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Vai's View: Elder L. Tom Perry 'was always so good to me'

“He was always so good to me.”

It was a quote attributed to Elder L. Tom Perry’s son, Lee, in Deseret News reporter Tad Walch’s story last Sunday about the passing of the LDS apostle. The quote was near the end of Walch’s piece, but for me it captured my own 35-year association with Elder Perry.

I was struck with the simplicity of Lee’s statement. And though I’m not family, Lee’s comment is exactly how I feel about his father.

I first met Elder Perry while in San Diego for the 1980 Holiday Bowl as an 18-year-old freshman. Frankly, I didn’t know who he was, which tells you all you need to know about me as an 18-year-old. He didn’t know me either, but because I was wearing a BYU football T-shirt, he asked me if I was on the team as we waited in line in the gift shop of the team hotel, the Mission Bay Hilton. I think I was buying a pack of gum.

As we neared the cashier, some BYU folks came into the gift shop and, recognizing him, made a fuss over Elder Perry. Still, he didn’t lose focus of me or our conversation. After our purchase, we parted ways and he wished me luck in the game. I didn’t think I’d ever see or hear from him again.

But a month after what became known as the "Miracle Bowl," a letter from the office of the Quorum of the Twelve with the initials "LTP" arrived for me at the BYU football office. Elder Perry had written to congratulate me on my performance and our miraculous victory.

In May 1982, I was a greenie missionary in South Dakota and Elder Perry came to preside over a stake conference in Sioux Falls. From the pulpit, he asked if Elder Sikahema was in the congregation. I waved from the back of the high school auditorium.

Elder Perry invited my companion, Elder Dale Atherton, and I to come to the pulpit, and we nervously walked towards him. He shook our hands, and as I stood next to his towering 6-foot-4-inch frame, he introduced me and my trainer. He then had me turn my back to the congregation.

With his booming voice and sweeping hand, which he ran across my shoulders, he told the congregation that my name used to be printed on the back of a jersey. Then, turning me back to face the audience, he pointed to my black name tag and said, “Now, his name is on the front. Invite Elder Sikahema and his companion to your home and introduce this fine young man and his companion to your neighbors and friends. They’ll testify of the restored gospel, which they’ve been commissioned to teach.”

He thanked us and excused us to return to our seats. We floated all the way to the back of the building, slapping high and low fives with fellow missionaries and members along the way.

Two years elapsed before I saw Elder Perry again. This time, it was during a banquet at the Hotel Utah. We had just finished the 1984 regular season ranked No. 1 in college football and were headed to San Diego to meet the Michigan Wolverines for a chance to clinch a national championship. The team was invited to Salt Lake to dine with the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve and other church leaders. President Spencer W. Kimball and two of his counselors, Presidents N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney, hadn’t made any public appearances in months because of illness and age. But President Gordon B. Hinckley, the third counselor, conducted the event and informed us that President Kimball had a video feed of the proceedings directly into his room.

The members of the Quorum of the Twelve were scattered throughout the room along with various members of the Quorum of the Seventy. We had nameplates on each table with seat assignments. I suppose they didn’t want us players to bunch up by position as we typically did. Lo and behold, seated at our table was none other than Elder L. Tom Perry.

He was accompanied by a young teenage grandson, and they had stacks of BYU football programs, which the boy took from table to table all evening to get signed. At our table was our star quarterback, Robbie Bosco, with his girlfriend, Karen Holt, who is now his wife.

I didn’t know then that Elder Perry was a finance guy and a treasurer for large retail chains in his profession, but it was clear he understood numbers because he was rattling off Robbie’s statistics and team stats throughout the evening. Clearly, he was a huge sports fan but also understood the nuances of our game. Though I had only been in his presence twice in my life before the banquet, I felt a twinge of pride that he remembered me and treated me like an old friend.

A month later, Elder Perry sent me another congratulatory handwritten note — this time on winning the national championship.

Two more years passed after the banquet, and now I was in the NFL. He dropped me a note congratulating me on my career and encouraged me to use my platform and resources wisely in building the Lord’s kingdom. He gave me his private information, but in deference to his holy calling and respecting his privacy, I never used it. Instead, I always went through his personal assistant, Kari Smith. Kari became a good friend over the years, keeping me updated on her boss, including reaching out to me this week after his passing and sending me funeral information.

Kari also arranged our meetings, which weren’t frequent. About 10 years ago, NBC sent me to Frankfurt, Germany, for a week to cover a bobsledding event on Thanksgiving weekend. To make up for sending me over the holidays, NBC agreed to send my family with me. Our oldest son was a BYU freshman who wanted to be home for Thanksgiving rather than in Europe, so my wife and daughter stayed home with him and I took my two younger teenage sons, one of their friends from our stake and my mother.

At the time, Elder Perry was serving in Frankfurt, so I contacted Kari and said that if his schedule permitted, I’d like to see him while I was in Germany. Kari emailed back with an invitation for us to attend Elder Perry’s ward on Sunday and to have dinner afterward in the Perrys' apartment.

I worked every day on that trip, and the boys were left to themselves to explore Frankfurt. But each night over dinner, we’d review how we’d approach this incredible opportunity to dine with an apostle in his home. We agreed that they’d each come up with one good question they’d ask Elder Perry — but it had to be good because most of the evening we’d do more listening than talking.

The boys got to ask their questions and then listened to counsel directly from an apostle of God. They also promised Elder Perry that when the time came, they’d all serve missions. We had a memorable evening with the Perrys, and Sister Barbara Perry prepared a delicious meal that soothed our Thanksgiving turkey cravings. We learned that Elder Perry's favorite NFL team was the San Francisco 49ers and his baseball team was the Boston Red Sox. My sons and their buddy, Nelson McNaughton, all Eagles fans, were amused that Elder Perry lamented the state of the 49ers (they weren't very good at the time) and told us he liked the Eagles more and more because of Andy Reid. Elder Perry was very much aware of most of the LDS coaches in the NFL and in the college ranks — and not just the head coaches. He was an exceptionally knowledgable fan.

The boys harmonized a medley of favorite hymns they had practiced to sing for Elder and Sister Perry, which the Perrys seemed to enjoy.

Before we left, Elder Perry called on two members of the Seventy who also lived in the same building, Elders Craig Zwick and Bruce Hafen, to come and meet our family. Dutifully, both men came to the Perrys’ apartment, and we had a nice visit and got to know them as well.

Several years ago, Kari emailed and asked if I was going to be in Provo for a Friday night BYU football game versus Hawaii. She said Elder Perry planned to be at the game and wanted to know if I might be there.

“No, I wasn’t," I replied. "But I will. And I am.”

“Well, if you’re coming, he’d like to see you," she replied.

On two days’ notice, we flew to Utah. But since Elder Perry was seated in President Cecil O. Samuelson’s box, I wasn’t going to barge in there asking to see him. Instead, Kari arranged for my wife and me to go to their hotel room at the Springfield Marriott in Provo the morning after the game, a beautiful September Saturday.

At the time, Elder Perry was chairman of Church Public Affairs, and he got wind that my station was moving me from sports to anchor news. He asked about the transition and we talked about my career, media, church public affairs and church service. I sought his advice, which he seemed to take great care to offer only when I specifically asked. But even then, he was always deferential to my own thoughts and ideas, my wife’s feelings and the conclusions we made as a couple.

Afterward, we walked over to the Denny’s next door on University Parkway for breakfast with all of our kids, who were all at BYU. Our daughter brought her fiancé, Marcus Corbitt, who was just home from his mission. Elder Perry regaled us with stories and was genuinely interested in the kids and their studies. At one point, Elder Perry asked Marcus what he was studying. When he replied “finance,” Elder Perry loudly exclaimed, “Smart man!”

Then, looking at our daughter Lana, he said, “If your parents like him, he might be a keeper. I can see that you do and they do.” We enjoyed a great laugh. Elder Perry remembered our visit with my boys to his home in Germany, and my boys got to report to him that they had kept their promise to serve missions.

One of the blessings of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is our leaders, from local to general authorities. Interestingly, you don’t necessarily have to live in Salt Lake City or even in a major metropolis. Many Latter-day Saints living in some of the most remote places on earth have met prophets, seers and revelators. One could argue that if you live in a remote place, your chances of seeing and/or meeting an apostle will be pretty good because they follow the Savior’s command to “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

The church continues to grow, but there will always be just 15 of them. Which makes me appreciate even more that I got to know Elder Perry as I did.

I marvel that a chance meeting with a prophet of God, as I stood in line to buy a pack of gum when I was 18, led to a friendship that I would cherish for more than three decades.

“He was always so good to me.”

Vai Sikahema anchors the morning news for NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is a two-time NFL All-Pro and two-time Emmy winner and is enshrined in the BYU Sports and Philadelphia Broadcast halls of fame. He received the 2012 Deseret News President's Award.