Dieter Uchtdorf was a young pilot candidate at a flight training school in Texas when he reached a pivotal point in both his career and the Church.
Strong leaders reached out and fellowshipped him and gave him the encouragement he needed both to find his faith and earn his wings. From that time on, his life has been strictly upward bound.Today, he's chief pilot of Lufthansa German Airlines, a position similar to vice president, and is in charge of the crews and much of the operation of the international company. He's also president of the Frankfurt Germany Stake.
Pres. Uchtdorf, 47, known for paying meticulous attention to detail both in and out of the Church, said his dual responsibilities complement each other.
"My whole professional life has prepared me for callings I have received," he said in a recent interview in Frankfurt. "And without the Church, I never would have received my wings. Without one, I couldn't have succeeded in the other."
He joined the airline company in 1965 and was made a captain in 1970. He became manager of a fleet of 727 airplanes in 1972, and was put in charge of a pilot training school in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1975. He became chief pilot of the cockpit and cockpit crews in 1978, and was named chief pilot of the company in 1985, the same year he was called as stake president.
The 6-foot-1-inch, dark-haired executive still finds enjoyment in flying, and is currently training to fly 747s after years of flying DC10s. "I love to fly," he said. "It is the best-paid hobby anyone could have."
As chief pilot, his first concern is for safety, the next is to have passengers relaxed and feeling at home, and finally for the business to be run soundly. The budget he oversees is colossal. Last year, for example, just the airline's food services came to 500 million German marks, or $30 million.
He said company leaders are well aware of his Church service. They have been impressed by the Church, and, in particular, what it has done to prepare youths. "The youths are really a great strength of the church," Pres. Uchtdorf said. "Our youths need to be prepared to talk very openly about the Church. I feel a great search among the non-members for truth."
Pres. Uchtdorf's youth was spent in a small branch during the difficult post-World War II years. "We have had hard times to stay strong in our lives," he remembered.
His grandmother learned about the Church from a member while both stood in a food line during the war. The line was long, and there was plenty of time to talk. She later joined the Church and brought in her daughter and son-in-law and their children. Dieter, then 5, was the youngest of four children.
He was 13 when another family joined the Church. Their daughter Harriet Reich, his wife-to-be, and he learned to dance together.
He always preferred her company. "She's very beautiful," he said. "All kinds of young men were after her."
She, however, hardly noticed him. At age 20, Dieter graduated from preparatory and technical schools. He decided to join the German air force and become a pilot. At that time, though, the Germans had no training bases, and all their pilots were trained in the United States. Dieter was assigned to travel to Big Springs, Texas. Before leaving, he received a blessing from Elder Theodore M. Burton of the First Quorum of the Seventy, then president of the European Mission. "He said to be careful, and he also gave me a tremendous blessing," said Pres. Uchtdorf.
The young man arrived in Texas and entered "one of the most important phases of my life." He attended a small branch there that "really involved me in Church work. I gained a strong testimony there." Once he was pictured in a local newspaper as he helped in a branch building project.
Two years later he came back to Germany as a full-fledged pilot.
"When I returned, I found Harriet was still single. She was amazed that I still spoke normal German," he remembered.
Sister Uchtdorf remembered her shock at seeing him then. "He had a crew-cut and wore jeans and tennis shoes. I thought, `Oh no! He looks like an American!'
"But when he came back, he was a man. All of a sudden I was really attracted to him."
They were married that same year, in 1962, in the Swiss Temple. They are parents of a daughter, Antje Uchtdorf Evans, now living in Provo, Utah; and a son, Guido, 18.
Twelve years later Pres. Uchtdorf was placed in charge of Lufthansa's pilot school. The school was established in Phoenix, Ariz., because of the year-round pleasant weather and the sparse air traffic. So once again, he went to America, this time taking his family. The stay lasted three years. In the large Phoenix ward where they lived, "I had to fight to have a family to home teach," he said. "It was such a big ward," said Sister Uchtdorf. "They helped us so much. The children loved the big classes. We found the families to be a great example with so much love and dedication to the gospel. We were blessed to live there, and we feel like we want to give something back."
Upon their return to Germany in 1978, the Uchtdorfs found a home in an area close to a meetinghouse. "That really paid off," Pres. Uchtdorf said. "The children were able to go to all the Church activities."
In a way, the Uchtdorf family reflects the progress of the Church in Germany. The family has come a long way since a grandmother heard about the gospel while standing in a food line during the war.