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Mormonism's oldest apostle, L. Tom Perry, whose unassuming and optimistic enthusiasm inspired generations of Latter-day Saints, died Satuday. He was 92.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Perry's death Saturday afternoon. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last month. On Friday, the Church said Perry's cancer had spread to his lungs and was terminal. He was home Friday, a Church press release said, and was to start receiving hospice care.
After earning a degree in business from Utah State University, Perry climbed the business ladder, eventually becoming a top executive in several department stories. He was tapped as an LDS apostle in 1974 at age 51.
In April, Perry spoke at the LDS Church's 185th Annual General Conference. He warned about the need to defend "traditional families" a legally married mother and father, who rear their children together and about the dangers of "counterfeit and alternative lifestyles."
"Strong traditional families are not only the basic units of a stable society, a stable economy and a stable culture of values," Perry said, "but ... they are also the basic units of eternity, and of the kingdom and government of God."
The 6-foot-4 church leader, the tallest current Mormon apostle, took some heat for that sermon from national and Utah LGBT activists, who accused him of "disparaging" their families.
In March, Perry stood shoulder to shoulder with gay-rights advocates when the Utah Legislature passed and Gov. Gary Herbert signed a landmark measure protecting LGBT individuals from housing and employment discrimination while also providing some religious-freedom safeguards.
The three members of the governing First Presidency along with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of which Perry was the second-ranking member behind 90-year-old Boyd K. Packer make up the top two ruling councils of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Before Perry's death, the average age of the 15 men in those bodies was 80, the oldest it had ever been in the history of the 185-year-old Utah-based faith.
With Perry's death, 90-year-old apostle Russell M. Nelson becomes second in line to lead the church after Packer. The current Mormon prophet, Thomas S. Monson, is 87.
Perry was born in 1922 in Logan to Leslie Thomas Perry and Nora Sonne Perry. He grew up in northern Utah, where, as a teen, he earned the nickname "Stretch," because of his height.
According to a biography in the church's Ensign magazine, Perry was a neighborhood leader.
"No umpires were needed for their ballgames," the article said, "because he had an unusual ability to arbitrate disputes."
That doesn't mean he wasn't competitive.
As a teen, Perry played "vanball," a modified form of volleyball, and led his team to the all-church title in 1940 as captain. After high school, Perry served a Mormon mission in Ohio, Iowa and Illinois, and then, weeks after returning in 1943, joined the Marines. He was among the first wave of American troops in Japan.
"Entering the devastated city of Nagasaki was one of the saddest experiences of my life," Perry said in the video "Special Witnesses of Christ."
Perry and a group of servicemen from the so-called "Greatest Generation" volunteered to repair and replaster bombed-out Christian churches during their off-duty time. As the Americans were leaving the country, about 200 Japanese Christians greeted them, singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and showering them with gifts.
"We couldn't speak; our emotions were too strong," Perry said in the video. "But we were grateful that we could help in some small way."
In 1947, Perry married Virginia Lee in the Logan LDS Temple. Together, they reared three children Barbara, Lee and Linda Gay while Perry built a career with department stores. He first worked in Boise, then in Sacramento. In 1962, he took a job in New York with Aimcee Wholesale Corp. Four years later, he joined Lechmere Sales Corp. in Boston, then became treasurer of R.H. Stearns, a department store chain.
His work demanded six days a week, with LDS Church callings on top of all that, so Perry had to get creative to squeeze in the family.
The future apostle's solution: Make some days sacrosanct. Monday nights were reserved for Family Home Evening, Friday for dates with Virginia and Saturday mornings for work around the house.
He made it a habit to take his only son with him as he drove around the LDS stake, a group of Mormon congregations in the region. The twosome would chat about sports, school, the church. Then Perry would enlist the boy to help with his sermons as a way of keeping him engaged.
"We had hand signals," Lee Perry said several years ago of his father. "If he slouched, I would cover my eyes [from the audience]. If he was speaking too loud or too long, I would cover my ears."
Perry loved a good story and was quick to laugh even at himself, his son recalled. The kids loved to rib him about doing things such as labeling his hangers for easy dressing.
As a leader of Massachusetts Mormons in the early 1970s, Perry stood out as an open-minded, innovative leader.
He kept meetings short and didn't dwell on problems, Mormon historian Richard Bushman, who was briefly Perry's counselor, said in 2011. "If a counselor came to a meeting with a solution, he would accept it and move ahead. Decisions came easily to him. He had the knack of resolving an issue with a bold stroke."
When bishops in Boston complained about members not meeting their budget commitments, Perry suggested they offer a 2 percent discount if they paid on time.
"It seemed to work," said former Weber State University President Paul Thompson, who knew the LDS leader for more than four decades. "I thought, 'Here's a pretty creative stake president.' "
Helen Claire Sievers, who assisted Perry when he was an LDS stake president, called him "the most empowering person [she] ever worked for."
Being around him was "almost always a joyful experience," Sievers wrote in a 2011 email. "He had a twinkle in his eye that was infectious, and you'd find yourself smiling at him, and at the world. … It made you want to work your heart out for him."
At one point, she and her male counterpart suggested that the LDS Young Men and Young Women groups be coordinated by a man, with a woman and two men as counselors one to head the Young Women classes and activities only for them, one for the Young Men classes, and one to head all the activities and programs that involved everyone. The move would free up some leaders and clean up the organizational lines.
After some probing questions, Perry agreed, and the system worked wonders. Young Mormons loved it and their attendance improved.
That experience "was so totally absorbing I pretty much missed the women's movement in the early 1970s," Sievers said. "I always felt with him it was about competency, goodness and caring and never about gender.
When Virginia was diagnosed with cancer, the couple sought solace with frequent visits to Walden Pond of Thoreau fame.
"When my wife was feeling strong enough, we'd go for a walk around the pond," Perry recounted in an October 2008 conference speech. "Other days, when she did not feel up to the exertion of walking, we'd just sit in the car and talk. Walden Pond was our special place to pause, reflect and heal."
In 1974, eight months after Perry became an apostle, Virginia died. The grieving husband dealt with his loss by turning his attention to daughter Barbara, who still was in high school. (Cancer also claimed Barbara Perry Haws in 1983.)
"The Lord is very kind. Even though some experiences are hard, he floods your mind with memories and gives you other opportunities," Perry said in a biography on the LDS Church's website. "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."
Perry, who married Barbara Taylor Dayton in 1976, faced his next mountain with a call to the top echelons of Mormon leadership.
One of his first assignments as an apostle was with LDS finances. He sought advice from an old Boston friend, the late Gene Dalton, then professor of organizational behavior at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. Perry wanted to know the latest, best thinking in the fields of business, management and leadership, Thompson said, and arranged to come to Provo once a month for tutorials.
Later, the apostle asked Dalton to circle the globe, interviewing Mormons and mission presidents to discover how to manage the church's growth.
"We don't have anybody in charge out there," Perry said at the time. Not long after Dalton concluded his research, the church created a level of leadership known as area presidencies.
Then, in 2004, Perry got a chance to study the problem himself.
Then-President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Perry to move to Frankfurt, Germany, for two years and watch over the LDS Church in Europe.
When Perry replied, "I can't do that, I'm 82," Hinckley shot back, according to Thompson, "I'm 94. What's your point?"
And so, like a good soldier, Perry trooped overseas and, once again, threw himself into the task of energizing the faithful. The night before he left, the apostle reported a powerful impression that he should create an "Outreach Initiative" for youths between ages 18 and 30 to gather at LDS Institutes of Religion near college campuses. The program was implemented, but it wasn't easy.
"I have learned from my current [European] assignment that sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ involves challenges I had never before imagined," Perry said in a 2005 General Conference address.
Yet, he added, "every day I see new signs of hope."
After one General Conference, a well-dressed couple were lying horizontal and kissing in a pickup truck on a downtown Salt Lake City side street. Suddenly, they heard Perry, who was walking home, say over their shoulders, "Nice day, isn't it?"
The young man stammered, "Yyyyyessss, it IS a nice day," according to his friend, Jeff Bennion, who wrote about the episode at mormonmentality.org.
Perry added, "Why then, let's keep it that way."
No stern lecture, no dogmatic sermon, but a clear Mormon message about sexual morality.
Not that Perry shrinked from tough talk.
In the recently completed General Conference, the apostle unloaded on current social mores and the influence of media on "traditional" family values.
"Despite what much of media and entertainment outlets may suggest, however, and despite the very real decline in the marriage and family orientation of some," he said, "the solid majority of mankind still believes that marriage should be between one man and one woman."
His speech came in the wake of the increasing legalization of same-sex marriage in Utah, most U.S. states and many other nations and the LDS faith's endorsement of a new anti-discrimination law in the Beehive State, shielding LGBT and religious rights.
Perry began his address by describing the LDS Church's involvement with last fall's Colloquium on Marriage and Family, which Pope Francis convened at the Vatican and included representatives from 14 faiths.
"It was remarkable for me to see how marriage and family-centered priorities cut across and superseded any political, economic or religious differences," Perry said. "When it comes to love of spouse and hopes, worries and dreams for children, we are all the same."
But Mormons alone have "an eternal perspective" on marriage, Perry said. "We take the commitment and the sanctity of marriage to a greater level because of our belief and understanding that families go back to before this Earth was, and that they can go forward into eternity."
The LDS Church hopes to be "a leader and a participant in worldwide movements" to strengthen marriage and families, he said. " ... We want our voice to be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God himself established."
Although he was second in line for the LDS presidency, Perry remained unpretentious and modest, always claiming to be "common as dirt."
"He never wanted me to call him 'Elder Perry,' " Thompson said. "We were just Tom and Paul."