Remembering Elder L. Tom Perry

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Flags at BYU flew at half mast Monday in honor of Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who died May 30. He was 92 years old and, at the time of his death, was the oldest living Apostle. The LDS Church announced in April that Elder Perry had thyroid cancer. Within weeks of the announcement the cancer spread, and Elder Perry was placed in hospice care last week.

“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,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook in a press release.

Elder Perry was born Aug. 5, 1922, in Logan. As a young man he was known as “Stretch” because of his 6-foot-4-inch height. He loved sports and made a name for himself on his church “vanball” team (a variation of volleyball), leading it to a championship in 1940 as team captain. His enthusiasm for sports carried throughout his life. He was often seated near former BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson at BYU basketball games.

As a young man Elder Perry served in the Northern States Mission from 1942 to 1944, one of the few missionaries called at that time. Within a month of returning he joined the Marines, serving on the Pacific front during World War II. He helped build an LDS Church chapel in Saipan while stationed there. Later, as a member of post-war occupation forces in Japan, he and fellow Marines repaired Protestant churches on Nagasaki.

Elder Perry attended Utah State University upon returning from active duty. He married Virginia Lee in the Logan temple on July 18, 1947 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in finance in 1949. He worked in retail, serving in leadership positions with companies in Massachusetts, New York, Idaho and California over the span of his career. While in Massachusetts he became a fan of the Boston Red Sox. Decades later, in 2004, he threw the first pitch at a Red Sox game.

In his capacity as an Apostle and a church leader, Elder Perry served in varied and important capacities. He was involved in the church’s proselyting efforts at the 1964 World’s Fair as well as in the church’s bicentennial celebrations for the U.S. in 1976. He served as a bishop and stake president in Idaho and Boston. 

In 2004, at age 82, he was called by President Gordon B. Hinckley to preside over the Europe Central Area, which included Poland, Germany, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Scandinavia and parts of Iran. In this capacity he served as the highest general authority stationed away from Salt Lake City. In 2006 he presided over the rededication of the Tahiti Temple.

Elder Perry defended religious liberty, and he did not discriminate between those who were members of the church and those who were not. “Besides protecting our own rights, we must protect the rights of others, including the most vulnerable and unpopular,” he said in a church video about religious liberty. “No one should be belittled for following their moral conscience.”

Most recently he was also involved in proceedings surrounding the passing of this year’s nondiscrimination bill  SB296 in the Utah legislature.

Though his job and subsequent church callings demanded much of his time, Elder Perry made sure to set aside time for his wife and three children. The Perrys held family home evening on Monday nights; Friday night and Saturday mornings were reserved for time with his wife and performing house and yard work. In order to spend time with his only son, Lee, Elder Perry took the boy with him on assignments throughout the stake and enlisted his aid in preparing for and giving talks.

“I think he’ll be remembered as a champion of the family,” said son Lee Perry.

Elder Perry championed the family as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He attended the international colloquium on the family at the Vatican in November 2014 and dedicated his April 2015 general conference talk to the defense of the family unit.

“The entire theology of our restored gospel centers on families and on the new and everlasting covenant of marriage,” he said. “We also believe that strong traditional families are not only the basic units of a stable society, a stable economy, and a stable culture of values — but that they are also the basic units of eternity and of the kingdom and government of God. … The older I get, the more I realize that family is the center of life and is the key to eternal happiness.”

Elder Perry was known for his enthusiasm. With his trademark broad smile, he embodied a love for life and unfailing optimism. “One of the challenges of this mortal experience is not to allow the stresses and strains of life to get the better of us,” he said, “to endure the varied seasons of life while remaining positive, even optimistic. Perhaps when difficulties and challenges strike, we should have these hopeful words of Robert Browning etched in our minds: ‘The best is yet to be.'”

Elder Perry loved people. When general conferences were held in the Tabernacle, he would arrive a half hour early in order to walk up and down the aisles shaking hands. “He had this common touch and he was as comfortable with the common man as presidents and rulers and treated them all pretty much the same and had a way of relating to them and connecting with them that’s just profound,” his son said.

With the advent of social media, Elder Perry channeled his enthusiasm to spreading the gospel online. On June 23, 2013, he announced at a worldwide church leadership training that missionaries would use online proselyting to share the gospel. People’s “main points of contact with others, even with close friends, is often via the Internet,” he said. “The very nature of missionary work therefore must change if the Lord is to accomplish the work of gathering Israel from the four corners of the Earth.”

He called for a joint effort of missionary and member proselyting to “hasten the work” of spreading the gospel. “Clearly the missionaries and mission presidents have answered the Lord’s call,” he said. “Now he is calling us as members to serve alongside them and him in this great work. Just as missionaries must adapt to a changing world, members must also change the way they think about missionary work.”

Elder Perry practiced what he preached. While speaking at BYU Commencement in April 2013, he told students, “I have in my briefcase an iPhone and an iPad. I try to spend each day learning new ways to use these devices. They are modern miracles.” Elder Perry urged members of varying ages to be versed and up to date with media options to connect with others and share the gospel. “Don’t go into technological retirement with that last child,” he told parents.

Elder Perry’s ties to BYU are varied, from serving as Grand Marshal of a Homecoming Parade to firing the George Q ROTC cannon at a home UNLV football game in 2000. He was the first to receive the BYU Patriots Award for his service in World War II. His son, Lee Tom Perry, is the current dean of the Marriott School of Business at the BYU.

Perhaps he is best known on the campus as the namesake of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at the Harold B. Lee Library. The collection, started in 1957, moved into the new addition on the library’s first floor in 1999. Aline and L. Sam Skaggs funded the addition and requested that it be named after the Apostle. Elder Perry attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Elder Perry leaves a legacy of cheer and an unbending testimony of and faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. “We must be bold in our declaration of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We want others to know that we believe He is the central figure in all human history. His life and teachings are the heart of the Bible and the other books we consider to be holy scripture.”

He left no doubt of his belief to those who knew him or heard him speak. “Tom Perry bore a powerful witness of Jesus Christ,” Elder Cook said. “He knew the Savior; he loved the Savior.”

The funeral will be Friday, June 5, at 11 a.m. in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

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