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.

For at least a dozen years, I have jogged daily through my neighborhood and a neighboring development with my dog. It's a circuitous route with hills but designed to keep me and my dog off busy roads with speeding motorists. People honk, wave or stop me to say hi or chat as they leisurely walk for exercise with their own dogs. I run with an iPod as a diversion so I can listen to the music of my youth ­ — Elton John, Bee Gees, Earth, Wind & Fire.

For years, I noticed the husky guy walking the big dog with the red pullover but was never close enough to notice it had the distinctive Utah drum logo. Lots of people wear red in Philadelphia — ­ it's the Phillies' and Sixers' colors.

One morning in January, my Jewish neighbor, Barry Sabol, stopped in his SUV to chat with me. As we talked, I noticed the big, barrel-chested guy with the big dog and the red fleece walking toward me. As he approached, I noticed for the first time his red pullover was a Utah Utes fleece. I smiled. He asked, "You're Vai Sikahema?"

"I am. And you are?"

"Rich Daniels." He pointed toward his home, "bought that house in 1991 and been here ever since. I'm LDS but been inactive. Can we talk?"

Barry, my Jewish neighbor, interrupted us. "I'll let you two Mormon guys catch up." Then, he drove off.

I invited Rich over that same evening. I learned his parents, Spencer and Ruth Daniels, recently died within 18 months of one another; Ruth in February 2011 and Spencer in December 2012. He returned to Salt Lake City to bury them. In doing so, he felt the stirring of their spirits urging him to return to the church.

Rich told me when he drifted from the church in college, he held the office of priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. He hoped to be advanced to the Melchizedek Priesthood. His four siblings remained active in the church and he longed to join them. I asked why he left.

"I decided not to serve a mission when I was in college. I felt ostracized and shunned. I was young. My wife, Ann, grew up in Salt Lake in a part-member home. Her parents are in their 90s; LDS father and Methodist mother. She traces her lineage to Joseph Smith. But because her father married outside of the church, they were basically shunned. At least it felt that way. They never really recovered from it and they're in their 90s!

"That had a profound effect on her family because Ann grew up feeling she was an outcast ­ as a Joseph Smith descendant in Salt Lake City, for heaven's sake! So she and her siblings gravitated towards their mother's Methodist faith."

Rich and Ann Daniels have become my good friends. I stop at their home when I run with my dog to check on them and to chat. They've come for barbecues. In the spring, when Elder John Groberg and his wife, Jean, spent an evening in my home, I invited the Danielses and a few close friends to come meet the famous general authority of the book and movie fame, "The Other Side Of Heaven." Rich had never heard of Groberg or his story. He was captivated. He went out and bought the movie that night and watched it with his family.

I interviewed Rich for the Melchizedek Priesthood and invited him to share his reactivation experience in stake priesthood meeting. He's the executive secretary of his ward, serving a bishop who is a landscaper, a man with calloused hands and sunburned skin. Rich is a business executive with years of administrative experience, yet he tells me he's learned more from his laborer-bishop than he did in MBA school.

"Bishop Hans Feuz has taught me so much about humility, church government, how to exercise the priesthood and the difference between ministering and administering," Rich said. "I've been away since the early 1970s, so it's all new to me. But I absolutely love it. And I've learned the difference between the church and its people. As I young man, I didn't know that. I allowed people to offend me, and it kept me away for 40 years!"

In August, Rich returned to Salt Lake City, and for the first time in their lives gathered with all of his siblings and did endowment work in the temple. "Our parents were with us. It took their passing to bring me back. I know they were pleased."

Rich also enjoys the approval of his non-LDS wife, Ann, and their children. "Ann loves me unconditionally and knows this is something I had to do."

Saturday night, the Danielses are coming over for our annual Y./U. Tailgate Party. U. grads decorate half the house, Y. grads decorate the other. We'll watch Bryan Rowley's highlights, then my Legends segment from BYUtv. Then we turn to the pre-game shows. I smoke my famous dry-rub baby back ribs, grill teriyaki chicken and pulehu shrimp. The Danielses are bringing dessert, ­ a huge sheet cake Rich ordered with a life-size Utah helmet facing a miniature BYU helmet. We'll eat, laugh, banter and cheer.

Win or lose, we'll hug at game's end, then kneel in prayer — grateful for a bountiful harvest and that we're allowed to participate in each other's rescue. Even when it takes 40 years.

Shalom.

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