The Quorum of the Twelve Before They Were Called: L. Tom Perry

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L Tom Perry's yearbook photo at Utah State Agricultural College
L. Tom Perry's yearbook photo at Utah State Agricultural College, courtesy of Deseret News

L. Tom Perry has been an apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for several decades. But before he was called as an apostle, he was Lowell, a little boy who decided to go by his middle name, Tom, because his younger brother could not pronounce his first name and Tom was tired of being called “Wo-Wo” (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation). In this biography of L. Tom Perry, read about the stories of his life, his ever-enduring faithfulness to the gospel, and his love towards others.

Infographic of L. Tom Perry's life

Lesson and Stories Growing Up

Perfect Church Attendance

As a young boy, Tom was very committed to attending church and had a spotless record for it. Then one Sunday, he developed a bad case of tonsillitis. His parents decided he should stay home with his mother, Nora, to tend him. The rest of the family left for church.

The Perrys waited for sacrament meeting to start, and were surprised when Tom and Nora walked into the chapel. Despite Tom’s illness and young age, he recognized the importance of attending church and listening to the word of God (“L. Tom Perry”).

Building Home and Character

The Perry home was being remodeled when Tom was seven years old. After the workers finished and left for the day, Tom’s father, who also went by Tom, had his son gather the two-by-sixes torn down from the walls. He asked Tom to take the planks out to the backyard, put them on two sawhorses, pull out the nails with a crowbar, and straighten the nails.

Tom remembers his annoyance at the workers when he saw them use new nails to remodel his home when he had a bucket of the old nails he had carefully collected and straightened. Once, he went to his father and said, “Wouldn’t it be better to save the new nails and use the ones I have straightened?”

His father then showed his son something. He took a new nail and drove it into a board at an angle. Then he took an old nail and tried to do the same. But while the new nail had gone straight into the board, the old one bent and did not go in. This frustrated young Tom further. Why had his father asked him to straighten the old nails in the first place if they were too weak to reuse?

Only when Tom had children of his own did he realize that his father was trying to teach him lessons in hard work and discipline. “He was using the straightened nails not to rebuild our home but to build my character” (General Conference talk “The Joy of Honest Labor”).

Family portrait of L. Tom Perry, his parents and siblings
L. Tom Perry with parents and siblings, courtesy of LDS.org

The Youngest Milker in Logan

Tom’s father was so busy with work and church service that he often had no time to milk the family cow. Even though Tom had three older sisters, Nora did not believe girls should milk cows, so the responsibility fell to Tom. The only problem with this solution was that Tom was too young to milk a cow.

Nora was a proud woman and did not want her neighbors to see her doing the milking, so she devised a plan. Tom would go into the barn wearing a pair of very large overalls. He would close the door to the barn and take off the overalls. After a few minutes, his mother walked out to the barn, giving the impression of checking on Tom’s progress.

Inside the barn, she pulled on the overalls and milked the cow. Tom would then get his overalls back and leave the barn carrying a bucket of milk. Tom’s neighbors were amazed by what they thought they saw, and Tom soon got the reputation as the youngest milker in Logan. Eventually, he would learn to milk the cow himself.

The Perry cow was an adventurous one and enjoyed escaping her pasture so she could wander around the neighborhood. Tom often got called out of school so he could chase the cow home. One of Tom’s neighbors, Sister Strong, was utterly terrified of the Perry cow. Tom once found the cow standing by a tree that Sister Strong had climbed to hide in. Tom had difficulty taking the cow home because he was laughing so hard (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

Missionary Service

Of Mice and Missionaries

L. Tom Perry was called to serve his mission in the Northern States. He was in one of the last groups to leave before missionary service was suspended due to World War II. The first area he served in was Columbus, Ohio. His mission president had not assigned Tom a companion, so the senior companion of the group paired Tom with Elder Wendell Tolman.

However, Elder Tolman had only been out in the field for three weeks. On their first day of proselyting, Tom was about to knock on the door of a home when he paused and asked, “What do I do?” Tom was surprised when Elder Tolman said, “I don’t know. I’ve never done this before” (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

Determined, Tom knocked on the door. The two missionaries were delighted when the kindly woman who answered invited them into her home. However, their delight was short-lived, for she was a Southern Baptist who knew the scriptures very, very well. Tom says that “I went home that day a converted Southern Baptist.”

The next day, Tom felt swayed to the Methodist faith, and the day after it was the Lutheran. Tom decided that this really should not be happening to a missionary and “that before I could teach and bear testimony about the gospel it was first necessary that I know something about it myself.”

L Tom Perry as a missionary
L. Tom Perry as a missionary, courtesy of Deseret News

Tom decided that every evening, he would go the basement for an hour to prepare and deliver a talk. The first evening, Tom gave a talk on faith. His only audience was a mouse he had coaxed out of a hole with a cracker. The mouse listened to Tom for a minute before leaving with his cracker.

The next evening, Tom gave a talk on repentance. The mouse came out to listen to him and stayed longer than he had the evening before. “I was making progress,” Tom says.

The evening after that, the mouse listened to Tom’s entire talk on baptism. “And when I was finally finished he walked back to his hole in deep thought. I was a bit proud of myself as I walked upstairs, knowing I had really impressed my audience.”

When Tom and his companion went to breakfast the next morning, he was surprised to find a dishpan he had filled with water the night before and forgotten to empty. At the bottom of the pan, he found the mouse. “My little talk had really made an impression. In his stupor of thought he must have crawled into the pan: baptism by immersion!” (Ensign article “Elder L. Tom Perry of the Council of the Twelve”).

Missionary Work via Letter Writing

While Tom was serving in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he learned that his influence as a missionary could extend across the country. Elder Kidd was his companion and had parents living in Tustin, California, who were not members of the Church. Tom decided to convert his companion’s parents.

So began the letter writing spree from Tom, Tom’s parents, and the members of the Cedar Rapids Branch to Elder Kidd’s parents. Eventually, they agreed to listen to the missionaries and were baptized before Elder Kidd came home. A year after that, Tom’s parents were Brother and Sister Kidd’s escorts when they took out their endowments (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

L Tom Perry on his mission
L. Tom Perry on his mission, courtesy of LDS Living

Love Thine Enemy

Orphans of Nagasaki

A few weeks after Tom returned from his mission, he was drafted into the military and served with the Marines. He would be stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, after World War II ended. Though the Japanese had been the enemy, Tom’s heart went out to them as he saw their suffering due to the aftermath of the devastating atomic bomb.

L Tom Perry as a Marine
L. Tom Perry as a Marine, courtesy of Deseret News

One day, Tom and Wendell Tolman (who had formerly been his missionary companion) found a hungry little boy wandering the streets. They took him home to their quarters to feed him and clean him up. They learned that his parents had died in the bombing and fixed a place for him to sleep.

Soon, another serviceman found an orphan and brought the child to Tom’s quarters. Tom and Wendell worked with a local clergyman to establish an orphanage for these homeless children. That Christmas, Tom and his fellow servicemen asked only for toys from their families. The servicemen gave these toys as presents to the orphans of Nagasaki (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

 

L Tom Perry as a Marine
L. Tom Perry as a Marine, courtesy of LDS.org

Serving the Japanese Christians

Tom continued to serve the Japanese people while he was stationed in Nagasaki. Tom and several other servicemen did this by rebuilding a Christian chapel that had been destroyed in the bombing.

When Tom’s unit was being transferred, many of the other marines had their local girlfriends say goodbye to them. The marines teased Tom and his friends for wasting their time building a chapel when they could have been having fun instead.

Then at the train station, they were amazed to see nearly 200 members of the congregation lined up at the railroad tracks. These Japanese Christians sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” while reaching their arms up to touch the hands of the servicemen as the train sped away (CES Fireside talk “We Were the Greatest Generation”).

L Tom Perry and fellow servicemen
L. Tom Perry and fellow servicemen, courtesy of LDS Living

Courtship and Marriage

First Seeing Virginia

After his service in the military, Tom attended Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) and was called as an activity counselor for his stake’s Mutual Improvement Association. At a stake meeting, Tom was taking attendance and asked for the members of the Hyde Park Ward to stand. Two beautiful women stood up, one of them was Virginia Clare Lee.

Tom lost his train of thought when he saw Virginia, all he could do was stand at the pulpit and smile at her. When he was about to “regain composure,” she smiled back and Tom lost his train of thought once again. To this day, Tom isn’t quite sure he got an accurate attendance count for that meeting (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

First Date

Tom got the opportunity to meet Virginia after the meeting and walked her out to her car. The next Sunday, he assigned himself to make a stake visit to Virginia’s ward and walked her home after church. She already had a boyfriend, but he was visiting his family during Christmas break. This allowed Virginia to accept Tom’s invitation to attend the stake New Year’s Eve Ball with him. When her boyfriend returned, Virginia broke up with him (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

L Tom Perry and Virginia
L. Tom Perry and Virginia, courtesy of LDS Living

Courtship

Tom and Virginia both attended Utah State Agricultural College and Tom would meet Virginia between classes. Once, he asked her to attend a tri-university conference with him in Provo. The conference ended in a dance and it was there that Tom realized he wanted to ask Virginia to marry him.

Between every dance that evening, Tom turned to Virginia to pop the question. But each time, he was so overwhelmed by her beauty that he became too tongue-tied to say anything. Finally, he asked if they could speak in private. They left the dance and sat in his car, but he still didn’t have the courage to ask her. Instead, he fumbled with his Delta Phi pin as he tried to put it on her dress.

Then Virginia said, “Do you love me, Tom?” and he was finally able to gather enough courage to ask her to marry him. They returned to the dance and announced their engagement to their friends  (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

27 Years of Marriage

Tom and Virginia were married in the Logan Temple on July 18, 1947, and raised three children named Barbara, Lee, and Linda Gay. They lived a happy life together, one that was disrupted when Virginia was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and given only six months to live.

However, Virginia would live another four years and always served others throughout this time. She passed away on December 14, 1974. In the April 1975 conference, Tom paid tribute to Virginia, speaking of her love, service, and faith. “Even though there is a great loneliness without her, her passing was sweet because of the way she had lived” (L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

L Tom Perry with Virginia and their children
L. Tom Perry with Virginia and their children, courtesy of LDS.org

New Love

After Virginia’s death, Tom decided to become very involved and productive in his church work as an apostle, instead he found it to be:

…one of the least productive years of my life. There’s no way that you can compensate for that balance of a companion aiding you in the assignment you’re given. The combination of husband and wife working together is more than one and one makes two; it grows in geometric proportions as she magnifies you and your assignment.

However, Tom did find happiness with an eternal companion again. In 1976, he was introduced to Barbara Dayton by a relative. She had spent her life being a nurse and later teaching nursing at Brigham Young University. Tom and Barbara married after a few months of courtship. Barbara says that she and Tom “enjoy doing just about everything together. We’ve gardened together, we’ve scraped ceilings. We jog together a couple of times a week and take long walks” (Ensign article “Elder L. Tom Perry: Serving with Enthusiasm”).

L Tom Perry and Barbara
L. Tom Perry and Barbara, courtesy of LDS.org

True to the Faith in the Business World

The Lord’s Way and the Business Way

Tom only had six months of retail experience when he accepted the position as controller of a small store in Idaho. During his first month there, Tom labored long hours and struggled with his workload. He had difficulty managing his duties and his time.

Shortly after his family moved into their new home, Tom was called as Second Counselor of the bishopric. His initial reaction to this calling was to refuse it because he was so busy and had no time. However, he remembered the teachings of his faithful parents and accepted the calling instead. He says:

This first experience in the bishopric was the best education I have ever received in organization and management. I found the Lord’s way was transferable to business. As I practiced the techniques taught to me in Church service, I became more efficient in my business assignments. I soon found myself with more time for family, Church, and business responsibilities.

Because Tom was faithful and obedient to the gospel, he received blessings in his life (“L. Tom Perry”).

Glass of Milk at Cocktail Hour

While working in California, Tom’s boss asked him to attend the local business dinners there. These dinners were often preceded by a cocktail hour for the businessmen to network and meet one another. Tom felt uncomfortable at these social hours because he didn’t drink and didn’t know what to do with his hands. Once, he tried to drink a glass of 7-Up, but it looked like an alcoholic drink.

So Tom asked the bartender if there was a non-alcoholic drink that looked completely different from an alcoholic one. After some thought, the bartender pulled out a carton of milk and poured Tom a glass.

At first, Tom had to endure a lot of teasing for his glass of milk. But he soon found that he was talking to more businessman than he had before. Soon, many of his associates were also drinking glasses of milk during cocktail hour (General Conference talk “In the World”).

L Tom Perry
L. Tom Perry, courtesy of LDS.org

Stealing Seats and Making Friends in New York City

Tom’s next move was to New York, and he quickly decided that New Yorkers were not very friendly people. After some observation, Tom decided that the train commuter’s routine was part of the problem and devised a plan.

Tom closely observed the routine of a man he wanted to make friends with. One morning, Tom stood on the platform in the spot that the man normally stood at while waiting for the train. The man stood next to Tom, shoulder to shoulder, and subtlety tried to nudge Tom away from his spot, but Tom did not move. When the train arrived, Tom hurried on and took the man’s favorite seat. The man was fuming.

The next day, Tom did the same thing. But on the third day, Tom discovered that the man had arrived early so he could stand in his rightfully claimed spot on the platform. Tom stood next to him and started to laugh. The man glared at first, but then realizing how childish he was acting, began to smile.

Tom and the man continued this friendly competition to see who would get the coveted platform spot. Soon, another man joined, and then another. Next thing they knew, ten men were competing for the spot while others on the platform made wagers (New Era article “Good Friends”L. Tom Perry, an Uncommon Life: Years of Preparation).

The Importance of Family

Dream Home vs. Family

When Tom accepted a position in a New York City firm, he and his family began the search for a home. They found a beautiful one they absolutely loved in Connecticut. But when Tom decided to test the commute, he was disappointed to find that it was an hour and a half long.

He told his children, “Well, I guess you’ll have to choose between this home and me. If we live here, it will take all my extra time to commute back and forth.” After a moment one of the children said, “We’ll take the home, Dad. We probably won’t see you, anyway.”

Though the child was just joking, Tom took it very seriously and instead they bought a home in Scarsdale, New York, where he would have a shorter commute, allowing him to spend more time with his precious family (Ensign article “Elder L. Tom Perry of the Council of the Twelve”).

L Tom Perry with his children
L. Tom Perry with his children, courtesy of LDS.org

Career vs. Family

After living in New York, the Perry family moved to Massachusetts. They had been living there awhile, when a firm on the West Coast offered Tom a position. His family did not want to leave New England, so Tom decided to deal with the problem by asking for a salary and profit sharing that he was sure the company wouldn’t give. Instead, they agreed to his demands and Tom found himself on a plane to San Francisco for final arrangements.

Though the position was a wonderful opportunity, Tom felt uneasy on his trip to California. While meeting with the president of the company, Tom learned that they held board meetings every Saturday, a day Tom had always reserved for his family.

Tom told the president that if board meetings were on Saturday, then Tom would need another day off in the week to spend with his family. The president told Tom that this would disrupt the company’s organization. He was amazed when Tom declined the position over what seemed like a small issue. But Tom recognized the importance of family and of giving his love and time to them (Ensign article “Elder L. Tom Perry of the Council of the Twelve”).

After He Was Called an Apostle

Throughout his many moves from Utah to Idaho to California to New York and Massachusetts, Tom also served in many church positions such as being a member of two bishoprics, an early-morning seminary teacher, a high councilman, and a member of two stake presidencies (Ensign article “Elder L. Tom Perry: Serving with Enthusiasm”).

In 1972, L. Tom Perry was called as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve. On April 6, 1974, he was called as an apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve (“Elder L. Tom Perry”).

Current photo of L. Tom Perry
Current photo of L. Tom Perry, courtesy of Deseret News

Though he lost his first wife, his daughter, and two grandchildren, Tom has learned to overcome tragedies and rely on the Lord. In his LDS.org biography “L. Tom Perry” he says:

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.

Tom has learned to overcome tragedy and serve the Lord and the members of the Church. He is a great example of faithfulness to the gospel and of love towards others.

To learn more about L. Tom Perry, visit his Facebook Page or check out the links below.