When I heard of the passing of Elder L. Tom Perry on Saturday afternoon I instantly thought of some sound principles the man lived by. They were brought to my attention when I read his biography over a year ago (See: L. Tom Perry: An Uncommon Life—Year of Preparation; written by his son Lee).
Using his son’s words I share the following principles. My father has a talent for deflecting compliments and rarely allows praise to inflate his perception of himself. He is also someone who lives in the present, and he seldom dwells on previous accomplishments. This presented a formidable challenge for me as his biographer. On the rare occasions when he reflects on his uncommon life, he does not cast himself as the central character in the story he tells. It is usually someone else who receives the credit or plays the hero. And when pushed about his role, he dismisses its significance. He’ll shake his head, smile, and even laugh at the thought that perhaps he’s not attaching sufficient significance to his role. Then he’ll often say, ‘I am as common as dirt’ (pgs. 2–3).
In day when so many are grasping (and gasping) for attention and notoriety through a variety of channels these words ring with wisdom. It is okay to be common—normal. This man’s gift is something to think about as social media trends tempt so many of us to inflate our perception of ourselves and others.
Tucked later in the biography there is a great metaphor Elder Perry used to illustrate the dangers of self-absorption and the tendency to focus so much on the past. It states: My father used the metaphor of a flowerpot to explain what he had observed among his high school classmates. It seemed that a few of them had been content to remain planted in the same flowerpot. Perhaps they had the largest, most beautiful flowerpots during high school. Everyone else wanted to be them at the time. In time, however, they began to push against the limits of their flowerpots. The only way to continue to grow was to remove themselves from the protection of their flowerpots by replanting themselves either in a larger pot or outside. Instead of leaving their flowerpot, however, some [held] onto it. It was comfortable and safe to stay planted in the same flowerpot than to leave it. The problem, according to my father, was even the largest high school flowerpot was never going to be large enough for a lifetime of growth. So a decision to cling to one’s flowerpot was a decision to limit one’s potential.
Tom Perry…did not cling to the same old flowerpot—the one that was the most comfortable. Instead, he was always willing to let God replant him wherever he was needed most.
The Lord planted L. Tom Perry in Utah, Japan (as a U.S Marine), and in the north mid-west states as a young missionary for his Church. As a businessman he was planted in Idaho, Washington, California, New York, and Massachusetts.
In his fifties he was called as an Apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this capacity he traveled every corner of the world where he turned up the soil and strengthened the soil of so many others. He stirred our family soil when he visited Layton Utah one Sunday afternoon. After the meeting he stayed an hour and half to shake hands and talk with people one on one. He was then in his late eighties and fighting a bad head cold. The building was nearly cleared when he finally left. He was fun loving and personable and his booming voice will be missed.
Elder Perry, as so many affectionately and respectively called him—thank you for being common as dirt. These verses just came to my mind: “O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth. For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God” (Helaman 12:7–8). Elder Perry thanks for living your life according to the commands of our great and everlasting God. Genuineness, commonness, and God fearing people who have a large stage in life, as you did, are few in numbers. For these reasons your passing is difficult.
Your apostolic witness of Jesus Christ has blessed millions of people on earth. Thanks for casting the Savior as the central figure in the story.
Note: You can read another tribute to his life here.