Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series that follows and explores Vai Sikahema's quest to find and thank the people in his life who assisted him in his youth.
It took me a little more than a year to find Marty Klein.
Three months of that time was spent just trying to come up with his name. I sent an email to old friends from the LDS ward of my youth, the Mesa 24th Ward, with what I did remember of the man who was my first home teaching companion, hoping to jog someone's memory: "Tall, salt & pepper hair, taught at Mesa Junior High, drove a big, fancy car, married but without children."
Finally, an email came from an old friend in the ward named Ned Brimley: "Is it Marty Klein? He moved to Florida years ago. Try this email."
Yes! Marty Klein!
Marty Klein was assigned as my home teaching companion when I turned 14 because my dad was not active in the church. Marty taught me two important lessons in the year we were companions that had a huge impact on my life, and if he was still alive I wanted to thank him. We were companions from 1976-77. The ward was divided soon thereafter and our family moved to a different ward, so my best estimate is that I hadn't seen Marty Klein since 1977 or '78. About 34 or 35 years!
Soon after we were paired, Marty learned I may not attend Scout camp because my parents couldn't afford the $60 fee. Marty arranged for me to work for a couple named Lamar and Mary Lou Jones, whose family we home taught, in their citrus orchard. For months, I went weekly to the Joneses' home, dug wells around each tree, watered them, spread manure and picked boxes of oranges and grapefruit from those trees.
In my 14-year-old mind, I thought it unfair that other kids didn't seem to work as hard or at all for their way to Scout camp. I did not appreciate then the enormous blessing this experience was for me at 14, to learn the value of hard work, patience and focus to pay for something I really wanted. It was Marty Klein who made it happen.
The other experience happened on a visit to a single mother who lived in an apartment complex in our ward. When we knocked on her door one evening, we could tell she had been crying. Marty asked her if I could watch TV while they sat in the kitchen and talked. After an hour or so, Marty turned off the TV and asked the woman if I could leave a blessing in her home. I said a short, teenage prayer and we left. As we walked to his car — a big, luxurious (by my standards) Cutlass Supreme— Marty started to tell me about the woman's plight.
He didn't tell me why, only that she had informed the bishop that she wanted her name removed from the records of the church. I told Marty I didn't know what that meant, so he explained. Then, the lesson. He told me that her situation was "confidential," a word I had never heard before. Again, I told Marty I didn't know what that meant. He explained that it was our "secret" and only we and the bishop would know of her request, but it was absolutely crucial that we not discuss or disclose the personal nature of her situation with anyone.
From that day on, whenever I heard the word "confidential," I thought of Marty Klein. Whether intentional or not, Marty Klein elevated my stature as a 14-year-old Aaronic priesthood teacher because he entrusted me with something I instinctively sensed was important to this woman's salvation. I never saw her in church again, but Marty delegated to me the task of making our monthly appointments with her, which I did faithfully because of what I knew. She allowed us to visit, was always cordial and warm toward us, perhaps because she trusted Marty and she probably saw me as a responsible 14-year-old. Because of her precarious circumstances, I never wanted to let her down. Those experiences had a lasting impact on my life.
Understandably, Marty said he was shocked when he got my email. We exchanged emails, then regular phone calls for months. I wanted to save revealing the life lessons I learned from him until we met face-to-face so I said nothing about it over the phone. I finally had a free weekend last month, so I flew to West Palm Beach, Fla., rented a car and drove north on I-95 for an hour to Port St. Lucie, where Marty and Mary Ellen Klein have lived since 2000.
Port St. Lucie is the spring training home of the New York Mets, which I discovered is a mile from the Kleins' home. On the Internet, I learned that the Mets were hosting the world champion St. Louis Cardinals on the very Saturday I was visiting, so I bought a pair of tickets for us to attend.
As we pulled up to the stadium, Marty was like a little boy, he was so excited. I cringed as he asked the ticket taker, "Do you know who this young man is?" nodding at me. Perplexed, the man looked at me and said, "No. Should I?" Embarrassed, I shook my head and sheepishly whispered, "There's no reason for you to know me."
Marty nearly hollered, "If you're into sports, you should! He's my friend Vai Sikahema! Played in the NFL. With the Cardinals, Eagles and someone else … he's a big TV star!" The attendant wasn't impressed. "That's great. Well, have a good day. Enjoy the game."
As we walked toward our seats, it occurred to me that if Marty was to do that with those seated in our section, someone might actually know me and since I'm a Philadelphian, that wouldn't be a good thing among New Yorkers, so I gently explained that to Marty. He understood, but still, I was flattered with how proud he was of me.
Sitting in the sun, we shared a bag of peanuts, drank Cokes and talked baseball — how he used to go as a boy with his father to Ebbets Field to watch Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, his favorite team.
I learned things about Marty Klein I didn't know in my youth. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn — his grandfather had a beautiful tenor voice and was the cantor of their synagogue.
Imagine my shock learning my boyhood home teaching companion is a New York Jew! The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a month after Marty turned 16; he tried to enlist but was too young. Like many of his peers, Marty dropped out of high school and forged his father's signature to join the Marines .
Sent to the Pacific theater, he learned photography to take surveillance photos of enemy positions. He earned his GED while in the military and when the war was over, he returned to Brooklyn, met and courted a pretty Christian girl from Long Island named Mary Ellen Belber. When his rabbi refused to marry them, they went to Mary Ellen's Presbyterian minister to perform their wedding.
Before long, they were both teaching Sunday school in church. They became foster parents to two boys; Marty worked for a camera company because of his photography experience in the war. In 1964, they took their little boys to the New York World's Fair. They ducked into the Mormon Pavilion for cover because of a downpour, watched "Man's Search For Happiness" to kill time during the storm and left their info on a registrar. A few months later, missionaries knocked on their door.
The camera company that Marty worked for relocated them to St. Louis, Mo., where, frustrated after losing a promotion to a younger, educated colleague, Marty decided to get a college degree. At age 44.
They moved to Provo so Marty could enroll with the BYU freshman class of 1970 — probably the oldest member of his class. They lived in married-student housing, served in their ward, never missed a Tuesday devotional, and learned how the LDS Church functioned.
Mary Ellen says even in their advanced years as undergraduates, they loved the Provo years.
Marty graduated in '74 at 48 and they moved to Mesa so Marty could begin a graduate program at Arizona State University. By then, they were empty-nesters. Marty and Mary Ellen Klein moved into our ward — he worked as the librarian and taught photography at my junior high by day, while he attended night school for his graduate degree. That's when an inspired Elders Quorum president paired us together. Marty earned his master's degree in his early 50s and years later, got his doctorate in education from the University of Arizona at age 65.
As we reminisced of old times at the Mets spring training baseball game, I suggested to Marty that after the game, I'd like to take him and Mary Ellen out for dinner at their favorite restaurant. "So, where should we go?" I asked.
"Our favorite place is the Golden Corral," he replied. "But we ought to leave now to beat the traffic and get the early-bird special."
We found a quiet table where we could talk and where I could share the important life lessons Marty taught me so many years ago. As I told him of the impact he had on my young life because my dad wasn't active in the church, the Kleins were visibly moved. They just wept.
When I finished, Marty said he had something to tell me.
"Vai, I don't want to deceive you. I haven't been active for a number of years. It started in Arizona when a stake patriarch gave a talk in a stake priesthood meeting. He said something I regarded as anti-Semitic. He didn't know I am Jewish. I confronted and challenged him on it, but the experience soured me on the church. Shortly after, we moved here to Florida and I've had run-ins with priesthood leaders here as well so we've only attended sporadically."
I tried to be encouraging. "Marty and Mary Ellen," I said, as I held their hands, "I owe so much of my life to you. My life could have gone either way, but your presence helped guide me at a critical time.
"Tomorrow is Sunday and my flight is in the afternoon. Your ward meets at 10 a.m. I would love if you'll accompany me to church to worship with me before I return home. It would mean a great deal to me."
"Of course!" Marty replied. "We were already planning on it. Not to mention I had already called our home teacher, Stanley Short, to expect us. He's a big BYU fan, you know."
Indeed, I met Stan Short at the Fort Pierce Ward Sunday morning. Stan informed me we were contemporaries at BYU. He's an engineer who works at the local power plant. I expressed my gratitude to Brother Short for being such a wonderful home teacher to the Kleins and how highly they regard him. I encouraged Stan to keep visiting them.
In the excitement of my trip, I had forgotten it was fast Sunday as it was the weekend before General Conference. I rose to bear my testimony, introduced myself, shared my connection to the Kleins, told a little of my association with Marty as a boy, expressed my love for him, Mary Ellen, the Savior and his church. As I took my seat, Marty followed me.
He told his ward that he missed their company and that he was never happier than when he was tending to his priesthood duties. He committed to be more faithful.
I waited for Marty to return to his seat, hugged and kissed him on the cheek, did the same with Mary Ellen, then bolted for the door to make my flight. I cried the entire hour drive back to West Palm.
Home later that evening, I called to let the Kleins know I had returned safely and to check on their day. I could almost feel Marty beaming through the phone.
"Vai," he excitedly said, "after sacrament meeting, I was swarmed by ward members who told me how thrilled they were to hear our testimonies. And they were all disappointed that you had to leave."
All I could muster was a faint, "I love you, Marty. Please keep going. You need the church and the church needs you."
I checked in with Marty again two days ago to confirm some facts, get some photos, and to check on his recommitment to the church. "Did you happen to watch conference," I asked.
"I sure did," Marty answered. "Had to go to the ward to watch it, but we went. And last Sunday. The young men in my ward really think I'm cool. I think after what you said of our experiences, they all want to be my home teaching companion."
Wouldn't that be something?