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Elder L. Tom Perry: An Ordinary Man with an Extraordinary Calling

SALT LAKE CITY — 

There were two things that immediately stood out to anyone who met 92-year-old Elder L. Tom Perry for the first time — his commanding height and engaging smile.

One soon learned that hard work and a vigorous enthusiasm to serve others were the hallmarks in the life of this apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a worldwide faith of over 15 million members.

“I’m just a very ordinary man with an extraordinary calling to reach out to people and bear witness of the Savior,” Elder Perry said. Speaking of his father’s humility, his son Lee Perry said one of Elder Perry’s favorite sayings, despite all he had accomplished in life, was, “I’m as common as dirt.”

Elder Perry was one of 12 members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who help govern The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church reflects the organization of Christ’s ancient church with prophets and apostles.

Elder Perry served in that quorum since April 6, 1974.

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recalled Elder Perry’s warmth with the other quorum members. “He was so caring about the newer members of the Twelve,” Elder Cook said. There are five of us that are a little bit younger than some of the others, and he, in a teasing way, would sometimes refer to us as "the kids," but it was clear that he respected us fully as members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He was a mentor. He would encourage us.”

His commitment to service surfaced early in life. Elder Perry grew up in Cache Valley, Utah, in a family of six children. Like many youngsters, he had a job

delivering morning newspapers. And nothing could stop him from making sure each house along his route received a paper — not even a blizzard and 20 inches of snow. That’s what Mother Nature served up one chilly morning when a determined Tom Perry spent an hour trudging through wet, knee-deep snow to deliver a single paper to a house located a half-mile off the road.

This kind of unwavering dedication was the scaffolding that supported Elder Perry’s character. After returning from a two-year mission for the Church in the northern United States, he immediately signed up to serve in the Marine Corps during World War II. He was in the first wave of Marines to enter Japan after the signing of the peace treaty at the close of the war. He described seeing the devastation in Nagasaki as one of the saddest experiences of his life. The loss of life and lack of food left many Japanese children to fend for themselves.

“We were fishing little guys out of our garbage can every night. They were scrounging for food. They would try and get away from us, but we’d catch them, bring them in and find them a good meal and help them get settled,” Elder Perry said. Elder Perry and his companions soon helped organize an orphanage with sisters from the Catholic Church to care for these children.

But his service didn’t stop there. Elder Perry couldn’t speak the Japanese language, but he could swing a hammer and plaster walls, so using his natural determination and enthusiasm, he, along with a group of other soldiers, rebuilt Christian chapels during their off-duty time. In particular, he remembers repairing a Protestant chapel and restoring the minister to his congregation.

“I had the opportunity of being the first speaker when they got that congregation back together again and encouraged them to follow their minister.”

When it came time for the soldiers to leave Nagasaki, about 200 members from this congregation lined up along the railroad tracks singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and, as the train went by, touched the hands of Elder Perry and his companions in a show of gratitude.

Like many American servicemen, Elder Perry returned from the war to marry, raise a family and earn a living. He married Virginia Lee on July 18, 1947, and together they had three children. He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Utah State Agricultural College and thought he wanted to become a banker. But opportunities led him to the retail industry, where he excelled in numerous leadership positions. His career was marked by the same positive attitude and commitment to faith that had been established in deep snow as a youngster delivering newspapers.

William T. French, chairman of the board of First National Stores, made this observation of his employee: “I would say the difference between Tom Perry and anyone else with whom we were associated was his enthusiastic and continual demonstration of his Christian faith. He always knew that today’s problems were relatively unimportant in the total scheme of things as he went about vigorously and joyously solving them.”

Elder Perry worked just as joyously at his hobbies. At the mention of athletics, Elder Perry’s smile would broaden and a light would jump into his eyes.

“He just embraced everything with so much joy that it really was contagious, and that's the kind of example he always was for … all of our family members,” Lee Perry said.

Although he said he wasn’t the best of athletes, this didn’t diminish his love for all sports. He said he took advantage of his time on the sidelines during his volleyball

career to fine-tune his one talent. “I had more enthusiasm than anybody else on the team. I could fire up the players and the crowd while just sitting on the bench.”

Elder Perry moved his family to Boston in 1966 and found himself in the middle of what he calls the “heyday” of athletics in the city. He closely followed the Red Sox in their quest to win the World Series, Bill Russell and the Celtics, and Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. He remained a fan for life, so much so that in 2004, after being invited to throw out the first pitch in a Red Sox game, he immediately started warming up his pitching arm. “It’s a thrill I thought I’d never have,” he said.

Elder Perry’s first wife, Virginia, passed away in December of 1974 after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He married Barbara Dayton in 1976.

Elder Perry walked many paths in his life and enjoyed meeting those in all nations, circumstances and faiths as part of his apostolic calling. He kept a rigorous schedule because, he said, “My great love is to be out with people. I’d rather shake hands than give sermons.”

When once asked what one message he would give others, he said: “Stay fast to the principles our Lord and Savior has taught us. Do not compromise on His principles. Do not think you’re smart enough to change His law and His direction because it will never work. Six thousand years or so has proven the fact that every time people stray from His ways that He has taught us from the very beginning, they find heartache, disappointment, discouragement and really don’t find the joy in life.”

Elder Perry’s son Lee looks at his father’s life as one lived with pure intent. Perhaps that is why the apostle who described himself as “ordinary” was really quite “extraordinary,” Lee said.

“It has always impressed me that my father never challenged a congregation to do anything that he did not do himself. This is a testimony to me of profound integrity. It is so easy to teach and expound correct principles, but the logic behind living the commandments is inherently convincing. The real discipline, the true measure of a man’s character, comes when he can practice those principles at the same level at which he preaches them. From what I observed, my father did just that.”

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.

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