Vai's View: 40 years 'wandering the wilderness' not too much to keep neighbor from coming home

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 12:35 p.m. MDT

Rich Daniels, left, his daughter Allison and Vai Sikahema.

Courtesy Vai Sikahema

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — This week, Jews celebrate Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Ingathering. The holiday reminds Jews of their 40 years in exodus and celebrates the season of the harvest.

Rich Daniels isn't Jewish, but he's spent the last 40 years wandering the wilderness — a spiritual wilderness. Now, he's back. You might say gathered in, like the harvest.

Daniels is 62, a senior vice president with General Electric. He runs GE Capital's division that provides money for purchase or leasing of trucks and trailers. Last year, he oversaw and approved nearly $200 million of business through his office. He and his wife, Ann, raised two daughters, now in their 30s, each of whom provided their parents with two cute little granddaughters.

One daughter, Tracey, married an attorney, and they live nearby. The other, Allison, lost her fiance in a tragic car accident a few years ago, so she lives with her parents. Rich and Ann have a nice home in the suburbs. They raised a wonderful family. He pretty much has it all. Life's been good.

But something was missing.

"I grew up in the church, raised by faithful Latter-day Saints. My ancestors on both sides were pioneers from Norway and Denmark who crossed the plains from Omaha, Neb., with the Oscar Stoddard Company. They settled the Salt Lake Valley and helped build the temple."

Yet, Rich Daniels drifted from the faith of his fathers when he was in college.

When he graduated from South High School in Salt Lake City in 1970, he was recruited to play football by Utah, BYU, Ricks College and Dixie College. No one in his family, on either side, had ever been to college. "My dad worked in the oil refinery and always had a second job in construction," Rich told me.

"So did all of my uncles. No one in our family had ever been to college. Frankly, my dad thought it was a waste of time. He grew up in the Depression, so he helped provide for the family as soon as he graduated from high school. He expected me to do the same. Everyone in my family thought I was a slacker because I wanted to attend college."

Rich Daniels was big and strong — 6-foot-1, 225 pounds — enormous by 1970 standards for a lineman. "I chose Westminster because it was close to home, they paid my tuition and books but also allowed me to work full time to help my family."

Daniels graduated in 3 ½ years with a degree in business administration and economics. "I couldn't even afford to go a full four. I had to start making money to help my family."

To expedite graduation, Daniels took additional classes at the University of Utah, which by then was within walking distance of his home as his parents moved to a house on Logan Street near the school. "We were a U. family. We went to basketball games, track meets, school plays and of course, football games. The university provided entertainment, culture and fine arts for our working-class family. I've had a love affair with the University of Utah ever since."

As a senior, he was drafted for the Vietnam War. His lottery number was 23, meaning he was guaranteed for deployment. But in November 1973, two weeks after he was drafted for service, the government suddenly suspended the draft. The Vietnam War was basically over.

So, he took a job with International Harvester in Grand Junction, Colo. He married his sweetheart, Ann, a Salt Lake native who is not LDS. They were transferred to Denver, then Chicago. While in Chicago, he got an MBA and a master's degree in human resources management. Some 20 years ago, his job brought him to the Philadelphia area. He bought a home a block from the one I would buy a couple of years later. We've been neighbors for two decades but didn't know each other.

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