Years before people had home computers and the age of the internet, young apostle Boyd K. Packer flew to San Jose, California, to take a one-week crash course at IBM.
The year was 1977. Elder Packer, then a member of the Temple and Genealogy Executive Committee, needed to know computers in order to converse with the Church’s Genealogy Department as it entered a new technological phase that would enable members of the Church to do more to redeem the dead.
Ten years later, Elder Packer also played a key role in the Church dropping the term “genealogy” in favor of “family history,” which helped Church members to feel more qualified for the work.
These events of 1977 and 1987 were among several topics related to temple and family history work discussed in a recent interview with Sister Donna Packer, wife of the late Boyd K. Packer, who served as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and her son, Elder Allan F. Packer, a General Authority Seventy and former executive director of the Family History Department.
Seated in her home, surrounded by her husband’s artwork, framed portraits of ancestors and many shelves of organized family history records, the ever-smiling and resilient Sister Packer and Elder Allan F. Packer recounted how a lifelong love of temple and family history work has blessed their large family and in some ways, the Church. It’s a work that Sister Packer still loves at age 89.
“I am so grateful because I can still do it,” she said.
Boxes and books
As a young girl, Sister Packer remembers growing up in her grandfather’s Brigham City home and one day finding a white box in a closet that contained the names of ancestors. When she touched the box, she felt something special. Those tender feelings have long fueled her passion for family history work.
“My grandfather had planted a seed in my heart,” she said. “If you feel the spirit in the home where you are raised, then you know that family history and temple work is important. I was grateful when I found President Packer because he had the same kind of feeling.”
After President and Sister Packer were married, she accompanied him on several trips to the British Isles as part of his Church assignments. While President Packer did his work, Sister Packer researched what would become her greatest contribution as a family historian — a 467-page book published in 1988, “On Footings from the Past: The Packers in England.”
While walking the same streets, visiting their homes and standing in the churches where they worshipped, Sister Packer found a harvest of names needing temple ordinances, she said.
“It resulted in so much temple work,” Sister Packer said.
The book would not be complete without a contribution from President Packer. His wife requested he write something about one of his favorite ancestral homes, Groombridge Place. One night in London, unable to sleep because of jet lag, President Packer wrote a poem that ultimately gave Sister Packer the title for her book. It’s found in the final stanza.
“Our heritage, like life itself, we keep and yet pass on.
In doing so, we pay the debt we owe to those now gone.
What came from them, we hold in trust — stored treasure that will last.
Like Groombridge Place, our lives are built on footings from the past.”
While Sister Packer was working on her book, President Packer was involved in events that laid the foundation for the future of temple and family history work in the Church.
In 1977, Elder Howard W. Hunter, a future President of the Church, was the chairman of the Temple and Genealogy Executive Committee. Elder Packer and others served on the committee. On April 1 of that year, Elder Hunter and Elder Packer delivered a presentation at a Regional Representatives Seminar titled “That They May Be Redeemed.”
In his remarks, Elder Packer outlined new long-range goals for the Church that involved embracing new technological advances and the construction of many more temples, making it possible for Church members to redeem all those who had ever lived on the earth.
What unfolded in 1977 was “pivotal,” Elder Allan F. Packer said.
“It really set forth a prophetic vision of family history in the future,” said Elder Allan F. Packer. “What we see today in FamilySearch is the embodiment of changes that were envisioned back in 1977.”
The trips to England also resulted in President Packer serving as vice president of the Society of Genealogists for 17 years. Through this and other interaction with key individuals in the Federation of Family History Societies, he suggested in 1987 that the Church change from using the term “genealogy” to “family history.”
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles approved the change on Aug. 13, 1987, according to the October 1987 Ensign magazine.
“The change to ‘family history’ will make the work less technical and more appealing to members of the Church,” then-Elder Packer said in 1987. “A genealogy is, in fact, a family history. And such sacred family history is fundamental to the temple ordinances and covenants that bless individuals and seal them into eternal families.”
The Lord’s hand was in these changes, Elder Allan F. Packer said.
“As I look at it, they (President and Sister Packer) were willing to be involved and engaged [in temple and family history work]. I think the Lord took advantage of creating opportunities for that skill and interest to be used along the way to meet people and to be in places,” he said. “The Lord just directed, and I think He will do that in our own lives to the degree that we will allow and that He needs.”
Although she misses her husband, who died in July 2015, Sister Packer shows no sign of slowing down. She will be 90 years old in October.
Every two weeks, the mother of 10 children and the grandmother of 60 grandchildren and 120 great-grandchildren hosts a small group of family members to impart her family history knowledge, experience and wisdom.
They remove thick binders of family records, labeled by name and marked with yellow sticky notes, from rooms full of shelves. They spread the contents, including documents, photographs and other resources, out on a long, wooden table.
“This home is an extension of the downtown Family History Library,” Elder Allan F. Packer said. “Part of our family tradition and heritage is passing on to the younger generations things that are learned and skills developed.”
Five years ago, Sister Packer earned a Family History Certificate from Brigham Young University. She has recently been learning how to read 17th century gothic script in German in an effort to find more lost family members.
“Yes, she’s still engaged,” Elder Allan F. Packer said.
How does Sister Packer decide which family member to focus on?
“You let the Lord decide,” she said.
Sister Packer offered other family history advice: Start by interviewing your oldest living relatives. “Get what family information you can before they pass on,” she said.
Another tip, incorporated by her husband, was to get a box and collect information, stories and pictures. One recent Packer family project involved family members indexing and labeling more than 8,000 photos with names, dates and places.
“I have sons that are techies, so things get to the right place,” Sister Packer said.
While picking in the raspberry patch, Sister Packer helped her children stay on task by sharing family history stories. In 2012, daughter Kathleen Packer Bullock wrote and illustrated a book titled, “Tales from the Raspberry Patch.”
“That’s the influence now that’s going down multiple generations,” Elder Packer said. “I think that has instilled in the family and the children the interest to know their ancestors. They understand they have the culture and the heritage. They have that feeling and it changes their decisions.”
The Brigham City Utah Temple, dedicated by President Packer in 2012, also holds a special place in the legacy of the Packer’s temple and family history work.
Sister Packer told of her grandfather, Rasmus Smith, who walked from Brigham City to Logan each week to assist in the construction of the Logan temple. His devotion, along with her and President Packer’s family heritage in northern Utah, made their involvement with the Brigham City temple a hallmark of their lives.
“The dedication was a choice experience,” Sister Packer said. “President (Thomas S.) Monson was thoughtful and kind to allow President Packer to do that.”