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Vai's View: Mission president changed lots of lives

Published: Monday, Dec. 6 2010 10:15 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This is the sixth article in the "Missions and football" series.

Parry Greenwood looks like a brigadier general from central casting. Tall, handsome, never a hair out of place, and always immaculately dressed.

After Parry and Pauline Greenwood retired from the Air Force in the early '80s, they immediately applied to serve a mission, something Parry didn't get to do as a young man because of World War II.

They were initially sent to the New York, New York City Mission as Public Affairs Missionaries, a perfect call where the Greenwoods would entertain United Nations Ambassadors and use his influence as a military commander.

The Greenwoods loved the big city as they were world travelers and their calling was tailor made for them. But a couple who had been serving in Africa and reassigned to head the South Dakota Rapid City Mission in the summer of 1982, suddenly fell ill overseas. The domino effect resulted in the Greenwoods getting a call from Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles requesting they leave the Big Apple for the Plains.

That domino effect created a buzz among the missionaries of the SDRCM, as we were learning that our new mission president was a brigadier general in the Air Force who was once the commanding officer of the Utah Air National Guard. Of course, we feared that we would have to march single file into zone conference and snap a salute toward the stand as we passed, while singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."

We were pleasantly surprised in our initial meeting with President and Sister Greenwood, how warm and gentle they were. They completely disarmed us with their meekness and humility.

I only saw him get upset once.

My companion and I were responsible for Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside of Rapid City. We could only enter the base if we were invited by our military members who resided on the base, and because our Air Force members were such good missionaries we went there often. It was a simple procedure. The member would call the guard's gate and put our names on a list and when we arrived, the guards simply asked for our IDs and in we went. Only, it never went that smoothly.

The guards were typically our age, give or take a year. Quite often, when we arrived, they'd give us the runaround that our names weren't on the list or they that never heard of our member/military family. Most times, I would see our names on the list, but still they'd hassle us. Clearly, it was because we were missionaries.

When President Greenwood overheard us talking about it, he asked me when our next appointment was. I replied we had one that same evening at 7 p.m. He said, "Push it back to 8 p.m. and pick me up at the mission home at 6 p.m."

"Yes, sir!"

When we arrived at 5:55 p.m., we were surprised to see our mission president standing at the door in full military uniform – his lapel was covered with colorful pins and medals and his hat tucked under his arm like a football helmet. He asked me to drive his personal car.

We knew he meant business.

On the way, he informed us he had already contacted the base commander, who was a colonel. He was expecting us at 7 p.m., so we'd have plenty of time for our 8 p.m. appointment.

When we arrived at the guard's gate, the same two privates who hassled us were there, but unbeknownst to me, President Greenwood's car had a sticker on the window that declared his rank. We barely even slowed through the gate as the privates snapped salutes at our passing car.

At the colonel's home, we were received warmly and President Greenwood received an assurance that as long as we continued to follow Air Force policy, we would never again be hassled at the gate.

For the rest of my mission, we never again got the runaround at the gate.


Since meeting when I was 19 years old, Parry and Pauline Greenwood have been a constant part of my life, to this very day. After my mission, I returned to BYU and they returned shortly thereafter to their home in Draper.

While I was still dating my wife, I took her to meet the Greenwoods for their blessing. After we married, we took our closest friends, like Robbie and Karen Bosco, at the height of our national championship run to have dinner at the Greenwoods. We remained close, even after we left college for the NFL, and when we settled in the East. Our annual trips to Utah always included a visit to the Greenwoods' little Draper home with our children. My sons, as teenagers, sat enraptured as the Greenwoods told stories of me as a young missionary. I sought his advice on the major decisions in my life. He counseled me to take the TV job in Philadelphia rather than one in Phoenix because he recognized the value my high-profile job would have for the Church in a huge metropolitan area where there were only two stakes and no temple. When my son, LJ, married his sweetheart last fall in the Draper Temple, a hush fell over the sealing room when the Greenwoods appeared so regal-like and I couldn't contain my emotions – seeing them seated near LJ's own mission president, Lee and Holly Van Dam.

The Greenwoods' little homestead is more than 100 years old, but it includes a barn and stables for their horses and enough land to ride them. He would often saddle the horses and have the kids ride alongside him. Even as developers were buying up chunks of land and beautiful homes surrounded them in Draper, they kept their little plot, remaining steady as she goes.

You have to be steady if you are in dogfights with Nazi Luftwaffe warplanes over Europe, which is what Parry Greenwood was doing in his early '20s.

In 1944, while flying a mission near occupied Paris, Parry and his wingman flew past a farm with a lone, covered wagon in the middle of an open field. As they passed, Parry noticed an odd glint shining from the wagon, so he signaled to his wingman that he would double back to get a closer look. As he did, the camouflaged covering suddenly came off the wagon revealing a 50-millimeter antiaircraft gun that shot up Parry's plane before he could retaliate. All his wingman could do was watch and return fire, but it was too late.

We learned this story well as missionaries for the obvious lesson of protecting one another and never, ever leaving each other's side under any circumstance.

With his plane badly hit and Parry wounded, he managed to find a nearby field a few miles away where he could land his burning plane and find cover. Too dangerous for his wingman to rescue as the Nazis were already on the move toward his downed plane, Parry somehow landed safely and quickly scuttled his plane as he was trained. He grabbed a pistol and a small survival packet that included a cyanide tablet he was to swallow if captured and headed for cover in the nearby woods as night was falling.

Miraculously, he eluded the Nazi troops searching for him and found his way to a farmhouse in the little village of Com Robert, where the family, as luck would have it, was part of the French resistance. They hid him in the loft of their barn, where the family treated his wounds and cared for him for a couple of months. He was given civilian clothes and the family burned his Air Force uniform to destroy any evidence of his presence. Nazi soldiers regularly came unannounced to the farm searching for the missing American pilot but he kept his distance quietly milking cows in the barn or hiding in the loft.

As his health improved, the French doctor who treated him brought a bicycle for him and the two men rode to the sight of his burned plane where brazenly, he took a photo of Parry sitting on his plane. He was rescued when the Allied Forces liberated Paris in August 1944. For his valor, he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Dinstinguished Flying Cross.

In the fall of 2005, I took my family to France for vacation. We stayed in Paris but the highlight for me was taking my children to Com Robert, where we walked the cobblestone streets of the quaint little village where Parry Greenwood was hidden by the French Resistance in 1944.

Then, we drove to Normandy and stood silently at the endless rows of white crosses as far as the eye can see, in every direction you turned, in a panoramic view. We walked Utah beach as our guide related stories of D-Day when the Allied Forces stormed these shores on June 6, 1944 and thousands of troops lost their lives. When the guide mentioned the young men, not much older than my teenage sons, were carrying packs weighing approximately 150 pounds, it dawned on me that my boys weighed about that much. So, I instructed them to piggyback each other and attempt to negotiate the beach toward the cement pillbox machine gun nests still present on the hill.

They couldn't.

So, we sat there on the sand quietly contemplating the enormous sacrifice and courage it took to do what they did.

From that setting, emerged the kind of man that came to the South Dakota Rapid City Mission in 1982 to lead us.

Parry Greenwood didn't just lead us, he taught and showed us how to think and do things outside the box.

When we went to the airport to drop off and pick up missionaries, he insisted on taking three of us Polynesian elders – Elder Isileli Tausinga, a cousin of mine from Salt Lake, Elder Richard Crawford from New Zealand, and myself. He instructed us to do the "Haka" war chant in the middle of the terminal. As people gathered, he had other missionaries tell people that we came from distant lands with a message that changed our lives. When we finished the "Haka," we each sang a verse of "I Am A Child of God" in our native language, which often included a Spanish-speaking missionary, a Samoan and a Hawaiian.

Growing up in a Tongan home, there were things my parents just didn't know to teach me. Culturally, I didn't learn to eat a meal with more than one fork or the etiquette of opening and holding doors for a woman.

The Greenwoods often had us missionaries in small groups to dinner in their home. President Greenwood always had us elders into his den and instructed us before we entered the dining room. "Elders," he would say, "what I'm about to teach you will someday prove as valuable as anything you learn on your mission, primarily because it may make the difference in the kind of woman you marry."

He taught us, then expected us to follow his lead. When we entered the dining room, we stood behind our assigned seats. When Sister Greenwood entered, President Greenwood pulled her chair back and if an elder happened to be seated next to a sister, he was to do the same. After the women were seated, we took our seats. Sister Greenwood instructed us that we were to begin with the outside fork and work our way in. Our glass was to the right, the dinner roll was to the left. Take a square of butter for your roll and butter only what you bite. Napkins on laps. Elbows off the table. He initiated gospel conversations that were lively and instructive. If a woman at the table excused herself from the room, we men all stood. When she returned, we stood. We learned to open doors, help with a woman's coat, offer our jackets if the room was cool.

It was the Parry Greenwood and SDRCM way.

Because of his experience as a fighter pilot, President Greenwood demanded we protect each other at all cost. We were to keep our companions within eye's view at all times. To this day, I get annoyed when I see missionaries in the chapel by themselves while their companion is down the hallway.

President Greenwood's insistence on this matter was so profound for me that I vowed to live by it, even when I returned home. In my NFL and broadcasting career, I have been around a lot of beautiful women. Many of my superiors are women, but I've maintained a policy that I don't do lunches or am I anywhere alone with a woman. Such a policy protected us in the SDRCM, I figured, so why wouldn't it protect me in my job? I've witnessed people whose lives and careers have been destroyed because of infidelity. I've been protected throughout my professional career because President Parry Greenwood was adamant that we adhere to Church policy as young missionaries in the SDRCM.

The SDRCM way proved to be effective in courting my wife. She was impressed that I stood in her presence and was chivalrous, as we were taught by Parry Greenwood in the SDRCM. It's impossible to quantify what the Greenwoods mean to me and what they've done for me, in the same way it's impossible to do that for one's parents.

I look at it this way. He was a brigadier general in the Air Force. If I had enlisted in the Air Force, could I have ever been in his circle? No. If I worked at Microsoft, would I have had a chance to get near Bill Gates? No.

But as a young missionary, I was privileged to work closely with a man who, in my estimation, is better than any CEO, CFO or COO. The Lord preserved Parry Greenwood's life, I'm convinced, in part so he could lead the men and women who served under his leadership in the SDRCM.

My life has been profoundly influenced by five people I met in South Dakota. Two of them were extraordinary young missionaries, Elders Dale Atherton and Arthur Berg. The third was a General Authority, who I only visited with for five or seven minutes, but whose counsel proved useful and profound. The fourth, was my mission president; a bona fide war hero who was as gentle, meek and humble as he was tough and inspirational. The fifth is a man who was willing to risk everything – his marriage, his family, his children … EVERYTHING – to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the end, he lost nothing but gained it all, and then some.

In my next blog, I will introduce you to Robert Dull, a mechanical engineer, who was running a family business in Rapid City when my companion and I stumbled upon him. The result of that chance meeting completely changed the course of our lives. And its effect is felt today in the BYU Athletic Department. I'll explain next week.

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