Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Lessons learned as youth at home serve him well in life's work

Published: Saturday, July 12, 1997

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Donald L. Staheli has traveled the world, headed national and multi-national corporations, and worked closely with some of the most influential business, government and civic leaders of the day. He has gleaned much knowledge from 65 years of life experiences and formal education but nothing, he said, has influenced him more than the lessons and principles he learned in the humble home where he was reared in southern Utah.

Sustained April 5 to the Second Quorum of the Seventy, Elder Staheli, the eldest in a family of four boys and one girl, reminisced recently with the Church News about some defining moments in his life."A year following my birth in St. George (Utah)," he began, "we moved to Hurricane (Utah), where my father was beginning his career as a high school teacher. Mom was a very tender, loving, spiritual woman who was the center of our family.

"My parents were humble in means but very close to the Lord, and taught each of the children accordingly. As gospel principles were taught by precept and example, prayer became the central magnet for our family and formed the early foundation for my testimony. We were taught very clearly the principles of integrity, work and responsibility.

"I remember one incident in particular. When I was quite young, we were working on building a new ward meetinghouse. One day, as I was running a bit late and my father was encouraging me to hurry, I said, `Gee, Dad, it really doesn't make much difference whether we're on time because we're not being paid for this.' At that point, he sat me down and gave me an impressionable lesson about the importance of being on time for the Lord, keeping commitments and taking responsibility for the things we say we will do."

Elder Staheli said he found many ways to apply that lesson through the years. In his junior year at what is now Utah State University he was elected national president of Future Farmers of America and in that capacity traveled for the better part of a year to major cities throughout the United States, speaking and representing the FFA. During his travels, he met with the President of the United States, Cabinet members and heads of major corporations. "That was a great coming out experience in my life - socially, intellectually and - in light of the fact that it was my first major contact with the outside world - spiritually," he said.

After completing his term of office, and unable to get a military exemption to go on a mission due to the Korean War, he then completed his studies at Utah State where, upon graduation, he was named "outstanding graduating senior." Also, during his senior year in college, he married his high school sweetheart, Afton Stratton, in the St. George Temple.

Following his graduation, a visiting professor who had taught at Utah State telephoned, encouraging him to pursue graduate studies at the University of Illinois.

"Little things can change your life," Elder Staheli said of that one telephone call from Illinois. Within two and a half years, he had completed requirements for his Ph.D., working part time on an assistantship and going to school full time. After he received his doctorate, he served two years as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

While always intending to pursue a teaching career at a university, he was sidetracked by attractive job offers in industry. "I promised my wife that if I could pursue one of those jobs for a few years, we could then return to university life later on. She's still waiting," Elder Staheli said.

They lived in Chicago and Iowa during the early part of his career and for the past 20 years have made their home in New Canaan, Conn., where they reared three daughters and a son.

Working for businesses such as Swift & Co. broadened their horizons as he took on assignments throughout the United States and a few other countries. "When I moved to Continental Grain it became a worldwide affair, since Continental is a major international company that operates around the world," he said. "A whole new horizon of international opportunities opened up to us. It's been a marvelous experience. We've had a number of great experiences with people in virtually every part of the world."

Elder Staheli said that one of his greatest assets has been his wife. "She is a quiet, modest person who has a great intellect. I can travel with her any place in the world, and she's like a walking historian. She can tell me what happened at that place, the significance of it, what people were involved - whether it was two centuries ago or two years ago. But her greatest asset is her spiritual depth, her love for her family and the way she has supported me in my Church callings and professional pursuits."

The Stahelis, while expanding their circle of associates beyond their friends and kin in southern Utah, found a reaffirmation of values they were taught in their youth and the gospel principles which had become the foundation of their lives.

Early on in their marriage, the Stahelis set priorities: family, Church and work. "Things haven't always worked out that way, but we've managed to have some give and take," he said, praising his wife's organizational skills and capabilities to take over the family when he has needed to be away from home.

For the past 23 years, Elder Staheli has served in three stake presidencies, including five years most recently as president of the Yorktown New York Stake. Also, for most of the past 20 years, he has been either president or chief executive officer of Continental Grain. "It's been demanding," his wife quickly adds, "but rewarding for the entire family."

Elder Staheli said that a friend who had also been a stake president and later became a CEO once told him that there was no way a man can fill both positions at the same time. "I said, `You're right . . . unless the Lord helps you find a way to do it."

When asked how life in the corporate world has differed from his early years in southern Utah, Elder Staheli said, "Our life has been one of hard work and long hours; very similar to that which I knew in my youth, except the environment in which we've been operating has been very different. The work ethic that my father taught me has been one of my greatest attributes. I think I'm reasonably bright, but there is nothing that replaces focus, long hours and commitment, whether it be family, Church or work."

After he was called to serve as a General Authority, some of his non-LDS friends asked him how he could think of leaving such important positions to serve full-time in the Church. He responded, "It's very simple, if you believe it - and I do with all my heart. It's a great privilege to be serving the Lord full time."

Elder Staheli, in one of his responsibilities as a member of the Seventy, will serve as second counselor in the North America Northeast Area presidency. His home has been in that area for a number of years, but now, he said, he will see this area in "a whole new light, with a different mission."

*****

Additional Information

Donald L. Staheli

Family: Born Oct. 19, 1931, in St. George, Utah, to Lafayette and Grace Sullivan Staheli; married Afton Stratton, Sept. 24, 1952, in the St. George Temple; four children: Shannon (Don) White, Sharmaine (Richard) Barone, Todd (Kimberly) Staheli, and Gaye (Glen) Price; 11 grandchildren.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Utah State University, 1953; master's and doctorate degrees, University of Illinois, 1956.

Military service: first lieutenant, U.S. Air Force, 1956-58.

Employment: Swift & Co., 1958-1969; Continental Grain Co., 1969-1997, in various management positions, including chairman and CEO at the time of his call to the Seventy.

Industry and civic involvements: Past chairman U.S. China Business Council, American Feed Industry Association, International Business Leaders Advisory Council for Mayor of Shanghai, director of U.S. China Society, National Committee on U.S. China relations, U.S. Russia Trade Council, New York City Partnership and International Executive Service Corp. Has served on several corporate boards, and is currently chairman of Points of Light Foundation.

Church service: Stake president, stake president's counselor, high councilor, bishop's counselor, high priests group leader, elders quorum president, stake and ward Young Men president.