The Book of Mormon Is a Family History for “The Jets”

By Lisa A. Johnson

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    Obedience, hard work , faith sustain successful performing group.

    To the fourteen Wolfgramm children, the Book of Mormon is not just a history book, nor just a book of scripture. It’s the story of their family—their relatives. Its sacred pages help them trace their genealogy back to Adam, through their 88th great-grandfather, Nephi.

    You would have to look a long time to find a family more devoted to the study of the Book of Mormon, or to the values it teaches. That may appear hard to believe when the family is so deeply involved in the world of entertainment—eight of the Wolfgramm children are members of a successful performing group called “The Jets.” But it’s the Book of Mormon and the family unity that they say keeps them apart from any bad elements of the entertainment industry.

    “There are a lot of temptations in the entertainment world,” says Eugene, 18, who sings and plays percussion for the Jets. “But when you have good parents and make sure you have family home evening, you pay your tithing, read the scriptures, and do all the things the prophet says, you’re blessed.”

    “The key to our success is what Eugene just said,” Leroy, the eldest and leader of the group affirms. “It’s a long story of obedience and hard work.”

    Their story parallels that of their ancestors in the Book of Mormon to some degree. Their parents, Mike and Vake, left their homeland of Tonga and crossed the sea to live in Salt Lake City, Utah, some twenty years ago. In those days there were no temples in the South Pacific, and they came to Salt Lake City to be sealed together. They didn’t have the funds to make it back to Tonga, however, so they stayed in the United States and began adding to their family.

    Like the family of Lehi, the Wolfgramms had to work hard to carve a place for themselves in their new country. In addition to other jobs, the parents were involved in Polynesian performing groups in the Salt Lake area. As soon as the children were old enough to walk and talk, they were taught to play, sing, and dance in the Polynesian tradition. They eagerly took to the stage, and soon the family had a Polynesian group of their own.

    They never did take professional music or dance lessons. What their parents couldn’t teach them, they picked up by themselves. Today they admit to getting some professional advice on warming up their voices before concerts. But for the most part they are self taught musicians, which seems quite amazing when you watch them manipulate synthesizers, guitars, and a number of percussion and brass instruments.

    The Wolfgramms took their Polynesian show on the road and traveled all over the United States and Canada. When they got a full-time offer from a Hawaiian hotel chain in Minneapolis, Minnesota, they packed their bags and moved. Minneapolis was about as far removed from Tonga as it could possibly be, but the Wolfgramms liked it there and contributed to the local ward as well as to the local entertainment industry.

    They were devastated when the hotel chain they were working with went out of business. For several months the family of fifteen lived in the hotel owners’ basement. They decided that it would be more profitable to switch from Polynesian to popular music, and they began traveling in an old, uninsulated van, to whatever playing engagements they could arrange. “The van didn’t have any seats,” Leroy recalls, “and we sat in chairs against the sides. Sometimes we traveled in temperatures forty degrees below freezing, and there would be ice on the roof—on the inside.

    Finally, however, their efforts and dedication paid off. Don Powell, an entertainment industry expert who had managed some leading performing groups in the 1960s and 70s, heard them play. He had retired from entertainment because the industry had become “so bizarre,” but when he heard the Wolfgramms, he became interested again.

    “The reason I reentered this business was literally because of this family,” says Don, who had had very little contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before he met the Wolfgramms. “The whole family is so loving and bright, and talented, I couldn’t help getting involved. And we’ll never have problems with drugs or alcohol or anything like that, as you do with so many entertainers. It’s absolute heaven to manage them.”

    With the resultant success, every minute of every day is packed full of performances, personal appearances, interviews, recording and photography sessions, but a Monday doesn’t go by without a family home evening. If they happen to be on the road on any given Monday, the stage crew is invited, and a lot of missionary work is done at these times.

    Sometimes, when the Jets are traveling, it’s a bit difficult to find chapels for Sunday services, so the family has received special permission to hold their own sacrament services. With each boy bearing the priesthood, all the ordinances can be taken care of.

    And they still wear homemade clothes. Their costumes, which are bright, exciting, and rival anything else you’ll see on stage without compromising Latter-day Saint standards, are designed and sewn by their mother, who learned tailoring when she worked at the Beehive Clothing Mills in Salt Lake City.

    Their days are hectic, but like other children, they take time out to study, see their tutors, and complete their home-study courses. Most important of all, however, is the time they always find for scripture study.

    And they don’t just read the scriptures. They memorize and absorb them. The Wolfgramms take the lessons they learn from the Book of Mormon seriously, as they do their church attendance. “A lot of people think we’re so serious when we go to church,” says Haini, 16, who is probably the quietest of all the Wolfgramms but is energetic in spite of it, especially on the football field and basketball court. “But church is not a social thing on Sunday for us. It’s worship.” Although Eugene is considered to be the joker of the family, he adds “When we go to church, it’s for real. It’s no joke.”

    The music the Jets play is positive, and lively, but there’s a serious side to that, too. “Our church classes teach us about the power of music, and how it can destroy the mind,” explains Leroy, “but we know from the hymns that music can also build and uplift, so there are two sides to the power of music. We try to lift people with our music in a contemporary way. Satan has always got his crew pulling one way, and the Lord has always got his crew pulling the other. We’re on the Lord’s side, pulling as hard as we can.”

    It’s a close-knit family, and at least one of the parents tries to be on the road with the group all the time. The six younger members of the family, including a set of twins, take turns traveling with the group and are excited about the day they’ll be able to perform too.

    “I like to be with them as much as I can,” says Sister Wolfgramm, who looks almost as young as her children. “But even when I can’t be there, they look after each other. We stick together as a family. The brothers look out for their sisters, and we know that if we all work together, it will be all right.”

    But doesn’t she worry about outside influences affecting her children? “No,” she says. “They read the scriptures. There’s nothing else that will help them as much to resist dangerous temptation. It’s what their father and I have taught them all their lives.”

    The scriptures have played an important role in the lives of the Wolfgramms, and the Wolfgramms try to repay their ancestors by telling others about them. “This talent we’ve been given is a vehicle to spread the gospel,” says Leroy, and his brothers and sisters nod their heads enthusiastically. “We carry a lot of copies of the Book of Mormon around so we can give them away.”

    Photography by Laird Roberts and Brian Wilcox