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Celebrating 90 years: Elder Perry's decades of Church service

Apostle embarks on literal trip down memory lane

The year of 2012 was destined to be a memorable, nostalgic time for Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Elder L. Tom Perry sits at his desk and shows some of the photos he has taken while traveling this summer.
Elder L. Tom Perry sits at his desk and shows some of the photos he has taken while traveling this summer. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

For one, the venerable apostle turns 90 this month. His wife, Sister Barbara D. Perry, celebrates her 80th birthday this year. In October, Elder Perry marks his 40th year of service as a General Authority. To celebrate such a personal and historic year, the Perrys embarked on a recent and literal trip down memory lane. Over the past month, they have visited different areas of the United States that Elder Perry once called home — and where the veteran Church leader played a pivotal role in the construction of several Church meetinghouses.

"We decided to use our Sundays in the month of July by going to the buildings and delivering a message to the people," said Elder Perry in a Church News interview.

They began in Logan, Utah, where L. Tom Perry was born on Aug. 5, 1922, to L. Tom and Nora Sonne Perry.

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

"My father was the bishop of the 9th Ward for 18 years and during that period he added a chapel to our cultural hall."

The Great Depression had exacted a painful toll across Cache County, and the local building project helped put many to work — including young Tom Perry. "As a 7-year-old boy, I used to go up every night and sweep up after the workmen had been there."

Elder L. Tom Perry  shows some of the photos he has taken while traveling.
Elder L. Tom Perry shows some of the photos he has taken while traveling. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

Elder and Sister Perry's return to the Logan 9th Ward also offered an opportunity for them to share Sabbath counsel with the ward members. While in northern Utah, they also enjoyed a family reunion at nearby Bear Lake. Elder Perry passed on a game of beach volleyball, but the lean and active nonagenarian looks like he could still play the sport he enjoyed for decades.

"The 9th Ward had been the all-Church volleyball champions," he remembered fondly. "We did it two years in a row."

The Perrys then traveled east where they met with members in meetinghouses in Scarsdale, N.Y., and Weston, Mass. Elder Perry had lived in these East Coast communities while working in the retail industry prior to his call as a General Authority. He also served as a counselor and as president of the Boston Stake presidency and had played a pivotal role in the construction of buildings in both areas. Their recent visit also offered Elder Perry time to visit with old friends and some of the local priesthood leaders he had served with years ago.

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve recounts events of his years of Church service.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve recounts events of his years of Church service. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

The Perrys then backtracked west to spend the next weekend in Cokeville, Wyo. Elder Perry has never lived in Cokeville, but it's his wife's hometown.

"I'm duty-bound to attend their Pioneer Day celebration every year," he said, smiling. Elder Perry served as the grand marshal of the town's parade on July 21 and was the featured speaker at the Pioneer Day celebration event.

"The main thing that I wanted to tell them was that we have a royal and great heritage," said Elder Perry of the messages he shared with the many members he met with during his recent travels. "This nation was established to bring about the restoration of the gospel. We have a great pioneer heritage that gave us the faith to endure. And we have a great heritage of building chapels."

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Sister Barbara Perry, pose for a portrait prior to his 90th birthday.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Sister Barbara Perry, pose for a portrait prior to his 90th birthday. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

The Perrys would continue west to California where Elder Perry served on the high council and in the stake presidency while living in the Hurley Ward in Sacramento. During that time, Elder Perry was involved in the building of a meetinghouse that required 30,000 hours of donated labor from the local members.

"We had to raise $160,000," he recalled. "In those days, the average salary in our ward was probably $9,000. It was a great amount to raise. We worked for two years and every night after work we would all meet at the building site. The wives would come with our dinner, and we would change into our work clothes and work until dark every night."

The Hurley Ward members were both industrious and resourceful. They helped raise money by operating the concession services at the annual California State Fair. The entire ward took ownership of the building project.

Later, Elder Perry would be involved in the building of what is now the Cottage Park Ward meetinghouse in the Sacramento California East Stake.

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve celebrates his 90th birthday on Aug. 5, 2012.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve celebrates his 90th birthday on Aug. 5, 2012. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

During their recent trip to Sacramento, local members hosted a birthday barbecue for the Perrys. A cake was served — the fourth for Elder Perry over the past month. "I've had birthday cakes like you can't believe."

The Perrys also welcomed the birth of a new great-granddaughter and witnessed the baptism of another great-grandchild. Elder Perry also participated in the priesthood ordinations of two great-grandsons: one a deacon, the other a teacher. "How's that for one family trip," he said, "a birth, a baptism and priesthood ordinations."

Elder Perry's memory-rich excursions have not ended. On the weekend of Aug. 4-5, he and Sister Perry will visit Rudy, Idaho, a tiny community homesteaded by Elder Perry's grandfather. The couple are then expected to speak at the Perry Ward sacrament services in nearby Ririe, Idaho.

The couple said they will then return to Church headquarters from Idaho and "get to work."

Elder Perry marvels at the notion that he will soon enter his tenth decade of life. He remains energized and full of vigor. Perhaps 90 — at least for Elder Perry — is the new 40.

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Sister Barbara Perry, pose for a portrait prior to his 90th birthday.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Sister Barbara Perry, pose for a portrait prior to his 90th birthday. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

"When my dad turned 60 I was convinced he was ready for the grave; that was old. But when I turned 60, I felt like a kid of 18. When I turned 70, I felt like a kid of 20. When I turned 80, I felt like a kid of 30. Now that I'm 90, I feel like a kid of 40."

He does not joke when asked about the secret of his longevity and youthful outlook. "I had wonderful parents. I had the gospel. And I have great companions in my marriage. No one can fail if they have that combination."

Elder Perry's first wife, Virginia Lee Perry, passed away in 1974; he married Barbara Dayton in 1976.

The apostle recognizes the paradox of remaining "young" through labor and gospel service, saying, "You don't have time to get old."

Sister Perry said her husband typically leaves for the office by 7 a.m. and works each day until 5 or 5:30 p.m. Elder Perry said each day he tries to live up to his sacred apostolic calling by working as hard as he is able. He has been uplifted by the good men who have served beside him.

"I've been in two bishoprics, three high councils, three stake presidencies and as a stake president and now I'm in the Quorum of the Twelve," he said. "My association with great men has been not only an education, but an inspiration. Every one of them has made a contribution in my life."

Decades of priesthood leadership have also placed him in the company of millions of members. "The greatest blessing is shaking their hands and seeing their faces and seeing the Spirit in them. This Church is a remarkable organization because the Lord is the head."

Elder Perry has long been a favorite of the youth in the Church. His counsel to the young men and young women of the Church is simple and direct:

"First, get an understanding of the doctrine. Let it build your faith and understand the fact that we belong to the Savior's Church. Then learn how to serve."

And for the parents and grandparents in the Church?

"There is no such thing as giving 'quantity' time — its got to be 'quality' time," he said. "You have to make time to be with [children and grandchildren]. Give them security. Let them know that this is a great life and a great opportunity."

Elder Perry approaches his 90s as he has each previous decade of life — with confidence and optimism. He has known sorrow and disappointment. "But I don't think I've ever had a bad day because I've learned something from every experience I have had. I've never had a day that I didn't feel like getting out of bed and having an opportunity to accomplish something."

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Biographical information:

Family: Born Aug. 5, 1922, in Logan, Utah, to L. Tom and Nora Sonne Perry. Married Virginia Lee in the Logan Utah Temple in 1947. They had three children (Barbara, Lee, Linda). Sister Virginia Lee Perry died in 1974. Married Barbara Dayton in 1976 in the Salt Lake Temple.

Military Service: Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943. He was among the first occupation troops to enter Japan after World War II.

Education: Graduated from Utah State University in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree in finance. Performed graduate work in finance the following year.

Employment: Worked as a controller, vice president and treasurer of department store organizations in Idaho, New York, California and Massachusetts.

Church service: Served a mission to the Northern States, 1942-1943. Former president of the Boston Stake and served as counselor in other stake presidencies and bishoprics. Was sustained as an Assistant to the Twelve on Oct. 6, 1972; sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve on April 6, 1974, and ordained an apostle April 11, 1974, at age 51.

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