PALMYRA, N.Y. — It was a filler program showing a family’s experience at last year’s Hill Cumorah Pageant, airing between October sessions of general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that caught the attention of an injured former Air Force fighter pilot.
“I just felt impressed that we should go, and my precious wife said, ‘I’ll support you, but I don’t think it’s a good idea,’ ” Parry “Pee Wee” Winder said. “We came to the pageant as an answer to prayers and as an absolute miracle.”
Winder lives in Providence, Utah, with his wife, Connie. He’s an instructor in the aviation program at Utah State University and has no prior on-stage experience. Ten years ago, before his teaching days, he experienced a simulator accident as a commercial pilot that left him with excruciating back pain. Even so, they put their faith in action and applied to be a part of the 735-member cast.
In March of this year, Winder had several trial procedures that were successful in implanting a spinal cord stimulator. He said this essentially alleviated 80 percent of the pain he once had. This procedure changed his life and his pageant experience.
Connie Winder said they had never attended the pageant and didn’t know what to expect of their 17-day full-time commitment.
“We thought this was going to be like a ward roadshow, just stepped up a bit,” she said. “We were ready to get in roadshow mode. When we got here and saw the stage, it was just incredible.”
When cast members arrive, they’re put into cast teams. Each team has opportunities to attend daily devotionals and participate in community service projects. After these teams are selected, members receive roles in different scenes that depict stories from the Book of Mormon. After all Parry Winder had gone through to make it to the pageant, he said his casting experience was even more unique.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I see a very handsome gentleman waving his finger at me,” he said. “The man said, ‘Will you do me a favor? Do you see those guys over there? Cast them out.’ So I did this little arm wave and gave them a fist. Then, he handed me this card with the name Abinadi on it.”
Winder said he expected to be cast into a role holding a torch off to the side looking mean and old. Now that he has a lead role-playing Abinadi, one of the largest parts in the pageant, he said he’s beginning to connect his own faith to that of the prophet he is portraying.
“My heroes growing up were Book of Mormon prophets like Mormon, Moroni, Helaman and Abinadi,” he said. “As a fellow warrior, I’m walking on the same ground they did. Now for me, that’s a sacred moment. I strapped on the mantle of responsibility and I laid my life on the altar for the freedom of this country just like they did. So it kind of makes us kindred brethren.”
The Winders said they regret not taking the opportunity to have this experience with their four children. Now that their children have kids of their own, they said they’re going to make sure their grandchildren don’t miss out on this opportunity. And because Winder has a lead part, they’re all making the trip out to see it this year.
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“I saw the lights and the program and the Savior and I just thought, ‘I want my grandchildren to see this and to be a part of this,’" Connie Winder said. "They’ll never forget it.”
The Hill Cumorah Pageant opened to large crowds July 12-13 and continues this week. Parking and admission are free to the public, with shows starting at 9 p.m. each night. The program offers Spanish and ASL translation services, and the grounds are handicapped-accessible. For more information, go to www.hillcumorah.org.
Corey Camp is a graduate of Brigham Young University who is volunteering with the Hill Cumorah Pageant's public affairs.