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.
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. “Oh!” she thought. “An Apostle right next to me! 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. Elder Perry 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 viewpoint on 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 furniture, cleaning rugs, doing 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 there so frequently. I mowed the church lawns, washed down the walls, and shoveled coal into the old furnace to heat the building.” And Tom and his mother helped with the ward financial reports, too.
Work at home was also a family project. 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 vegetable garden. Much of the responsibility went to Tom, the oldest boy, to help with the chores, in addition to his delivering newspapers in the neighborhood.
When Saturday afternoon came, it “was not a time of working—it was a time to play!” During the summer, the family would go up into the nearby mountain canyons and fish, hike, play games—and eat. “Saturday afternoon was always ours as a family together. We could rely on it.”
Elder Perry remembers the spiritual training his parents gave him as a boy. “I guess my earliest recollection is saying my prayers at Mother’s knee before we went to bed. She was a woman of great faith. She was a teacher by profession, an expert teacher. [She had graduated from Utah State Agricultural College in 1910.] While ironing clothes, 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.”
After graduating from high school, he attended a year of college and then was called to the (U.S.) 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 it. Then I knew I had to know it, and I started studying. I came to understand that it is another witness of Christ,” he says, “the second defender 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 U.S. 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 long marches, I’d drag myself to the front of the line and stay there.”
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 their spare time, he and some of his fellow Marines built a small chapel on the island of Saipan. Later in Nagasaki, he again 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. “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 soldiers who became Latter-day Saints. The strength of the gospel made life in the service very enjoyable.”
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. They were married in the Logan Temple on 18 July 1947.
After graduation, he took a position with a company 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 proved stronger than any excuses he could think of, 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 that could also be applied in business assignments. His successful career in retailing took the Perrys to the states of Idaho, Washington, 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.
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 traveling time to and from work 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, found quotes and stories for him to use, and have even timed his talks to make sure they weren’t too long. On occasion he has invited them to accompany him to speak at stake 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. “By so doing, 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 wrote a letter and put 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 adored 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 died; 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 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 grew up on a ranch near Cokeville, Wyoming, and had graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in nursing. For fifteen years she had worked at the Latter-day Saint Hospital in Salt Lake City, serving in various capacities including head nurse, and assistant director of nursing. After completing her master’s degree in health education at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, she taught at the BYU College of Nursing for four years.
Elder and Sister Perry “enjoy doing just about everything together,” says Sister Perry. Whenever possible, Elder Perry drives to stake 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 does many nice things for 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.”
His deep love of the Lord, his enthusiasm, and his willingness to work hard 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.
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. I don’t face adversity with any less enthusiasm than I face going down a hill on roller skates. It’s great to get up every day because there’s a new challenge and a new opportunity.”
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.