Today is the funeral for Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since news of his death last Saturday I’ve enjoyed the stories that have been being shared about this wonderful man. In his life he gave many of my favorite conference talks and in his death the stories I’ve heard that I had never heard before have solidified my love for him.
On Sunday Nate and I spent our Sunday School hour with our class sharing stories we had found that we thought the class would enjoy and the lesson was received so well I thought I’d share some of the stories here too. I know his family would prefer we celebrate the life he lived rather than be sad in his passing. He’s in a better place, no longer in pain, and he lived a life to be extremely proud of. We can all only hope to say the same right?
A Builder of the Kingdom
L. Tom Perry was among the first wave of marines to go ashore in Japan after the signing of the peace treaty at the end of World War II. When they reached the ruins of Nagasaki, he later recalled, “it was one of the saddest experiences of my life.”
As Tom saw the utter destruction before him, he decided that he wanted to do all he could to help. The occupation troops set up headquarters and already had their work cut out for them. Even so, Tom and several other soldiers wanted to do more.
They asked their division chaplain for permission to help rebuild the Christian churches in the area. Most of the churches had been all but shut down during the war due to government restrictions. The few buildings that existed were in desperate need of repair. Tom and the other soldiers explained that they would do the repair work in their free time. Permission was granted, and Tom and the others set to work.
“We had no command of the language,” he remembered. “All we could accomplish was the physical labor of repairing the buildings. We found the ministers who had been unable to serve during the war years and encouraged them to return to their pulpits. We had a tremendous experience with these people as they again experienced the freedom to practice their Christian beliefs.”
When it was time to board the train out of Nagasaki, Tom and those who had worked on rebuilding churches were teased by many of the other soldiers. These other soldiers had their girlfriends with them and were laughing at Tom’s group and mocking them for having wasted their time with plaster, hammer, and nail.
Then something happened that Tom would remember for the rest of his life. Right at the height of the teasing, a group of approximately 200 Japanese Christians topped a little rise not far from the train station. They were walking toward the train station while singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” This band of Christians presented gifts to Tom and the other soldiers who had worked so hard to serve them.
The Japanese Christians lined up along the railroad track. “As the train started down the tracks, we reached out and just touched their fingers as we left,” he said. “We couldn’t speak; our emotions were too strong. But we were grateful that we could help in some small way in reestablishing Christianity in a nation after the war.”5
Elder L. Tom Perry was a builder all his life. Sometimes that meant building a chapel out of the rubble, and other times it meant building up a soul or a nation in need of his boundless optimism, enthusiasm, and spiritual power.
Wherever he went, Elder Perry left things stronger than they were before he came.
Serving with a Smile
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.”
A Family Man
Family time was of the highest importance to Tom. He always took time for birthdays, family vacations, family traditions, and other important occasions.
In this regard, one experience left a lasting impression on him. When Tom and his family moved to the East Coast for work, they began searching for homes close to his place of employment. As house hunting continued, they started looking further away. At long last they found a house that the whole family fell in love with. It was a beautiful one-story home nestled in the deep woods of Connecticut. The final test was to try out the commute. Tom returned home discouraged. The commute had been an hour and a half each way.
He posed the problem to his family, saying they could have either the house or a father. Their response surprised him. “We will take the house,” they said. “You are never around much anyway.”
This was a turning point for Tom. “I needed to repent fast,” he said. “My children needed a father who was home more.” He took the lesson to heart. “I changed my work habits to allow me to have more time with my family.”
A Friend to All
Elder Perry made friends wherever he went. A story from his life illustrates his ability to form friendships in virtually any setting. After he and his family moved to New York City for work, he noticed how people kept to themselves on the streets and in the subways.
Tom devised a plan in his morning commute to get acquainted with somebody. He watched a man at his subway stop who went through the same routine each morning. The man arrived at the same time, bought a newspaper, stood at the same spot on the train platform, and sat in the same seat on the subway each day without variation.
Tom wanted to shake things up and see if he could form a friendship. He showed up early one day and stood on this man’s favorite platform location. Then he sat in the man’s preferred subway seat. After two days of doing this, Tom showed up to find the man had arrived earlier than usual and had claimed his spot on the platform. The man gave a little sneer at Tom, who then walked over and started laughing as he explained what he’d been doing.
“He thought that was the greatest thing he’d ever heard of,” Elder Perry said. He and the man got on the train and rode together. They soon became great friends. Each morning it was a race to see who could reach the platform first. Soon the race expanded to three, then four, then ten commuters hustling good-naturedly to claim the prized spot.
“It livened up the whole platform,” Elder Perry said. Throughout the process, all involved became a close-knit group. One Christmas about ten of them stood on the platform singing Christmas carols together. “I developed some of the greatest friends I’ve ever had.”
With each story, experience, and talk that was shared the smiles on all our faces got bigger and bigger. I can just imagine the shock on his face when his family chose a house over a father and what a wake up call that must have been, and how wonderful of him to have made the changes he did so his children could no longer say those words to him. I also have to laugh out loud when I picture the look on the face of the man who’s subway spot and seat he stole in order to get his attention and then his shock when he found out he’d done it on purpose.
As a mom with a crew of children it’s easy for me to remember when they were all little and at times overwhelming. I remember fearing everyone was looking at/judging me when they’d act up when we were in public so I can very easily imagine how Sister Jensen was feeling on that plane ride before Elder Perry offered to take the baby. I can imagine his sweet smile when he offered to do so soothing any fears she had of being judged and how comforted she must have felt knowing that Heavenly Father was looking out for her at that specific moment.
And how can you not be moved when you imagine those 200 Japanese Christians coming over the rise singing their thanks and praise for his and other’s service to them. I can only imagine how overwhelmed with emotion they must have been that day.
Elder Perry’s life has been a wonderful example of service, compassion, friendship, family, and love. I hope I do well in remembering his example and putting his actions in place in my own life.
God be with you til we meet again.
I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about Elder L. Tom Perry, I sure did.
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