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Merrill J. Bateman: Breadth and Depth

By James P. Bell

In 1983, while serving as president of the Provo, Utah, Sharon East Stake, Merrill J. Bateman happened upon a conversation a neighbor of his was having with Luis Espinoza, who was then bishop of the Spanish-speaking ward in a neighboring stake. The conversation involved missionary work, specifically the fact that the number of missionaries serving from Bishop Espinoza’s ward had doubled over the past year–from eight to 16–with another six elders and sisters preparing to submit their papers. Inherent in the ward’s success, though, was a significant problem: The members of Bishop Espinoza’s ward simply could not afford to support any more missionaries.

After listening for a minute, President Bateman said that his stake might be able to help and then asked Bishop Espinoza to explain his situation at an upcoming stake high priests quorum meeting. On the designated Sunday, Bishop Espinoza did just that, and at the conclusion of his brief remarks, President Bateman said, “Brethren, you now understand the need of Bishop Espinoza and his ward. Many of us here are in a position to help, and I’m inviting you tonight to pledge your support to our new friend and his missionaries.” From that one meeting came commitments that provided complete support for these six missionaries.

Merrill and Marilyn

Of Merrill and Marilyn Bateman, Dean H. Reese Hansen has said, “They have a large and wonderful family, and I think Merrill would be the first to give Marilyn full credit for that”

Merrill J. Bateman, who became the 11th president of BYU on Jan. 1, 1996, is, in the words of his wife, Marilyn Scholes Bateman, “a doer.” “When he sees something that needs to be done,” she explains, “he finds a way to move it forward. If a problem arises at 10 o’clock at night, he says, ‘Well, let’s do something about it,’ rather than sitting on it until morning.”

H. Reese Hansen, dean of BYU’s law school, served both as a bishop in President Bateman’s stake and as second counselor in the stake presidency. In his view, “President Bateman is very smart and very decisive. He is interested in a wide range of views and is both patient in listening and appreciative of those who share their insights. But it doesn’t take him forever to make a decision once he’s heard the views, and he makes decisions with a kind of confidence that, in turn, instills confidence. His decisions are not tentative or soft.”

Coupled with his decisiveness and intensity are a breadth and depth that are the result of a lifetime of learning and experience. Sister Bateman explains, “He may be very focused in what he does–and really quite earnest in fulfilling his responsibilities–but he also has a way of seeing problems and issues in unique ways that have grown out of years of both spiritual and academic preparation.”

Dean Hansen adds that, soon after President Rex E. Lee’s resignation, he wrote to Bishop Bateman (who was a member of the search committee) about “the tools I thought the new president ought to have to do the job.

“Those tools included having both teaching and leadership experience in an academic environment, as well as an absolute commitment to the gospel and the Church–such that he or she would have the confidence of the Brethren. I thought the person needed to have the ability to manage complex organizations and also have international experience because of the explosion of the Church internationally and the effect our shrinking world has on BYU and its various academic disciplines.

As I wrote about this need for a combination of academic leadership, gospel commitment, management skill, and international experience, I thought, ‘I’m just describing Merrill Bateman here.’ And while I never imagined BYU would get him, I found myself hoping the search committee could find someone just like him.”

Early Influences
The background President Bateman brings to BYU grows out of both a love of learning and a commitment to service, both of which were instilled in him from an early age. “My mother,” he says, “believed very much in education and was a very strong influence in shaping my views. She had been to the university herself, even though she came from a family that didn’t have a lot of money. For her or any of her siblings to attend a university required a very determined effort, and so, from the time I was very young, she planted in my heart the desire to gain an education and to be successful at it. And, fortunately, school wasn’t something that was onerous for me.”

Born in Lehi, Utah, in 1936, Merrill moved with his family to American Fork as he was starting the third grade. A few months later, the Scholes family also moved to American Fork, and Harold Scholes was in Merrill’s class at school. Assigned to show his new classmate around, Merrill became close friends with Harold. At the same time, Merrill’s younger sister, Beverly, was becoming good friends with the new member of her second-grade class, Harold’s younger sister, Marilyn.

By his junior year in high school, Merrill was starting to think of Marilyn Scholes as more than just his friend’s kid sister, and Marilyn was having reciprocal feelings. That summer Merrill and Marilyn’s stake organized a group of young men and women to participate in a Church dance festival in Salt Lake City. At each of the rehearsals, the two paired themselves together, even though the adult leaders wanted the 6-foot-2-inch Merrill to dance with someone other than the 5-foot-2-inch Marilyn.

“The MIA leader in charge,” President Bateman explains, “would separate us, but we would switch and dance together. Then, the next rehearsal, she would separate us again, and we’d get back together. This was one time when we didn’t do what we were told, fortunately.”

At about the same time he began courting Marilyn, the 16 year-old Merrill began a lifetime of Church service when his bishop called him to teach a class of younger children in Sunday School. “As I began teaching these children,” President Bateman recalls, “and began studying the material that was outlined for them, I began reading the scriptures to prepare for those lessons. I found that I really enjoyed scripture study and that it came naturally. As I look back, calling a junior in high school to teach Sunday School seems like a peculiar choice, but the bishop’s decision had a long-lasting effect on me.”

After two years at the University of Utah (his mother wanted him to attend BYU, but the full-ride scholarship he received from the Salt Lake Rotary Club to attend the U. was more persuasive), Merrill accepted a call to serve as a missionary in the British Mission. There he continued his study of the standard works. “We used a lot of scriptures then,” he recalls, and he made a point of memorizing one each day during the two years of his mission.

While Elder Bateman was in Great Britain, Marilyn enrolled at BYU and later attended both the LDS Business College and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She jokes that “I probably have more college credits than anybody in the whole world without actually having a degree. I value the educational experience I had and have sometimes been bothered by not having a degree, but I concluded long ago that I probably wouldn’t be any different than I am right now if I had graduated.”

About a year after Merrill’s mission, he and Marilyn were married in the Salt Lake Temple on March 23, 1959. They have since added seven children, six children-in-law, and 19 grandchildren to their ever-increasing family circle.

Advanced Education
Upon returning to the University of Utah, Merrill joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), switched his major from pre-law to economics, and received both the Danforth Fellowship and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. With his fellowships Merrill was able to pursue a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), his goal being to teach at the university level. During his second year at MIT, Merrill was assigned to write a paper on any aspect of international trade. His chosen topic, the world copper market, proved unworkable because of a lack of data, and his professor suggested that Merrill change his topic and work with a professor who was studying the role of international trade in Ghana’s economy.

That one paper opened up a lifetime of opportunities and world travel as, several months later, the economics department chair of the University of Ghana wrote to MIT, asking if anyone there could teach a particular set of classes for a six-month period. The classes emphasized the areas of research Merrill had been focusing on, and in January 1963 Merrill and Marilyn, together with their two young children, undertook the first in a series of international moves.

“We felt like this would be an adventure and an opportunity to experience a completely different culture,” Sister Bateman says, “but it was quite a shock, to be completely honest. This was 33 years ago, and Ghana, which is an emerging country now, was a third-world country then. The government had just undergone a coup, there were severe food shortages, our 10-month-old son contracted malaria, and I found out two or three weeks after we arrived that I was pregnant with our third child. So, it was a very difficult time, but we learned a great deal.”

In addition to his teaching at the University of Ghana, Merrill continued to conduct research. One of the areas he delved into was Ghana’s largest cash crop and chief export–cocoa. After his six months in the West African country, he changed his thesis topic to focus on the world cocoa industry. This change, like his earlier change in topics, would have long-lasting implications for the Batemans’ lives.

After graduating from MIT, the Bateman family moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where Merrill had accepted a position on the faculty of the Air Force Academy, which enabled him to fulfill his military obligation and to pursue his plan to teach at the university level. In 1967, as Merrill was nearing the end of his three-year commitment, he was a signature away from accepting a faculty appointment at Stanford University. Then, at a stake education day he was in charge of, Brother Bateman became reacquainted with a fellow Danforth scholar, Richard Cowan, who was there from BYU as one of the featured speakers.

That night the two men talked about Brother Bateman’s plans to teach at Stanford the following year, and although Professor Cowan suggested he should come to BYU, Brother Bateman reaffirmed that his mind was made up.

“As we parted, Brother Cowan said, ‘I’ll see you at BYU next year.’ I laughed and said, ‘No you won’t.’ The next afternoon, which was a Sunday, I received a telephone call from Robert K. Thomas, who was then academic vice president at BYU. He said, ‘Brother Cowan just arrived home, and he called to tell me you’re coming to BYU.’

“I said, ‘Brother Thomas, you and I have talked about this before. I have another opportunity, and I’m going to take it.’ President Thomas then said, ‘Brother Bateman, are you sure?’ And for the first time, I had a doubt. I had prayed about this decision before, but something told me I needed to pray again.” The next day at noon, when everyone in his open-architecture faculty office area had left for lunch, this young professor knelt by his desk where he wouldn’t be too conspicuous and “poured out my soul to my Heavenly Father.

“During the course of that prayer, a passage from a book I’d been reading was suddenly emblazoned on my mind. It related to some responsibilities I had which clearly told me where I was to teach. We ended up at BYU the next fall, just as Brother Cowan had said we would.”

Myriad Moves
After teaching economics at BYU from 1967–71, Brother Bateman accepted a position with the Mars candy corporation, which drew upon his expertise in world cocoa markets. The position involved another international move for the Batemans and their young family, this time to England. (Ultimately, they moved 19 times in the first 20 years of marriage.)

“The first Sunday we were in England,” President Bateman recalls, “we looked around the small branch we were in and there were about 15 members in attendance. Seven of those had the last name of Bateman. By the time we left two years later (to take another assignment with Mars), about 150 members were attending.”

Before, during, and after his family’s time in England, President Bateman traveled frequently to Africa, sometimes several times in a year. Many of those trips stemmed from his work with the Mars Corporation, although he also consulted for the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce, the World Bank, and several other agencies and corporations. Then, in 1975, President Bateman returned to Provo to be the dean of BYU’s Graduate School of Management and College of Business. In early 1978 he was asked by Elder James E. Faust, then a member of the First Quorum of Seventy and president of the Church’s International Mission, to meet more formally with members of the Church during one of his trips to Africa and then report on his discussions.

A few months after fulfilling that assignment, President Bateman sat at a red light on the BYU campus as he heard a news report that the First Presidency had just announced that all worthy male members of the Church would be able to hold the priesthood. He recalls, “There were tears rolling down my face as I pulled away from the stoplight. I had been in Africa more times than I could count in the preceding 15 years, and the prospect of the gospel spreading on that continent was overwhelming to me.”

Soon after the announcement, President Bateman was invited by the First Presidency to accompany President Ted Cannon of the International Mission presidency on a fact-finding mission to Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia. Upon their return, they were asked to prepare a report and give a half-hour summary to the First Presidency.

“Brother David M. Kennedy, an international ambassador for the First Presidency, told us to be succinct in our presentation, to finish on time, and to leave at the end of 30 minutes.

Two hours after we started, President Kimball was still grilling us, asking us questions about specific individuals, about the people in general, and about the cultures and customs of the countries we had visited.

“After those trips in 1978,” President Bateman continues, “I never had the opportunity to return to Africa, except for one short trip to Ghana, until I went there last year as Presiding Bishop. And it’s incredible to see what has happened to the Church, which basically did not even exist in these countries prior to 1978. Now there are tens of thousands of members organized into wards and stakes, people who have the light of the gospel in their faces and their lives, who have testimonies, and chapels in which to meet. It has been a wonderful experience to be able to return and see the growth that has taken place.”

During his years as dean of BYU’s School of Management, President Bateman worked to strengthen the school by recruiting top faculty from around the country, convincing the board of trustees as well as potential donors that the school warranted additional support, and laying the groundwork for the N. Eldon Tanner Building, which would be completed in 1982. Then, in 1979, he returned to work for the Mars Corporation. President Bateman had been there for about six months, “becoming reacquainted with the company,” when he decided for a variety of reasons–one being that his family was reluctant to move again–that he had made the wrong decision in returning to Mars.

But even as President Bateman left Mars, the company became a major client of his newly formed commodities consulting firm in Orem, Utah. (He later established an investment management company as well.) Much of his work in his new business involved predicting commodities prices by analyzing weather and crop patterns, foreign currency and interest rates, and other factors that affect the prices of raw materials food manufacturers use, such as grains, sugars, cocoa, and oil seeds. In addition to Mars, he advised companies such as General Foods, Beatrice, Kraft Foods, and Mitsubishi Foods of Japan.

Eventually, two of the Batemans’ sons, Michael and Mark, would join their father in his business, and, when President Bateman was called as a General Authority in October 1992, they purchased the two companies from him.

“As children,” says Michael, “we always knew that Dad was a very hard worker, that he brought work home and sometimes would work all night. But as Mark and I became involved in the business, we saw more and more just how hard–and how smart–he works.

“In some people’s minds, the investment business does not always have a strong reputation, but what we’ve seen in our father is that one of the keys to success in this business is consistency–and taking a long-term view. He is a very good analyst and very wise when it comes to making decisions, and, more often than not, he comes to the right conclusions. When I was young, I knew I could always go to him for help with homework (especially math), and to this day I go to him if I have a question.”

Mark adds, “One of the things we’ve done in our business is implement the latest technology, and Dad likes to look for what’s available out there. When the computer age came into being, for example, he wasn’t afraid to jump in feet first and have one on his desk. He knows how to manage the tools of the trade, and if he doesn’t know something, he’ll learn it. But he also knows how to work with people. He reads people well and knows how to motivate others.”

Constants and Commitment
Whether moving around the country and the world, as they did from 1959 until 1975, or maintaining their roots in Provo, as they did from 1975 until 1993, President and Sister Bateman have maintained certain constants in their lives–a commitment to each other, their family, and the Church being central to everything they have done.

In Dean Hansen’s view, “Merrill treasures Marilyn. It’s obvious as they interact with each other, and in their conversations with each other, that there is tremendous respect and admiration. He relies on her and appreciates her. He’s been very, very busy professionally, and much of the burden of raising their children–perhaps disproportionately–has fallen to her. They have a large and wonderful family, and I think Merrill would be the first to give Marilyn full credit for that.”

Virginia Galland has known the Batemans as neighbors, friends, and ward and stake members since their earliest days in Provo. Of Sister Bateman she says, “She is little and spunky–and full of life and good sense and absolute dedication. Years ago, she was my visiting teacher at a time the Relief Society was encouraging that the lessons involve a learning experience for children. Marilyn came faithfully every month, and in between visits my two-year-old would walk around the house saying, ‘When’s Bateman coming? When’s Bateman coming?’ (I could never get him to call her Sister Bateman.)

“Even with all that was going on in her own family and with Merrill’s profession, she would always come with a wonderful lesson for this little boy, and I’ve seen countless examples of similar devotion to her children. With Merrill, Marilyn once told me, ‘I’ve always understood, but I’ve just now come to understand profoundly, that Merrill and I are a team. We’re never going to part ways, and if we’re going to be successful, we’re going to do it as a team.'”

Sister Galland has also seen the softer side of President Bateman. She tells of how one day the two couples met in the Batemans’ study to look over plans for a lot they were considering purchasing together. “In ran their daughter Melisa,” Sister Galland recalls, “who was crying because her older brother was teasing her. Merrill just cuddled her up in his arms as he was lying on the floor looking at these plans and helped her calm down. I thought how wonderful it was that she felt comfortable enough with her father that she would run in like that to find him.

“I also remember a sacrament meeting that Merrill attended after he was called as a General Authority. It was a missionary homecoming for an outstanding young man in our ward who was terrified of microphones and gave a very short report on his mission. Needing to fill the time, the bishop called on Merrill to speak, but rather than giving one of his marvelous talks, he called this young man back to the pulpit and interviewed him about his mission. Merrill was so nonthreatening and so personable that this young man, who was sufficiently terrified of the congregation he had grown up with, really told us what his mission had been like. It was one of the most tender, considerate moments I’ve ever witnessed at the pulpit.”

Sister Bateman will acknowledge that, on occasion, she has to remind her husband that she needs some help (“After which,” she adds, “he makes a point of making the bed, which goes a long way with a wife”) and that when the family gets away for a vacation, they have to work to keep President Bateman away from telephones and computer hookups.

“But when Merrill and I were in Japan (where he served as Area President from 1993 to 1994),” she adds, “he would take time to join me in writing a letter each week that we would fax to each of our children. That was a time of real introspection on both of our parts, as we shared our thinking, our lives, and the events of the week; and our children went through the same process as they wrote to us. In fact, since we’ve been home, our children have often commented on what a great experience it was for them to be able to sit down and put their thoughts in writing for the rest of the family each week.”

The Beacon of BYU
When President Bateman was called as Presiding Bishop in April 1994, after having served just nine months in Japan as Area President, both he and Sister Bateman were somewhat surprised. But when he was called as president of BYU after having served as Presiding Bishop for just over 18 months, they were downright shocked. (Upon his release as Presiding Bishop, President Bateman was made a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, in which he will have active, albeit limited, involvement during his tenure at BYU.)

“I was attending a meeting dealing with a major change in the Church’s accounting procedures when I received a call asking if I could come to President Hinckley’s office at 2:30 that afternoon. As I walked into the First Presidency’s outer office, I saw President James E. Faust, who greeted me with a big smile and indicated we were headed to the same meeting. When we were ushered into President Hinckley’s office, I asked if I should shut the door but was told we were waiting for President Thomas S. Monson. At that point, I realized something was about to happen.

“I had been a member of the Board of Trustees’ search committee, but my name never came up in our discussions. I missed our last meeting because of a funeral, and later more than one person on the committee told me I should have been there.”

At the press conference announcing President Bateman’s new appointment, he began his remarks by referring to Brigham Young University as “a great beacon of light to the young people of the world.” During his first devotional address on campus, he spoke of the “distinctive character” of BYU and of its role in the Church’s mission (see “A Zion University” for the complete text of that talk).

From his perspective, there is no dichotomy between academic and spiritual preparation, and it is evident that he is approaching his presidency with a commitment to both. “Part of our mission is to be the finest university we can be,” he says. “That is extremely important to me. I came out of one of the finest graduate institutions that exists in this country, and I know what it means to study from six in the morning until midnight over a four-year period, excluding Sundays. I know the price one has to pay to obtain a good education. But we want more than that here. We want students to have that experience within a spiritual framework, wherein their faith is also increased, and they leave here stronger in the faith than when they came. And there is no competition, from my point of view, in terms of educating people spiritually and academically.”

When these two qualities combine, he says, the effect BYU can have is profound.

“Just before my release as Presiding Bishop,” he recalls, “I spent two weeks in South America reviewing the Church’s temporal affairs and also fulfilling a stake conference assignment. As part of that assignment, I worked with a native Chilean who was recently called as a new area authority. Several years ago he had a good job in Chile, but he left it, after joining the Church, to come to Brigham Young University and earn an MBA degree. He has since returned to Chile, not only with a first-class education, but also with some added spiritual perspectives. While at BYU, he worked in an atmosphere where he was not only studying secular subjects, but also had an opportunity to work in various Church callings and experience the spiritual dimensions of the Kingdom.

“I watched him teach a group of priesthood, Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary leaders with a remarkable softness in his spirit and strength in his understanding. And I thought that if BYU and its stakes can help students prepare to become leaders in corporations, leaders in government, leaders in education, and in any other occupation or profession–and also help them lead others to the fountain of living waters–then this institution is accomplishing what it was established to do.”

As President Bateman assumes this latest in a lifetime of responsibilities and opportunities, he brings to the position what Michael Bateman sees as “a sense of global opportunity for the university and the role it plays within the Church as the Church moves forward,” and what Mark Bateman describes as “a drive to find that extra little something that will give him the edge in whatever he is doing.”

At a recent gathering of BYU stake presidents and their wives, one of those in attendance, a former BYU track star, referred to the university’s new president by saying, “He’s fast off the blocks and a quick starter.” With characteristic humor, President Bateman responded, “But we just keep starting and starting and starting!” In a certain sense, that may be true, but Merrill J. Bateman–who brings to this position the momentum he has gained as a father, husband, educator, international businessman, and General Authority–has also demonstrated throughout his life that no matter how many races he undertakes, he always finishes strong.