Study and prayer are two key elements in the life of H. Burke Peterson.
“I was reading my patriarchal blessing one day when I was almost thirty years old,” the new first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric said. “And one of the things it said was to seek to learn the will of the Lord in all things, and then will success come.
“I had served in many capacities in the Church and had hoped four different times to be called on a stake mission, and every time I had been given another assignment. I had suggested a mission call because I wanted an easy way to study the gospel. It never came that way, so finally I decided I was going to study the scriptures every morning of my life, and I have ever since then, for fifteen to thirty minutes.
“This is where the difference came. It seemed like almost instantaneously that when I decided to start to study the gospel daily, I began to have an abundance of successful experiences. Blessings just opened up. So when you talk about a milestone, that was really my milestone.”
Bishop Peterson’s charming brunette wife, Brookie, added that the entire family has benefited from Bishop Peterson’s desire to study the scriptures.
“For years now, we’ve gathered in the morning—the entire family—for family prayer and to study the scriptures. We meet at 6:15 A.M. for at least twenty minutes. Then the children are off to seminary by 7:00,” she said.
Bishop Peterson and his wife have been blessed with five daughters. The oldest, Gayle, 24, is now Mrs. Bill Steele, and she and her husband have presented the Petersons with their first two grandchildren. Sherrie, 21, has completed two years of college, while Robin, 18, graduated this year from high school. Jana, 14, recently graduated from the eighth grade, and Keri, 6, has just completed first grade.
“We’ve learned one thing,” Bishop Peterson added, “something my wife has said many times: when we give time to the children, we should make it meaningful. Even if I have only five minutes, I can still give concentrated attention to one of them. I often throw my arms around our six-year-old and tell her, ‘You’re the cutest, sweetest little girl, and I love you more than any other six-year-old in the whole world.’ And she believes that—and, of course, I believe it.
“You can do a lot of things when you feel the right way about people. We have tried to instill a feeling of love and security in each of our girls, and still have a lot of fun. We have discovered that if one of us is especially happy when we are together, then the rest kind of get the spirit of it. This is not easy, I might add. But they all contribute. One of them, for example, once said, ‘Times are trying, Dad—why aren’t you?’ We’ve put that on the family bulletin board.”
The Petersons also are strong supporters of family home evening.
“We started our family home evenings more than twenty years ago when our first daughter was two,” said Sister Peterson, “and we’ve enjoyed regular family get-togethers since.”
One twist especially enjoyed by the Petersons is the “family night fantom.” This involves preparing a surprise—a tray of cookies, or a cake, for example—for another family and leaving it surreptitiously on their doorstep after ringing the doorbell. The gift is anonymous, signed only “Family Night Fantom.”
Mrs. Peterson says two other traits of her husband especially endear him to their children. “He never puts them off, never says he’s too busy when they have a problem,” she said. “And he never forgets them when they are away from home. He usually sends them short letters or cards two or three times a week, even if the card says only ‘We love you. We miss you. Dad.’”
Bishop Peterson met his wife-to-be at the University of Arizona at Tucson. She was born in Tucson, a daughter of Louis S. and Winnafred Bellamy Cardon. The family later moved to Colorado, where her father now serves as patriarch of the Grand Junction Stake. She met her future husband at the institute of religion.
“My roommate pointed him out to me in church one Sunday. I liked his looks, his general appearance, and what I heard about him. I asked the institute director and several of my friends if I should ask him to the girls’ Halloween dance even if I didn’t know him. They all told me no, but I asked him anyway,” she said.
Bishop Peterson added, “I felt we should be better acquainted before we went to the dance, so I asked her to a movie first, and that is how it started.” They became engaged two months later and were married six months after that, on June 27, 1947, in the Arizona Temple.
Sister Peterson has been a faithful and untiring worker in the Church, having served as a teacher in the Primary, the YWMIA, and the Relief Society, as president of Primary and MIA, and in an MIA stake presidency. Her major interest now is genealogy.
Despite the increasing Church responsibilities, the Petersons have managed to continue their courtship.
“For a long time now,” she confided, “he has remembered to put my name regularly in his appointment book for our date well ahead of time. One night a week, at least. We enjoy doing simple things together, like a quiet ride or a dinner, going someplace where we can talk.”
The Petersons are looking forward to moving to Bountiful, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, this summer and getting settled in a new home, despite the fact that they just moved into their new Phoenix home last December. “Leaving the new home bothered me for only half a day,” Sister Peterson confided. “After twenty-five years in Phoenix, we’ll miss it and our families and friends, but we know we’ll love Utah.”
Bishop Peterson credits his parents with setting the example that provides much of his motivation in life. He was born in Salt Lake City on September 19, 1923, the oldest of four sons of Harold Antone and Juna Tye Peterson. The family lived in Phoenix, but his mother returned to Salt Lake City for Burke’s birth so she could be with her mother. His father is now deceased. His mother, now Mrs. Blaine Alexander, resides in Phoenix.
After graduating from high school in Phoenix, Burke attended Phoenix College for two years and then joined the U.S. Navy in 1942. He completed a two-year civil engineering course at the University of Oklahoma in sixteen months and was commissioned an ensign in the Navy Engineer Corps (Seabees). Then he went overseas for two years, serving in the Pacific campaign: Eniwetok, Ulithi, Guam, Okinawa, helping to build airports, dock facilities, and roads, sometimes despite the active opposition of the Japanese armed forces.
World War II over, he returned home in June 1946 and entered the University of Arizona to get his bachelor’s degree. A little more than a year later he had the degree—and his eternal companion. He had planned to go on for his master’s degree and was headed for Stanford University when he received a telegram from Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University), offering him a teaching job while he earned his degree; having a wife now to support, he decided to go where the job was.
After graduating from USU, he accepted a position with the Federal Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was sent back to Phoenix to specialize in irrigation research and remained with the USDA for four years.
In 1952 he left the government service to take a job with a grain storage facility in Mesa, Arizona. Then in 1955, two of his Church colleagues asked him to join them in forming a civil engineering firm. The three partners organized the Engineering Corporation of America in 1955, specializing in designing highways, structures, water systems, sewer systems, and airports, mostly for municipal and governmental agencies.
Bishop Peterson demonstrated leadership potential early in life. He served as president of his deacons and teachers quorums and was an Eagle Scout and Master M Man. His first Church job was as ward Explorer leader. He later served as ward YMMIA superintendent, stake YMMIA superintendent, elders quorum president in two wards, and counselor in a bishopric.
In 1959 he was called to be bishop of the Phoenix Eighth Ward, serving for six years before being called to be president of the Phoenix North Stake in 1965. After five years as stake president, he was named a Regional Representative of the Twelve in 1970, working with the Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe regions. He was serving in this position when he was called by the First Presidency on April 6, 1972, to serve as first counselor to Bishop Victor L. Brown in the new Presiding Bishopric.
“Burke has been especially faithful to the Church,” Mrs. Peterson said. “He has never questioned any call or any program. His support of the Church and its leaders has always been immediate and absolute. I’ve never seen him express anything but enthusiasm about any Church program.”
Bishop Peterson’s main interests are his family, his church, and his work, singlemindedness that enables him to excell in leadership. “My parents taught me how important the family, the Church, and work are,” Bishop Peterson explains. “Dad was a perfectionist—a cabinet-maker of Swedish ancestry. He felt that when you do anything for the Lord, you don’t do anything but the best.
“Dad always showed us respect for Mother. We knew he loved us because he showed us how much he loved her. This kind of thing, of course, goes deep. And we never left home in the morning, we four boys, but what Father gathered us around for family prayer.”
Prayer is central to Bishop Peterson’s thinking, because he believes it is the avenue through which the individual develops his own relationship with his Father in heaven.
“I’ve always thought, and I always will,” he affirms, “that the center of this relationship to the Lord is learning to pray. With all our problems that surround us, if we haven’t learned the central one—of talking to the Lord—we just hit and miss in solving these others. But if we have this one, we can pick out the others and solve them.
“And so when I really want to work with people, I plead with them to pray and try to teach them how. And I’ve been amazed in my visits with people to see how many really don’t know how to talk to the Lord—really don’t know how to pray.
“If I could tell youth about praying and listening, I would first tell them to go where they could be alone with the Lord. And then I would tell them this: When you kneel and before you start, think. Try to get in your mind’s eye whom you are praying to. Try to picture our Father in heaven in some way. If no other way, think of the Savior, whom we have seen pictures of, and then try to expand this to the Father. And then, after you think of him there and you see him there, just start to talk to him. Address him as though he were right there, and as you do that, start talking about the things on your mind.
“Pray vocally, out loud. If you want a real treat, when you pray, tell the Lord out loud that you love him. That makes a believer out of you, because nobody is listening except him.
“I hope our youth can learn to wait on him. I try to arrange my time so that when I’ve talked to him, I just kind of thank him and say ‘Amen’ and kneel there and wait. When you get that warm, consuming feeling, you know he’s there. When we can learn to do this, any problem that crosses our path on this earth can be solved; we can get the answer we need or the feeling that it’s going to be all right.
“If you want to know what has been my prime theme in working with others, it’s that. I don’t think you can really do anything until you learn to pray.”