Roberta Jensen sat on the airplane trying to feed her new baby and quiet her three other children—all under the age of four. She was exhausted and embarrassed and alone.
This visit home to Utah was intended to be a rest from the pressures of helping support her husband in dental school in Chicago, raising a young family, and struggling to make ends meet. She had started out physically and emotionally drained. And so far, the trip had been anything but restful.
The passenger across the aisle was a tall, cheerful man in a dark suit who looked familiar. When she spoke to him, he introduced himself as Elder L. Tom Perry. “An Apostle right next to me!” she thought. “I wonder if he can feel the turmoil I’m in and read the feelings of my heart.”
As the plane took off, all four children started crying. Roberta’s embarrassment turned to panic. Suddenly Elder Perry put away his briefcase and asked gently, “May I hold the baby?” During the rest of the trip he cared for the baby, feeding him and rocking him to sleep, while the grateful mother calmed and fed the other children.
When dinner was served, she reached for the baby, but Elder Perry, still smiling, said the baby was sleeping peacefully and there was no need to disturb him.
“I survived the trip,” she says, “and retained a dear memory that will be a part of our family forever. He never knew the circumstances that brought us together or the fragile state of my emotions at the time. But he saw someone in need of help and he set aside his own needs to give that help.”
That thoughtful act is characteristic of Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve. And it’s not surprising that he would have this orientation to life, given his background and training.
Lowell Tom Perry was born 5 August 1922 in Logan, Utah, to Leslie Thomas Perry and Nora Sonne Perry. His father served as bishop for the first eighteen years of young Tom’s life, and then as stake president’s counselor and stake president for the next twenty. His mother was a counselor in the ward Relief Society presidency the whole time Tom lived at home.
Through their actions, they taught their six children that it was a privilege and a blessing to serve. Their secret was to involve the children in their callings.
“Mother was a great one for compassionate service,” he says. “She went around all the time helping people who were having difficulty, and she liked to take us with her. She would put us to work washing windows, dusting, vacuuming rugs—things children could do without causing any difficulty.”
His father put the family to work in his calling, too. “The ward building was our second home—we were up there frequently. I mowed the church lawns, washed down the walls, shoveled coal into the stoker.” And Tom and his mother helped with financial reports. “She would keep the records, and I would have the adding machine tape, and we’d proofread by the hour.”
Work at home was a family project, too. Even though their father was an attorney and was at his office much of the day, they had a large yard, a cow, and a garden. Much of the responsibility went to Tom, the oldest boy, to help with the chores, in addition to delivering newspapers. Sister Perry made it very clear that milking the cow was not a job for the girls, even though all three of his sisters were older than Tom. “She’d had that experience in her life and didn’t want her girls to go near the barn. When Dad was at a meeting and I was too young to milk, Mother would take me out to the barn and milk the cow, making it look like I was doing the milking. She could milk twice as fast as Dad, but she never wanted anyone in the neighborhood to see that she was there. I would always come trudging in with the pail so it would look like I was the one who had milked the cow.”
When Saturday afternoon came, it “was not a time of working—it was a time to play!” During the summer, they’d go up into the canyon and fish, hike, pitch horseshoes, play softball—and eat. “Saturday afternoon was always ours. We could count on it.”
Elder Perry remembers the spiritual training his parents gave him as a boy. “I guess my earliest recollection is being at Mother’s knee before we went to bed. She was a woman of great faith.” When he was older and shared a room with his brother, she would go upstairs with them every night and wait outside the door long enough to be sure her sons had said their personal prayers. “She was a teacher by profession, an expert teacher. [She had graduated from Utah State Agricultural College in Domestic Sciences in 1910.] While ironing, she would help us memorize the Articles of Faith or the multiplication tables.”
For one meal a day, she would turn the backs of the chairs to the table so the family would kneel in prayer before eating. “As we would kneel in family prayer,” Elder Perry says, “and listen to our father, a bearer of the priesthood, pour out his soul to the Lord for the protection of the family against the fiery darts of the wicked, one more layer was added to our shield of faith.”
Elder Perry doesn’t remember ever being without a testimony. “Growing up in the home I was in, it was hard not to have a testimony; it was woven into our lives by our parents.”
During Tom Perry’s elementary and high school years, he served in the Aaronic Priesthood, advanced in Scouting, and was involved in athletics. As a high school senior, he was captain of the team that won the all-Church vanball competition (similar to volleyball); the next year the team again won the title, with Tom Perry as assistant coach. He maintains an avid interest in sporting events to this day.
After graduating from high school, he attended a year of college and then was called to the Northern States Mission in 1942. Although he had read the Book of Mormon in seminary, it wasn’t until his mission that he developed his great love for it. “I started facing the challenge of people asking me questions, and I had to defend the Book of Mormon. Then I knew I had to know it, and I started studying.”
The Book of Mormon came to have great meaning to him. Years later, while serving as stake missionaries at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Tom and Virginia Perry were especially noted for their ability to teach about and place copies of the Book of Mormon. Today, as an Apostle, he continues to testify of its truthfulness. “It’s another witness for Christ,” he says, “the second advocate of the Savior and his mission.”
Just six weeks after returning from his mission, he was drafted into military service. He volunteered for duty in the Marine Corps, and with characteristic enthusiasm determined to be the best Marine ever. “I just hate to be second, so when we’d be on forced marches, I’d drag myself to the front of the line and stay there.” When he arrived overseas, the staff immediately assigned him to an office job. “Since I had a little more enthusiasm and pep and tried to be the first in line in everything, they thought I’d take most of the office workload and they could have more time for fun!” he jokes.
He was among the first of the occupation troops to enter Japan after the explosion of the atomic bomb. Although schooled as a tough Marine, his heart went out to the Japanese people when he witnessed the devastation of their country. And he decided to do what he could to help. In Nagasaki, he rounded up a group of servicemen to help rebuild a Protestant chapel. When his unit was later transferred, nearly two hundred members of the congregation, along with their minister, lined the railroad tracks to touch hands with them as the train went by—a memorable expression of mutual love and appreciation.
His service in the Pacific became, in a sense, an extension of his mission. In their spare time, he and some of his companions had also built a small chapel on the island of Saipan, before he was assigned to Japan. “I was a better missionary in the military because I’d already had two years’ experience in the mission field,” he says. “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. I don’t regret my service experience at all.”
Following his release from the military, Tom Perry finished his schooling at Utah State University and graduated in business in 1949. During that time he courted Virginia Lee, daughter of John E. and Hattie Reeder Lee, of Hyde Park, Utah. They were married in the Logan Temple on 18 July 1947.
After graduation, he took a position with a firm in Idaho. Just as he was trying to learn a new job and get his family settled, he was called to be second counselor in the bishopric. His first reaction was to decline—and feel justified about it. But previous training spoke louder than present excuses, and he agreed to serve.
That decision proved to be an important one for his spiritual growth. It furthered his secular education as well, for it taught him organization and management skills that could also be applied in business assignments. His successful career in retailing took the Perrys to the states of Idaho, California, New York, and Massachusetts. Each time business opportunities required a move, he responded willingly to new Church callings. Along the way he taught early-morning seminary and served in two bishoprics, a high council, and two stake presidencies. He was a stake president in Boston, Massachusetts, at the time of his call as a General Authority.
While succeeding in business, he firmly maintained his integrity. At one point he severed his connection with a company because its business practices were not compatible with standards he believed in.
He smiles when he remembers his quart of milk sitting out with all the alcoholic spirits during social hours. “I was teased a little about it, but was secretly admired for what I was doing. Before long, there were two quarts of milk, and then three.” He advises members to “set your standard of values and never compromise it. Have it grounded on the gospel. Don’t be afraid to let people know what you believe in and what you live by.”
Tom Perry learned early to plan time to be with his family. When they moved to the eastern United States, they decided to buy a home closer to work rather than the “dream home” they’d found earlier because his commuting time would have been excessive. Later he turned down an attractive job offer because the firm couldn’t guarantee him his Saturdays off—the day of the week he devoted to his family.
Three children were born to Tom and Virginia Perry: Barbara, who married Terry Haws; Lee, who married Carolyn Bench; and Linda Gay, who married Michael G. Nelson. Like his father before him, Elder Perry involved his family in his church activities whenever possible. Over the years they have typed and proofread talks, mimeographed material for him, found quotes and stories for him to use, and have even served as timekeepers during his talks. On occasion he has invited them to accompany him to speak at conferences.
He involved them in his business activities, too. When the children were young, he would busy them in his office while their mother went shopping. When they were older, they helped take inventory and worked on financial records. “I think any parent should let his family become involved and never isolate them from what he is doing,” he says. “When he does that, they feel closer, and they feel the need to make contributions.”
When he was stake president, L. Tom Perry had the privilege of setting his son apart as a missionary. “My father is not one to show a lot of emotion,” Lee says. “But he was in tears during the blessing. And then he followed it up by writing a letter and putting it into my suitcase without my knowledge. When I got to the mission home and opened my bag, there was the letter. In it, he told me he was proud to be my father. Since I’ve always idolized him, that was pretty significant. It stayed with me as a source of strength and comfort throughout my mission.”
Elder Perry is one who understands sadness and adversity. In December 1974, Virginia passed away; then in March 1983, their daughter Barbara died. He has also lost two grandchildren to death. During those dark times, his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ gave him hope; today he encourages others who suffer to put their trust in the Lord: “The Lord is very kind. 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. Don’t spend a lot of time sulking over what you’ve lost. Get on with climbing the next mountain.”
In a conference address in April 1975, Elder Perry paid tribute to his wife Virginia for her life filled with charity: “As a family we … learned to live with the unexpected when an act of charity was involved. … I always knew that if my wife found a stranger in our city at church on Sunday, I could find them in our extra bedroom when I returned home from my Church assignment that evening. A student looking for a room, a father being transferred to a new city, looking for a place for his family, a family returning from an overseas assignment, etc., were always welcome to stay with us until they could find a permanent place of residence.”
During that conference address, he also paid tribute to Virginia for her courage in the final years of her illness: “The Lord blessed her with four additional years that medical science could not promise her,” he said. “It was during this period that she was able to stand by my side as we were honored in these present positions. She was able to see, at least in some degree, what she had tried to make of me.” (Ensign, May 1975, pp. 32–33.)
Following her death, Elder Perry expected to become totally involved in his work and to be extremely productive. Instead, he found it to be “one of the least productive years of my life. There’s no way that 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.” (Church News, 21 Feb. 1976, p. 7.)
In January 1976 he was introduced to Barbara Dayton by one of her relatives; they were married that April in the Salt Lake Temple. Sister Perry, oldest of eight children of S. Reed and Lois Taylor Dayton, grew up on a ranch near Cokeville, Wyoming, and had graduated from the University of Utah with a B.S. degree in nursing. For fifteen years she had worked at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, serving in such capacities as labor and delivery nurse, head nurse, and assistant director of nursing. After completing her master’s degree in health education at Brigham Young University, she taught at the BYU College of Nursing for four years.
Sister Perry is a vibrant woman with great enthusiasm. “She’s a helpmeet and a half,” says Elder Perry’s secretary, RaNae Hooper. “And she’s a real ‘people person’—one who loves to be involved helping others.”
Elder and Sister Perry “enjoy doing just about everything together,” says Sister Perry. “We’ve gardened together, we’ve scraped ceilings. We jog together a couple of times a week and take long walks.” Whenever possible, Elder Perry drives to conference assignments instead of flying so he can take Barbara with him.
He encourages couples to “do little special things for their companion—surprises—to show courtesy and kindness to them.” And, according to Sister Perry, “He practices what he preaches. He spoils me. He’s always a gentleman. I’ve said, ‘Isn’t it a bother to always come around and open the car door for me?’ But he never considers it a bother. He has a very gentle consideration and concern that I always appreciate. And he’s helpful at home.”
“She is devoted to the Lord,” says Elder Perry. “As I have the opportunity of kneeling each night and morning with my wife in prayer, I am full of gratitude for the blessing and privilege of having her companionship.”
The two of them are doting grandparents to their nine grandchildren. “Being a grandparent is a wonderful calling!” Elder Perry says with a smile. “We have the greatest grandchildren. You just can’t believe it!”
When he and Sister Perry visit his children’s homes, he looks around for something that needs to be done and busies himself doing it. One day he dropped in unannounced at Linda Gay’s house and installed deadbolt locks on the doors so her little children couldn’t wander off without her knowledge. On another occasion she found him out in the back yard building her a fence. “He likes to work with his hands,” she says. “Now that he lives in a condominium, he comes to our houses to build things and work in the garden. It’s great!”
Elder Perry has always enjoyed physical activity, and he continues to keep himself on a rigorous fitness schedule to compensate for lots of sitting. Until recently, he gardened a quarter-acre plot of land. And he gets up early to exercise, including working out in his weight room. He is also completing the Church’s physical fitness award program—“going for the gold.”
His enthusiasm, his willingness to work hard, and his deep love of the Lord have served him well as a General Authority. On 6 October 1972, he was sustained as Assistant to the Twelve. Then, on 11 April 1974, he became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He is noted throughout the Church for a temperament of faith and encouragement. And he is blessed with a genuine smile and a rich, clear voice that has the ring of truth—especially when it is raised in bearing witness to the great Latter-day work.
His current assignments in the Quorum include serving on such committees as the Temple and Genealogy Executive Council, the General Welfare Services Committee, and the Church Board of Education Committee. He stood with national leaders when he headed the Church’s participation in the bicentennial celebration of the United States.
But although his calling is a highly visible one, he prefers that others turn attention to the Quorum as a group, rather than singling him out individually. He speaks highly of his Brethren in the Quorum and about the strength that comes from the blend of individuals in the group. He speaks of President Ezra Taft Benson as a “firm and stalwart prophet-leader who is a great example to all of us.”
When speaking to Church members, Elder Perry returns often to the theme of family and home. Even when teaching about Church organization and function, he clearly shows that the purpose of the Church is to bring the strength of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the lives of individuals and into families.
To a world filled with pessimism, he preaches a hopeful, encouraging doctrine: “We’ll have more trials. But even in adversity there’s great opportunity to grow and accomplish. It’s great to get up every day because there’s a new challenge and a new opportunity. I think that’s the feeling you have to carry into every day. The Lord has given us sufficient opportunity and resources to accomplish anything we want to do here.”
As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, he bears a powerful witness of the Savior: “I marvel that the Father loved us enough to sacrifice his Son, and that we have the comforting assurance that life goes on forever—that death is not the end. If we adhere to the gospel plan, there are great blessings in store for us. The Lord’s system works to bless our lives here as well as in the eternities to come. It’s the only comforting assurance you can find on the earth. And when you have it, it’s the greatest blessing you could ever receive.”
When young Tom Perry was called to a bishopric in Lewiston, Idaho, he was ordained a high priest by Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve. During the blessing, Elder Lee said with prophetic insight that this young man would some day sit in the leading councils of the Church. Not knowing what it meant, the newly ordained high priest kept the experience to himself.
Years later, Elder L. Tom Perry was called into the Quorum of the Twelve to fill the vacancy created when President Lee passed away. Early on, a divine hand was manifest in Elder Perry’s life, shaping and preparing him for the work he is now accomplishing as a servant of the Lord.