SALT LAKE CITY — President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joked in front of a crowd of dignitaries on Thursday he didn't know what to do to thank Gov. Spencer Cox for designating July 23, 2021, after him.
"I'm embarrassed really," he said, drawing laughter. "I feel like I ought to have a song or dance routine or something."
President Ballard's tone shifted back and forth from humor to sincerity as he thanked those gathered in the Gold Room at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City to honor him as a champion of Utah's history for his work to ensure future generations remember the toil and sacrifices of their pioneer ancestors. The honor comes two days before Pioneer Day, a state holiday marking the anniversary of when Mormon settlers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
"I sometimes wonder when I'm alone," President Ballard said, pointing to the absence of his late wife Barbara Bowen Ballard who died three years ago, "I sit alone and wonder to myself, 'Have I done any good in the world today? Have I helped anyone on their way?'
"I hope that through all of the confusion that seems to be in the world now, even in this great country of the United States — people being angry and quick to harm one another and stirring up riots and these kinds of things that create adversity and dull the spirit of God — I hope that somehow we who live in this great state of all religious beliefs will always have in our hearts to honor and to praise God, our Heavenly Father, for the blessings that are ours to be able to live in such a beautiful, wonderful state and a great country, and a beautiful city."
President Ballard's remarks came after the governor officially declared Friday, July 23, 2021, as President M. Russell Ballard Day in Utah.
Cox and other state leaders held the recognition ceremony to thank President Ballard, 92, for his service as a "community builder" who has spent years working to preserve Utah's history, especially for the pioneers who trekked across the country to the Salt Lake Valley in search of a free place to exercise their religion. A parade to mark the pioneers' arrival in 1847 is Friday morning.
"This has been a long time coming," Cox said of the declaration, adding that President Ballard is among men and women "who have done great things to promote the great state of Utah to the rest of the country and the world."
Cox said just this week, he got a call from an ambassador to the United Kingdom on behalf of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain asking, "What is it about Utah" that makes it so successful?
"I said, 'I can't answer that question without explaining to you the history of Utah,'" Cox said. "Because it is that history that is the reason that we're leading the nation economically, that we're leading the nation in growth ... This place was not meant to have a city like this. It happened because of people who came and who sacrificed and figured out how to make it work."
Cox said there's "one person in this state that has done more to keep that spirit" alive than anyone else, "and that is President Ballard."
The declaration signed by Cox honors President Ballard for his efforts to develop, enhance and maintain the This Is the Place Heritage Park, stating it would "not be possible without the untiring commitment and efforts of President Ballard, who has inspired so many to be a part of this historic park."
The declaration also honors President Ballard for his efforts around the Days of '47 organization and its new rodeo arena at the Utah Fairpark.
"President Ballard has declared many times that we can't lose Utah's pioneer story and has highlighted how Utah pioneers were responsible for settling much of the American West and had characteristics of hard work, responsibility, faith, resilience, vision and perseverance, and has encouraged all of us to emulate those traits," the declaration states.
It's because of President Ballard's "lifelong commitment and advocacy" for organizations like the Days of '47 and the building of a new rodeo arena that "Utahns can continue to enjoy the Pioneer Day festivities each year," the declaration states.
Dignitaries including Ellis Ivory, CEO of This Is the Place State Heritage Park; Kem Gardner, president of Gardner Co. and Days of '47 Rodeo; and Scott Anderson, president of Zions Bank, spoke at Thursday's recognition ceremony, each recalling fond and humorous stories involving President Ballard.
"When it comes to remembering and preserving the beginnings of this wonderful state, there is no one like Russell Ballard," Ivory said. "Not only is this the right place, he is the right man."
Gardner recalled how President Ballard tasked him with bringing the Days of '47 Rodeo to downtown Salt Lake City. Even though Gardner said he initially balked, saying he didn't "know anything about rodeo," he recalled President Ballard was firm.
"He said, 'Well, for over 100 years we celebrated the arrival of our pioneer ancestors into this valley with a parade and rodeo, and it's not going to die on my watch.'"
The declaration also notes President Ballard as a "descendant of prominent Utah pioneer families" including the Ballards and Smiths, and recognizes him and his late wife as the parents of seven children, 43 grandchildren and 99 great-grandchildren.
Members of President Ballard's family, including his daughter-in-law Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, also attended the recognition ceremony.
Garff Ballard said her father-in-law has spent his life devoting "countless hours and relationships to preserve, maintain and build" This Is the Place Heritage Park and the Days of '47 Rodeo "to honor our Utah pioneer heritage, the sacrifices they made to make this state the wonderful place that it is today."
"These are gifts for generations to come," Garff Ballard said.
She added that faith is a "causative force in our lives, driving every thought, word and deed heavenward."
"It was so for our pioneer ancestors, and it must be so for us today," Garff Ballard said. "Our journey today is decidedly different than the one that was taken 150 years ago. We're not fighting wolves and frostbite. We're fighting pornography and drugs. We're not struggling to keep our families alive in a world fraught with the cruelties of nature. We're struggling to keep our values alive in a world that mocks our standards and views it politically incorrect to listen."
Additionally, the declaration recognizes President Ballard for bringing different faiths together by helping create the Walk of Pioneer Faiths — a monument that highlights contributions from members of the Catholic, Jewish, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Greek Orthodox faiths, alongside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Pamela Atkinson, Cox's senior adviser, also spoke at Thursday's ceremony, describing how even though she's a Presbyterian, she's always felt "comfortable here" because of people who are "warm and welcoming" like President Ballard.
"President Ballard has just been a wonderful example of what it means to live in a state that has so many different faiths," Atkinson said. "This is what President Ballard has really encouraged."