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Vai's View: Legendary friend has made lasting impression

Published: Friday, Dec. 16 2011 11:24 a.m. MST

Elder John Hokili Hogle, in full Tongan dress after he was given the chiefly title of Katoakisiuamafuauta. (All) Elder John Hokili Hogle, in full Tongan dress after he was given the chiefly title of Katoakisiuamafuauta. (All)

Think back to when you were 9 or 10 years old. Were there figures in your life who were bigger than life? A teacher? A church leader? A favorite uncle? At that time, everything seemed bigger than life. Just go back to your elementary school and see how small the classrooms and cafeteria are compared to how you remembered them. Sometimes, we're disappointed when, as adults, we see that people and buildings from our childhood don't quite live up to our memories.

John "Sonny" Hogle was a towering figure in my early years. Forty years later, he's still a legend to me and in many ways, even more so. Out of the blue this week, I got a call from Hogle, or as my family called him, "Hokili" (pronounced, HO-KEE-LEE), the Tongan way of pronouncing "Hogle." Sonny was a legendary missionary in Tonga in the early '70s in the way John Groberg was in the late '50s.

Elder Hokili with his companion, both wearing traditional skirts, in front of their house. (All) Elder Hokili with his companion, both wearing traditional skirts, in front of their house. (All)

Not long after my eighth birthday, we moved to Mesa, Ariz. We started in a garage-like apartment for about a year until my parents saved enough to move us across town to a brand new home. It was a small, three-bedroom rancher, maybe 1,200 square feet, but of course to my siblings and me it was HUGE. I wouldn't learn until I was older that the home was Section 8 housing for qualified, disadvantaged families.

A few others in our LDS ward also lived on our street. It was our good fortune that local church leaders included a strip of more affluent homes in our ward boundaries, which ran a mile or so along Southern Avenue, the border from the neighboring ward.

They were mostly alfalfa farmers with lots of land and lots of house. The Hogles were among them. Their oldest son, John Jr., or "Sonny" among his family and friends, was at the time in Tonga serving his mission. We wouldn't meet Hokili for another year.

Elder Hokili studying in the doorway of wooden home he shared with his companion. (All) Elder Hokili studying in the doorway of wooden home he shared with his companion. (All)

Our family was poor and the Hogles were an affluent and influential family (to us anyway), and because we were Tongans, with their beloved Sonny in Tonga, the Hogles treated us like family. Brother John Hogle Sr. was a happy-go-lucky cowboy who had a hearty laugh and looked like John Wayne. His wife, LeAnn, was an elegant woman who always dressed impeccably. My mother referred to her as Jackie Kennedy Onassis, not in a catty, derogatory way, but as a compliment for the regal way she carried herself. Sis. Hogle was a beautiful woman and paired with her ruggedly handsome Marlboro-Man-husband, predictably, their children were blessed with good looks.

When Sonny left, Elder Hogle's younger brother Monty was about 17 years old and looked like the Michael Landon character, "Little Joe," from the popular Western TV show "Bonanza." Baby sister Melissa was 15 or 16 and older sister Becky was married and in Provo at BYU with her husband.

Melissa Hogle was easily the prettiest girl in our LDS stake and probably all of Mesa as a high school sophomore. Remarkably, she occasionally would come to our home just to hear our stories of Tonga because she missed her older brother so much. Once, I remember my mother teaching her how to make a Tongan dish. I was only 9 or 10, but even then was infatuated with her. It was hard to believe the prettiest girl in our stake, from such a wealthy family, was actually sitting in our home talking to us. I remember my mom throwing a folded blanket over an exposed spring in our ratty couch before I could open the door to let Melissa in, either so she wouldn't see it or so her dress wouldn't get snagged on it.

Melissa's visits had the added benefit for us of learning more about her older brother, Sonny. "Hokili" was the first missionary to represent either side of his parents' lineage. He may not have gone at all but for the untimely drowning death of his best friend, Richard Phelps, when the two boys went swimming in a canal the morning of their high school graduation. Though Sonny hadn't planned or thought much about it, Richard's dream was to serve his mission to Samoa, where his older brother Greg had gone. Now, Sonny would serve a mission for both of them.

Hokili was one of three stateside missionaries — or "palangis" as they're known in the islands — in his group headed to Tonga in March 1971. They spent a week in the Language Training Mission (LTM) in Salt Lake, learning Tongan that was useless once they arrived, before leaving for the South Pacific. Then, as now, Tonga only provided eight visas for American missionaries in a given year, which was fine because Tonga has always provided its own missionaries. In 1971, there were more than 350 missionaries in the Tonga Nuku'alofa Mission, double the number of other missions. Like North America, Tonga's surplus of missionaries have been sent to points beyond.

Hokili was sent to one particularly remote island, Nomuka, where the last white missionaries who served there both died of hepatitis 30 years before and their graves were visible from his window. On two occasions he averted near shark attacks. Another time, he bailed from a sinking boat while on a transfer and swam for six hours to the only land in sight — an uninhabited island. He was rescued the following day. With the hardships were the amazing spiritual experiences and miracles that have defined the Tongan people and the Lord's servants who have come from America to bring the gospel to them.

All these stories are documented in a book John Hogle Jr. has written, which also includes wonderful photos he took on his mission, a few of which are included with this column. Unfortunately, it's not for publication. It's simply titled, "Hokili" and was expressly written for his family and friends, never intended for wide distribution. His phone call was to request that I write a paragraph he'd use on the back cover, as he plans to have the book bound for his posterity.

Today, John Hogle Jr. and his business partner own a successful land company called Horizon Land and Development in Arizona. The company is big enough that it owns a jet and a helicopter. The company jet flies in clients and the chopper flies them over the land tracts they sell and buy. Hogle is certified to fly both the jet and the chopper.

Hogle and his wife Rhonda have raised six wonderful children, five of whom served missions and all married in the temple. Interestingly, "Hokili" is dedicated to the daughter and only child who didn't serve a mission because, as Hokili told me, "she's the only one who didn't get these experiences in my weekly letters that I sent to my other children while they were on their missions."

Since you're unlikely to get your hands on a copy of "Hokili," I close with the funniest experience from the book. Stateside missionaries didn't just bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to Tongans, they also brought their unique brand of American humor.

Toward the end of his mission, Elder Hokili was tasked with training a cocky, Tongan greenie named Elder Salesi, who was bent on becoming an Assistant to the President (AP) and didn't mind saying so. The greenie felt his leadership aspirations would be expedited if Hokili would teach him to speak English, as it would surely impress the American mission president.

To amuse himself, Hokili told him American women, such as the mission president's wife, would be especially impressed if he complimented her cooking, should he ever eat in the mission home. "And this is what you say following the meal," Elder Hokili told him, "Sis. Woodworth, that food tastes like buzzard puke." Elder Salesi was excited at the prospect that he might use it, so he practiced day after day, week after week, as they walked from home to home.

After several months, Hogle wrote that "he was beginning to say it without much of an accent. As you can imagine, it entertained me to no end. I knew the chance of him becoming an assistant was about the same as winning the lottery, or so I thought ..." (pg 220).

It happened long after Hogle returned home to the States. But one day, he received a letter in the mail from his greenie, Elder Salesi, who was now an AP. In 1973, Tonga became the first country in the world to be completely divided into stakes — no more districts or branches. The unprecedented event brought to Tonga the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, Spencer W. Kimball, who was accompanied by Elders Howard W. Hunter, S. Dilworth Young and A. Theodore Tuttle. As you may have guessed, following the conferences, the entire party retreated to the mission home for dinner. From page 221 of "Hokili:" "Salesi told me (in the letter) he stood after the meal and acknowledged the presence of all the General Authorities, and then turned and spoke directly to Sister Woodworth and told her the food "tastes like real buzzard puke," in perfect English. He was confused as everyone laughed.

President Woodworth asked him where he heard such a thing.

Salesi told him: "Hokili."

President Woodworth then replied, "Well, that figures."

To this very day, this story continues to be told at mission reunions and to a new generation of Tongan missionaries.

With each telling, it secures John "Hokili" Hogle Jr's legend among Tongans.

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