg: Yeah.
Kurt Francom: So was everybody waiting in the chapel as you-
John Groberg: Yeah, they just waited.
Kurt Francom: We’ll be right back. Sing a hymn or two. How interesting. So what was the … obviously on weekends, as a general authority, you’re at stake conferences. What was the day-to-day today like for you? Did you have specific responsibilities that changed?
John Groberg: Yes, I worked in various callings at church headquarters, a lot in the family history, it used to be the genealogy, but family history priesthood department. I remember when I worked with the church magazines and part of my assignment was to read the articles before they were printed and it’s amazing. The Lord blesses you. I don’t particularly look at myself as a good editor or a good reader, but I read every word of every Friend, every New Era, every Ensign for a couple of years, or several years. And I don’t know that I could do it again, but when you’re called to do something, you’re given special blessings. And I would go through, and they’re not a lot, but no, there’s something wrong here.
Kurt Francom: And they’d look into it further, address it?
John Groberg: Yeah.
Kurt Francom: Wow. Obviously, as a Seventy, you’re called upon to speak in general conference and we just came out of the general conference this past weekend, as we record. What do you remember, as far as that preparation process and the delivery and presentation process of giving a talk in general conference?
John Groberg: It is a lot of work. It’s not something where you just sit down to receive inspiration and bang, bang. You’ve heard from a lot of the Brethren how many different drafts they go through.
Kurt Francom: Yeah, you mentioned in this past one.
John Groberg: It was the same with me. I would say, even on writing chapters in the book, my wife types them all and it’s like 20 drafts before you get to the final. It’s the same with general conference talks, maybe even more, because you’re trying to refine it right down to exactly and you’re very prayerful. And I would say that most of the talks, you always pray about what the Lord wants you to say.
Kurt Francom: Because you’re not given an assignment or topic.
John Groberg: Right. And most of the time, I had a fairly good impression at the general idea and would go that way. I remember one particular talk that I was working on and it just wasn’t working. And I was over to a Stake Conference in Hawaii and I just had a feeling that I needed some time, so I asked the Stake President, I said, “I’d like to spend some time or a few hours alone here.” I did and as I was working on this talk, the impression just came to me very strongly. It’s the wrong direction. The reason you’re stymied is because that isn’t the message I want you to give this time.
And then I really was just kind of, okay, then what? And it took a long time and a lot of prayer a lot of … you talk about wrestling with the Lord and with angels. There’s wrestling in the spirit. But finally, the idea came, okay, and as soon as the idea came, it just flowed and rather than 20 drafts, probably 4 or 5, and it was done. But I can testify that the Brethren are inspired when they give their talks. This is not something that they just, oh, what would be good and what does the Lord want me to say?
Kurt Francom: Yeah, there’s a wrestle in that process. And I would imagine, it’s not that … you can’t … if you’re speaking Saturday afternoon, you can’t be typing out some things Saturday morning. There’s a deadline there.
John Groberg: Yeah, and of course, you have to get it in ahead for the translators and so forth.
Kurt Francom: That’s fascinating and that’s helpful to hear that it’s a process. We like to sometimes romanticize revelation, that I just sit down and just write it out, but there really is this wrestle of getting that message clear, so that it can reach the audience it needs to reach, I’d imagine.
John Groberg: And like I say, sometimes it’s 20, 30 drafts and once in awhile, in fact, I guess only once that I can say that it was pretty clear, it still took a few drafts, but like 4 or 5, rather than 20 or something like that. So the Lord, he gets his message across. The Brethren are called by the Lord, he gets his message through them.
Kurt Francom: That’s fascinating to hear about. And then if I remember right, in the, I want to say early ’80s when that this emeritus status was established, right?
John Groberg: I don’t remember the years.
Kurt Francom: Do you remember when you heard that news, you thought, “Oh, I won’t be in the mix, intensely.”
John Groberg: I’ve never had a problem with whatever the Brethren say, as you meet with them, week after week and monthly in the temple and you watch the spirit of inspiration come. I was very involved with the revelation on the blacks, I remember, and receiving the priesthood. And I can just say, I have zero question that the Brethren are guided by the Lord. He’s in charge and he gives him revelations. And when that came, it was not hard for me at all. It was, well, the Brethren say that, that means that’s the Lord’s will. So it was not something that you fought.
Kurt Francom: And you just look at what’s the next step? How do we move forward? So as you were … it was 2005 that you received emeritus status, right? So this has been about 13 years.
John Groberg: I’ve been 13 years, yeah.
Kurt Francom: Wow. There’s some ward organists that don’t even serve that long. Help us understand what an Emeritus Seventy … are their roles? Is there any function for you now as a Seventy?
John Groberg: When I was put on the emeritus status, President Hinckley called me to be president of the Idaho Falls Temple. So in a way, it was extended for three years. They don’t do that anymore.
Kurt Francom: Oh, really?
John Groberg: That’s not part of being emeritus. There was a time when a lot of emeritus Brethren were called as temple presidents, but not that’s … and it was a little bit flexible. I was 71, for instance, a little over 71, when I was given emeritus status, but now, it’s just-
Kurt Francom: When that birthday hits-
John Groberg: It just takes a little time to finesse the process. And since we’ve moved back from Idaho Falls to here, after serving as temple president, which incidentally, was a marvelous experience, yeah, they did ask me to … they actually specifically, asked me to accept every request I could, to speak particularly to the youth. And so for many years, we spoke this all over. That’s kind of tailed off. I remember President Hinckley, one time when I was in a meeting with him, while I was still an active general authority and someone was praising him and said, “You’ll be remembered forever”, and he says, “About 10 years.” And they said, “What do you mean?” He says, “After you’re dead about 10 years, people forget about you.”
Kurt Francom: That humor. I miss it for sure. So you were at the Idaho Falls Temple from what years?
John Groberg: 2005 to 2008.
Kurt Francom: So me and my wife were sealed in Idaho Falls Temple in 2006, so you were at the helm of those keys when that happened, so it’s definitely our favorite temple. We can definitely say that. So like on your records, are you still classified as a Seventy?
John Groberg: You’re still a general authority-
Kurt Francom: But you don’t sit on the stand anything like that?
John Groberg: No. The only time you preside is when you’re presiding, but you’re just a regular member, but yeah, you’re still a general authority.
Kurt Francom: You still hold that office.
John Groberg: They still call. Just two weeks ago, Elder Ballard called me and said, “I’d like you to go to a Stake Conference with me and bear your testimony and bring Jean along,” and I said, “Okay.”
Kurt Francom: So fun.
John Groberg: And that happens occasionally, but not very often.
Kurt Francom: And that’s probably a nice gesture and it’s fun to interact with those Brethren, from time to time. Sort of the last final chapters as we close this interview off, there’s so much here and you could, just like you wrote a book about your time as a mission president, you could probably write a book about time as a temple president, which you sort of did. What stands out? What are we missing about the temple, generally speaking, as leaders, that we could better understand?
John Groberg: I’m not sure that we’re missing it, it’s maybe that it hasn’t sunk in as deep as it should. The temple is really in a sense, it’s … I don’t know whether the word vortex is right or not, but it’s sort of the central point around which everything revolves. And I think we just haven’t quite grasped that in the book, that one of the things that lots of people have talked to me about, that I mentioned, there’s a lot of people in the temple would say, “Oh, president, I’m sorry. I’ve just loved being in the temple. I hate to have to dress and go back out into the real world.”
And I remember of kind of feeling, there’s something not quite right about that and anyway, I won’t go into detail, but in the book I mentioned, I said, it finally became very clear to me. No, it’s exactly the opposite. The temple is the real world. You’re leaving the real world and going out into the temporary world. The things out there are temporary. The things here, are the eternal things. It’s not that they can’t be together, because you can do good things out there too, but this is the center. This is what it’s all about. So reality, what lasts forever is here.
And I think just that understanding that’s the importance of the temple, I think.
Kurt Francom: And I guess that’s what led into the title, which is Refuge and Reality. This is a refuge and it’s reality. The things that happen here are real.
John Groberg: And what lasts forever, yeah.
Kurt Francom: Wow, this has been fun. Elder Groberg, just to sit down with you and ask you some questions. I know, as a former bishop and in a stake presidency, sometimes we … General Authorities can feel close at times as they visit, they can also sometimes feel distant. Nobody’s at fault for that, but you’re busy and you have your different things. So it’s helpful to just understand the processes you go through, the principles you’ve learned and to see if we can maybe apply those principles.
The final question I have, which is sort of a traditional question I ask on the podcast is, as you have looked over your time as being in a leadership position, how has it made you a better disciple or follower of Jesus Christ?
John Groberg: Well, I think one of the things that I’ve learned, not only the importance of Temple but the importance of family, I think my love for Jean and for the children and to realize what an integral part, when you think of the temple and you think of them being in the temple, that those things are just extremely important. But I think associating with people, I’ve always felt myself down here and the Brethren up here.
And just to have that privilege of associating with great great people, starting with President McKay, when I was a young missionary, he came to our mission in Tonga, just shortly after he was made president of the church, and I had an opportunity to interact with President McKay. He knew my grandfather very well, in fact, I told you he went on the same boat with him on his mission, as President McKay got off in England, my great-grandfather went on to Sweden for his mission. But with President McKay and then President Smith, all of the prophets.
But not just the prophets, the Brethren. They’re all prophets, the Twelve and so forth. But to realize, they’re men. A lot of times we say, well, they’re ordinary men doing extraordinary things. I had a son-in-law that said, yeah, they’re ordinary men doing extraordinary things, but when they do extraordinary things, they become extraordinary men. And I think that’s the greatest blessing is associating with people who are extraordinary in the sense of being true disciples of the Lord and we could all do better on that.