Elder L. Tom Perry: Celebrating 90 Years and a Lifetime of Church Service
By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer
The year of 2012 was destined to be a memorable, nostalgic time for Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
For one, the venerable Apostle turns 90 this month. His wife, Barbara D. Perry, celebrates her 80th birthday this year. And in October, Elder Perry marks his 40th year of service as a General Authority. To celebrate such a personal and historic year, the Perrys recently embarked on a literal trip down memory lane. Over the past month they have visited different areas of the United States that Elder Perry once called home—and where the veteran Church leader played a pivotal role in the construction of several Church meetinghouses.
“We decided to use our Sundays in the month of July by going to the buildings and delivering a message to the people,” said Elder Perry in a Church News interview.
They began in Logan, Utah, where Elder Perry was born on August 5, 1922, to L. Tom and Nora Sonne Perry.
“My father was the bishop of the Ninth Ward for 18 years, and during that period he added a chapel to our cultural hall,” he said.
The Great Depression had exacted a painful toll across Cache County, and the local building project helped put many to work—including young Tom Perry. “As a seven-year-old boy, I used to go up every night and sweep up after the workmen had been there,” he recalled.
Elder and Sister Perry’s return to the Logan Ninth Ward offered an opportunity for them to share Sabbath counsel with the ward members. While in northern Utah they also enjoyed a family reunion at nearby Bear Lake. Elder Perry passed on a game of beach volleyball, but the lean and active nonagenarian looks like he could still play the sport he enjoyed for decades.
“The Ninth Ward had been the all-Church volleyball champions,” he remembered fondly. “We did it two years in a row.”
The Perrys then traveled east, where they met with members in meetinghouses in Scarsdale, New York, and Weston, Massachusetts. Elder Perry lived in these East Coast communities while working in the retail industry prior to his call as a General Authority. He also served as a counselor and as president in the Boston Stake presidency and played a pivotal role in the construction of buildings in both areas. Their recent visit offered Elder Perry time to visit with old friends and some of the local priesthood leaders he served with years ago.
The Perrys then backtracked west to spend the next weekend in Cokeville, Wyoming. Elder Perry has never lived in Cokeville, but it’s his wife’s hometown.
“I’m duty-bound to attend their Pioneer Day celebration every year,” he said, smiling. Elder Perry served as the grand marshal of the town’s parade on July 21 and was the featured speaker at the Pioneer Day celebration event.
“The main thing that I wanted to tell them was that we have a royal and great heritage,” said Elder Perry, speaking of the messages he shared with the many members he met with during his recent travels. “This nation was established to bring about the Restoration of the gospel. We have a great pioneer heritage that gave us the faith to endure. And we have a great heritage of building chapels.”
The Perrys continued west to California, where Elder Perry served on the high council and in the stake presidency while living in the Hurley Ward in Sacramento. During that time Elder Perry was involved in the building of a meetinghouse that required 30,000 hours of donated labor from the local members.
“We had to raise $160,000 (USD),” he recalled. “In those days, the average [annual] salary in our ward was probably $9,000 (USD). It was a great amount to raise. We worked for two years, and every night after work we would all meet at the building site. The wives would come with our dinner, and we would change into our work clothes and work until dark every night.”
The Hurley Ward members were both industrious and resourceful. They helped raise money by operating the concession services at the annual California State Fair. The entire ward took ownership of the building project.
Later Elder Perry was involved in the building of what is now the Cottage Park Ward meetinghouse in the Sacramento California East Stake.
During the Perrys’ recent trip to Sacramento, local members hosted a birthday barbecue for them. A cake was served—the fourth for Elder Perry over the past month. “I’ve had birthday cakes like you can’t believe,” he said.
The Perrys also welcomed the birth of a new great-granddaughter and witnessed the baptism of another great-grandchild. Elder Perry participated in the priesthood ordinations of two great-grandsons: one a deacon, the other a teacher. “How’s that for one family trip,” he said, “a birth, a baptism, and priesthood ordinations.”
Elder Perry’s memory-rich excursions did not end there. On the weekend of August 4 and 5, he and Sister Perry visited Rudy, Idaho, a tiny community homesteaded by Elder Perry’s grandfather.
Elder Perry marvels at the notion that he will soon enter his tenth decade of life. He remains energized and full of vigor. Perhaps 90—at least for Elder Perry—is the new 40.
“When my dad turned 60 I was convinced he was ready for the grave; that was old,” he said. “But when I turned 60, I felt like a kid of 18. When I turned 70, I felt like a kid of 20. When I turned 80, I felt like a kid of 30. Now that I’m 90, I feel like a kid of 40.”
He does not joke when asked about the secret of his longevity and youthful outlook. “I had wonderful parents. I had the gospel. And I have great companions in my marriage. No one can fail if they have that combination,” he said.
Elder Perry’s first wife, Virginia Lee Perry, passed away in 1974; he married Barbara Dayton in 1976.
The Apostle recognizes the paradox of remaining “young” through labor and gospel service, saying, “You don’t have time to get old.”
Sister Perry said her husband typically leaves for the office by 7:00 a.m. and works each day until 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Elder Perry said each day he tries to live up to his sacred apostolic calling by working as hard as he is able. He said he has been uplifted by the good men who have served beside him.
“I’ve been in two bishoprics, three high councils and three stake presidencies, and … a stake president, and now I’m in the Quorum of the Twelve,” 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.”
Decades of priesthood leadership have also placed him in the company of millions of members. “The greatest blessing is shaking their hands and seeing their faces and seeing the Spirit in them. This Church is a remarkable organization because the Lord is the head,” he said.
Elder Perry’s counsel to the young men and young women of the Church is simple and direct:
“First, get an understanding of the doctrine. Let it build your faith, and understand the fact that we belong to the Savior’s Church. Then learn how to serve.”
And for the parents and grandparents in the Church?
“There is no such thing as giving ‘quantity’ time—its got to be ‘quality’ time,” he said. “You have to make time to be with [children and grandchildren]. Give them security. Let them know that this is a great life and a great opportunity.”
Elder Perry approaches his 90s as he has each previous decade of life—with confidence and optimism. He has known sorrow and disappointment. “But I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad day because I’ve learned something from every experience I have had, “he said. “I’ve never had a day that I didn’t feel like getting out of bed and having an opportunity to accomplish something.”
Family: Born August 5, 1922, in Logan, Utah, to L. Tom and Nora Sonne Perry. Married Virginia Lee in the Logan Utah Temple in 1947. They had three children (Barbara, Lee, Linda). Virginia Lee Perry died in 1974. Married Barbara Dayton in 1976 in the Salt Lake Temple.
Military Service: Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943. He was among the first occupation troops to enter Japan after World War II.
Education: Graduated from Utah State University in 1949 with a bachelor of science degree in finance. Performed graduate work in finance the following year.
Employment: Worked as a controller, vice president, and treasurer of department store organizations in Idaho, New York, California, and Massachusetts.
Church service: Served a mission to the Northern States, 1942–1943. Served as president of the Boston Stake and as counselor in other stake presidencies and bishoprics. Was sustained as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on October 6, 1972; sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on April 6, 1974, and ordained an Apostle on April 11, 1974, at age 51.