Our Orange California stake conference in February of 2006 came and went, and our visiting authority left my stake presidency intact. I was set apart as stake president exactly ten years before. Elder Caldwell of the Seventy told me then that I was called by revelation and would be released by the computer—in nine years.
The computer must have had a glitch.
Our next stake conference in August was designated by Salt Lake as a stake president’s conference, and no visiting authority was scheduled until February of 2007. All of us in the presidency were more than okay with that and settled in for at least an eleven year stay.
Then in May I received the surprise phone call. Some brother from Church offices wanted to know how far the Orange County airport was from our stake center and if it would accommodate private planes. I said, “Twenty minutes from the stake center and yes it handled private planes.”
“You have a general authority stake conference coming up in August,” the voice said, “and the senior brethren sometimes attend stake conferences using a private jet.”
My response began with a stammer. “Uhhh, our August stake conference is a stake president’s conference, and we don’t have a general authority scheduled.”
Silence. For a very long moment.
Finally I spoke. “Doesn’t look like either you or I know what to say now.” I was smiling. I don’t think he was. He just let a cat out of the bag—big time. I’m not a rocket scientist, but that was a pretty obvious clue my presidency was coming to an end. Nearly two months later I received a letter from Elder L Tom Perry that he would be visiting us, and my presidency would be released.
The Friday afternoon before our conference I picked Elder Perry up at the airport. Immediately I had known him forever. No pretense. No condescending. Just a huge smile, a warm handshake, and a booming voice that I would have heard even without my hearing aids.
“President Hanson. Good to be with you!”
I’m sure he gave that heartfelt greeting to all of the stake presidents he visited. And meant it each of the hundreds of times he did it.
As we drove home we talked about a lot of things. Just like friends do. I told him about the unexpected telephone call I’d received in May that signaled I was going to be released. “Who was that?” he thundered. He wasn’t smiling. I was glad I’d forgotten the name of the brother who called me.
He stayed with us for two days and in between meetings and interviews we would just sit at the dinner table and talk. He was genuinely interested in Joyce, me, and our family. We would quickly answer his questions about us and try to get back to listening to him, his counsel, and particularly his anecdotes.
One of his stories was about his first general conference talk as a member of the Twelve. He was called by President Spencer W. Kimball in April of 1974 to be an apostle. Elder Perry said he only knew about the call one day before conference, and he was to be the last speaker in the Sunday afternoon session just before President Kimball concluded the conference. He was nail-biting nervous through all of the meetings as he sat waiting for his turn to speak. “Bruce (Elder Bruce R. McConkie) sat next to me,” he said. “And just as the speaker before me was concluding, Bruce leaned over to me and whispered: “Tom, this has been the most boring general conference I’ve ever sat through, and if it’s going to be saved at all, you’re going to have to do it!” As he walked to the pulpit, Elder Perry’s wrestle to suppress out loud laughter pushed all nervousness aside and his absorbing objective was simply to keep a conference-appropriate look on his face and speak by the Spirit.
When he and I came into the chapel for stake conference on Sunday, the 1300 or so members stood. He whispered to me, “That’s embarrassing!”
Elder L Tom Perry. A sincerely humble man.
As we sat on the stand I looked down at the faces of the members I loved. I had served them as stake president for the past ten and a half years and as a member of the stake presidency for over ten years before that. I about lost it—and I was conducting! I stood at the pulpit trying to control my feelings when Elder Perry got out of his seat and walked up to me. He removed the beautiful leis that some of our Polynesian members had put around his neck and hung them over the microphone so they draped in front of the pulpit. He said to the congregation, “I have hay fever, and if I continue to wear these I’ll cry all the way through my talk.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “I’ll let President Hanson do the crying for me.” That broke us all up and saved me from an impossibly emotional meeting.
My mind was still skittered though. I neglected to announce the choir number that was to follow the sustaining of the new presidency. When my counselors caught my error as I turned to sit down, I returned to the pulpit. I apologized, announced the choir, and said, “No wonder I’m being released.”
Some of Elder Perry had rubbed off on me.
Sometime during our private conversations with him and referring to his being next in line to Elder Boyd K. Packer who was then acting president of the Twelve, he said with that contagious smile, “Just about all of my efforts these days are devoted to keeping President Packer in good shape. My prayer is that he will outlive me by at least one day.”
Last Saturday his prayer was answered.
Elder L. Tom Perry unremittingly and powerfully testified of the Savior with his unique voice and his selfless actions his entire life. The passing of this most uncommon common man has left a very big hole.