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Elder L. Tom Perry — an 'uncommon' life of service and enthusiasm

Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who championed family values with a robust voice and cheerful optimism, died May 30, 2015, in his home from the effects of cancer. He was 92.

Elder Perry was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve on April 6, 1974. He was third in leadership seniority in the quorum, behind LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Elder Perry was well-loved by Latter-day Saints around the world because his personal touch was so memorable, said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“That warmth, that graciousness, the fact that he really did like people and he liked all the members of the church and appreciated them — I think that's how he'll be remembered,” Elder Cook said in a statement released by the church on Saturday.

Friends outside the church also loved him and expressed sadness at his death. A leading Catholic thinker called him a "great-souled man" immune to the age of narcissism.

Elder Cook said Elder Perry’s witness of Jesus Christ would also be remembered: “Tom Perry bore a powerful witness of Jesus Christ. He knew the Savior; he loved the Savior.”

His death came a single day after a church spokesman said Elder Perry's thyroid cancer — found by doctors last month — had spread to his lungs and beyond and was terminal.

"A month ago you'd have thought that Elder Perry would live forever," Mike Otterson, the church's managing director of public affairs, said Saturday. "He still had that tremendous energy. Then a month later … just amazingly fast."

Elder Perry took the lessons he learned growing up on a farm in Logan, Utah, and applied them to a life of service toward his country, his church and his family — doing it all with hallmark enthusiasm. His parents taught him to work, pray and lift others. Young Tom did all of those as a full-time church missionary and then as a Marine in the aftermath of World War II, when he lent a hand to a devastated people. He learned optimism from athletics and discovered that the secret to strengthening families is involving everyone. And from the time he was a young boy with a record of perfect church attendance, Elder Perry was dedicated to his faith, serving in church leadership positions from California to Massachusetts.

In his son's biography of him, "L. Tom Perry: An Uncommon Life, Years of Preparation," Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew offered this tribute: "Anyone who's spent much time with Elder L. Tom Perry has likely heard him say that he is 'as common as dirt.' But truth be told, there is nothing common or ordinary about this distinctive and distinguished man."


Elder Perry is the first member of the LDS Church's First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve to pass away since 2008, when Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin died.

Reaction on Saturday was full of sadness and appreciation.

"My memory of Elder Perry will always be his infectious enthusiasm. He always had a big smile," Otterson said. "He had that very loud, confident, booming voice that was probably his principal characteristic. Everyone knew him for that. He just exuded confidence and enthusiasm whenever you were in the room with him."

Elder Perry served for the past seven years as chairman of the LDS Church leadership's Public Affairs Committee, overseeing and working with Otterson.

Otterson said Elder Perry's "clarion call" for public affairs was emphasizing the principles of faith, family and religious freedom, which became a central focus of the department. He placed particular emphasis on efforts to build "faith in Christ across the country, even in supporting other religious faiths, not necessarily even Christian," Otterson said. "He had a belief that all faiths contribute to a better society."

Otterson said Elder Perry's outreach to leaders of other faiths was "very significant." A Catholic friend to Elder Perry echoed that sentiment Saturday evening.

"I'm very, very sad. We've lost a great man, a great leader, a great friend," said Robert P. "Robby" George, a Princeton professor, noted Catholic thinker and leader in support of traditional marriage.

"He made a tremendous impression on everyone he met, whether they were religious leaders at the highest levels in the Catholic faith or the Jewish faith or any of the evangelical traditions," added George, who received an honorary doctor of law and moral values degree from BYU in April. "The goodness of L. Tom Perry was just transparent. There was no affectation in the man. He impressed you simply by being the great-souled man that he was."

George cherished his role as a recipient of what he said was Elder Perry's deep gift for friendship.

"He saw authority as service. … If narcissism is the great vice of our era, Elder Perry was entirely immune from it. He was the very opposite of a narcissist. It was never about him. It was about what's right and true and good and noble and holy."

"He's going to be greatly missed," Otterson said.

That was apparent on Twitter, where Elder Perry's death was one of the nation's top 10 trending topics on Saturday.

Reared in righteousness

Elder Perry was born Aug. 5, 1922, in Logan. He was the son of Leslie Thomas and Nora Sonne Perry. His parents, both of whom served in several church leadership positions, sought to include their six children in their callings and gave them the spiritual training they needed, according to an August 1986 LDS Church magazine article.

“My earliest recollection is being at Mother’s knee before we went to bed,” Elder Perry said. “She was a woman of great faith.”

A teacher by profession, Nora Perry helped her children memorize the Articles of Faith and the multiplication tables while she performed household chores. She also set a strong example of compassionate service, Elder Perry said later.

“She went around all the time helping people who were having difficulty, and she liked to take us with her,” he said.

Elder Perry’s father taught the children how to work.

“We were reared on a farm and always had a cow. We cut the hay by hand with an old scythe,” Elder Perry said in a 1972 Church News interview. “I knew that I must work for what I received, and that nothing would be handed to me. If it were, I would not appreciate it.”

Growing up in this home, "it was hard not to have a testimony," Elder Perry said in the 1986 church magazine article.

“As we would kneel in family prayer and listen to our father, a bearer of the priesthood, pour out his soul to the Lord for the protection of our family against the fiery darts of the wicked, one more layer was added to our shield of faith."

Young Tom was dedicated to perfect attendance at church. One Sunday morning, he came down with tonsillitis. His parents decided that having him stay home to get better was a higher priority than his attendance record. But Tom was determined and surprised his family by showing up to church anyway, according to his profile.

His first paying job was scrubbing his father’s law office and putting the law books back on the shelf. With the nickel he earned, he paid his way to the local theater on the following Saturday. He was also put to work at the church building, mowing lawns, washing walls and shoveling coal into the stoker, according to the 1986 church magazine article.

He learned in the home that the secret to strengthening relationships within the family was involving everyone in as many activities as possible. Elder Perry would practice those same principles with his own children.

As a teenager, Tom's participation in church athletics, particularly volleyball, became a fond memory and a turning point in his life. According to his biography, Tom thought he did poorly when he tried out for the team and didn’t think he would make it. But to his surprise, he was selected.

He later discovered the reason. Tom was the bishop’s son, and the coaches figured they had a better chance of getting new uniforms if he was on the team.

Tom eventually grew to a height of 6-foot-4. In his third year, he was named team captain and his team won the all-church tournament.

Elder Perry never claimed to be a great athlete, but he realized a positive outlook elevated what he could accomplish. This optimistic approach influenced the rest of his life.

Mission, military, marriage

After graduating from Logan High School, Tom completed one year of college at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) before accepting a call to serve in the Northern States Mission in 1942. Although he read the Book of Mormon while in seminary, he developed a love for it in the mission field.

“I started facing the challenge of people asking me questions, and I had to defend the Book of Mormon,” Elder Perry said in the 1986 article. “Then I knew I had to know it, and I started studying.”

Six weeks after Elder Perry returned from his mission, he was drafted into the military. He chose to volunteer for the Marine Corps and was among the first of the occupation troops to enter Japan after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The young Marine was sympathetic to the Japanese people amid the devastation and wanted to help, so he recruited a group of servicemen to rebuild a Protestant chapel. Later when his unit was transferred, nearly 200 members of that congregation expressed appreciation by lining up along the railroad tracks, according to the 1986 article.

Elder Perry considered his military service an extension of his mission. He and fellow Marines also built a small chapel on the island of Saipan and repaired a Catholic orphanage. Years later as an apostle, Elder Perry decorated his office with an American flag, jars filled with sand from Iwo Jima and Saipan, and a photo of the Saipan chapel.

“I was a better missionary in the military because I’d already had two years’ experience in the mission field," Elder Perry said. "During the next two and a half years, I had double the baptisms in the Marine Corps that I’d had in the mission field. We had a great group of LDS fellows. The strength of the gospel made life in the service very enjoyable.”

Following an honorable release, he resumed schooling at Utah State University, receiving a degree in finance in 1949 and doing graduate work in 1950.

While still in undergraduate school, Tom met Virginia Lee at a Mutual Improvement Association stake leadership meeting. He was a stake secretary and she was a ward speech director. They were married in the Logan Temple on July 18, 1947. They are the parents of two daughters, Barbara and Linda Gay, and a son, Lee.

Family life

Elder Perry always made family time a high priority. Over the years, he enlisted family members in helping to type and proofread talks, make copies, find quotes and stories, and serve as timekeepers. In an profile, Elder Perry's son, Lee, recalled assisting his father during high council speaking assignments.

“He would give me his watch, and I would sit in the center of the congregation, a few rows from the front," Lee Perry said. "We used signs of the three monkeys — see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. If he wasn’t standing straight, I would cover my eyes. If he was speaking too loudly, I would cover my ears, and just before time was up, I would cover my mouth.”

A career in retailing triggered moves to Idaho, California and New York. In 1966, the Perrys moved to Boston, where Tom became the treasurer of a firm operating six department stores in the area. The future apostle found himself in the middle of what he called the “heyday” of athletics in the city. He followed the Red Sox, Bill Russell and the Celtics, and Bobby Orr and the Bruins. Elder Perry remained a Boston sports fan the rest of his life.

Elder Perry accepted various church callings while living throughout the country, including teaching early morning seminary and serving in two bishoprics, on a stake high council and in two stake presidencies. On Oct. 6, 1972, he was called to be an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. At the time, he was serving as president of the Boston Stake.

Life took a tragic turn when on Dec. 14, 1974, less than a year after Elder Perry was called as an apostle, Virginia Perry died of cancer. The couple's oldest daughter, Barbara Perry Haws, died of breast cancer at age 33 in 1983.

One year after his wife's death, Elder Perry paid tribute to her in his April 1975 general conference address: “There’s no way you can compensate for that balance of a companion aiding you in the assignment you’re given. The combination of husband and wife working together is more than one and one makes two. It grows in geometric proportions as she magnifies you and your assignment.”

Elder Perry has encouraged others who suffer to put their trust in the Lord.

“(The Lord) is very kind," Elder Perry said in his profile. "Even though some experiences are hard, he floods your mind with memories and gives you other opportunities. Life doesn’t end just because you have a tragedy — there’s a new mountain to climb.”

Elder Perry married the former Barbara Dayton in the Salt Lake Temple on April 28, 1976. She had been an assistant professor of nursing at Brigham Young University.

A life of service

Enthusiasm, service outside of Utah and business skills were three things Elder Perry felt he could contribute as an apostle.

“I think that the greatest talent that the Lord has blessed me with is enthusiasm," Elder Perry said in a 1974 Church News interview. "I am hard to keep down. I will try to keep people charged up about their responsibilities and duties and about their great potential. I have the very strong impression that one of the reasons for the call had been my experience away from the center of the church. … I am sure that I will be drawing upon these experiences as I make contributions to the church. … The second talent I think I can contribute is that in my life I have been blessed to have both church and business experiences that have taught me organization. Perhaps my contribution will be in the basic levels of the organization; to make them stronger, more alive, more efficient. The Lord’s business has to be the best in the world.”

Elder Perry was appointed by U.S. President Gerald R. Ford to serve on the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration Advisory Council. He also served as chairman of the Church Bicentennial Committee.

Elder Perry received a distinguished alumnus award from Utah State University on March 7, 1981. The renovated special collections wing of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University was named after him in May 2000. He and Barbara were among several honored by Catholic Community Services of Utah as humanitarians in 2014.

Elder Perry served on the ZCMI board for 21 years, the last one as chairman, before stepping down in May 1996 when the First Presidency announced that general authorities would no longer serve on corporate boards.

One life highlight came when Elder Perry was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game on May 8, 2004.

“It’s a thrill I thought I’d never have,” he said in a 2004 Deseret News article.

An author, Elder Perry wrote two books: “Living with Enthusiasm” (1996) and “Family Ties: A Message for Fathers” (2011).

Elder Perry's family celebrated his 92nd birthday in August 2014 by taking him to a Salt Lake Bees baseball game.

In an interview with KSL's Sam Penrod that summer, Lee Perry said the family is proud of his father's life and accomplishments. He said he believed one of his father's secrets to a long, healthy life was not letting things weigh him down.

"He just feels like his life is only important in terms of the lessons it can teach," Lee Perry said. "And I think that is very consistent with the kind of person he is. I think his example gives me something to aspire to. He just embodies a follower of Christ, a disciple of Jesus Christ, and he does it so well. He just gives us someone to look up to."

Elder Perry's second daughter, Linda Nelson, said she continued to be inspired by her father's optimistic approach to life in his twilight years.

"You know, he is just going to be going full force as long as he can, and he is going to give it everything that he has," Nelson said.

In a 2012 Church News interview, Elder Perry said his greatest joy has come from interacting with countless members of the church, along with remarkable church leaders, around the world.

“The greatest blessing is shaking their hands and seeing their faces and seeing the spirit in them,” he said. “My association with great men has been not only an education, but an inspiration. Every one of them has made a contribution in my life.”

Funeral services are pending.