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Mormonism's oldest apostle, L. Tom Perry, whose unassuming demeanor and optimistic enthusiasm inspired generations of Latter-day Saints, died Saturday about 3 p.m. at his Salt Lake City home.

He was 92.

Perry, who had enjoyed extraordinary health for most of his nine decades, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last month. On Friday, the Utah-based faith said Perry's cancer had "spread aggressively to his lungs and beyond" and was terminal. He was poised to start receiving hospice care within days.

Perry's funeral arrangements have yet to be announced. In addition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Saturday "it is undetermined as to when the vacancy in the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will be filled."

The 6-foot-4 Perry — the tallest among current Mormon apostles — was known for his cheerfulness and composure under pressure. Until recently, he had walked daily to and from his condominium near the Utah Capitol and took out his frustrations on a punching bag in the basement of the LDS Church Administration Building on South Temple.

"He was a tremendously hardy and warm person," Mormon historian Richard Bushman said Saturday. "And a very imaginative administrator."

He had a "knack for solving problems with a single stroke," added Bushman, who served as a counselor to Perry years ago in Boston. "He was extraordinarily efficient. He believed if there was a problem, he would find a solution and then carry that out."

The Mormon leader developed those skills growing up in Cache County, then earning a degree in business from Utah State University. He climbed the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a top executive in several department stores, before entering full-time LDS Church service. He became an apostle in 1974 at age 51.

"Elder Perry was a great man, a friend and a tremendous leader," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said. "His friendly smile and optimism always encouraged everyone he met, including me, to try a little harder, to stand a little taller, and to be a little better."

In April, Perry, an LDS apostle for more than four decades, offered what would be his final General Conference address, giving a spirited and headline-grabbing defense of "traditional families."

He said humankind is best served when legally married mothers and fathers rear their children together, and warned against 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."

Indeed, his son, Lee Perry, said in a news release Saturday that his father will be remembered as a "champion of the family."

Even so, the apostle took some heat for that sermon from national and Utah LGBT activists, who accused him of "disparaging" their families.

The previous month, Perry stood shoulder to shoulder with some of those same gay-rights advocates when the Utah Legislature passed — and Herbert signed — a historic measure protecting LGBT individuals from housing and employment discrimination while also providing religious-freedom safeguards.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City and the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature, noted Perry's "courageous" help with that landmark legislation.

"For the progressive community that might have been upset with the use of one word at LDS conference," Dabakis said, "heaven help me if I were judged by any one word."

The three members of the LDS Church's 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 faith's top two ruling councils.

With Perry's death, apostle Russell M. Nelson, also 90, becomes second in line to lead the church after Packer. The current Mormon prophet, Thomas S. Monson, is 87 and, according to a previous church statement, "feeling the effects of advancing age."

From 'Stretch' to Nagasaki • 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 "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."

Yes, Virginia • 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 assignments on top of all that, so Perry had to get creative to squeeze in family time.

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.

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."

Sievers will remember fondly her friend's kindness and integrity.

"He was truly a good man," she said Saturday. "There's no one I trust like I trusted him."

Perry maintained close friendships from those Boston days for decades. In 2004, he tossed out the first pitch on Mormon Night at the Red Sox's historic Fenway Park.

The octogenarian hurled the ball with power right over the plate, Lee Perry said. "It was an inside strike."

Walks around Walden Pond • When Virginia was diagnosed with cancer, the couple sought solace with frequent visits to the 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 his 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.

Always the good soldier • 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

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.

Trip to Vatican • In the recently completed General Conference, the apostle unloaded on current social mores and the influence of media on "traditional" family values.

He 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, he 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."

Despite his high-level leadership position, 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."

Perry's penchant for the ordinary is, in many ways, what made him extraordinary.

"He had this common touch and he was as comfortable with the common man as presidents and rulers," son Lee Perry said, "and treated them all pretty much the same and had a way of relating to them and connecting with them that's just profound."

David Noyce contributed to this story.

Twitter: @religiongal