Last Friday night, between our 6 and 11 p.m. broadcast, I drove the 15 minutes from my television station to west Philadelphia to an LDS chapel near the University of Pennsylvania campus to speak to a small group of young single adults from Penn, Harvard University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Bryn Mawr College, who were gathered for a YSA weekend conference.
These are among the best and brightest LDS kids in the world. They're the kind who scored north of 2,000 on the SAT, got a perfect 800 on the math, spent time during high school overseas in a study abroad program, won state and finished top 10 in national business competitions, were valedictorians and student body presidents. They're accomplished, adventurous, highly motivated and chose the Ivy League over church schools.
The Penn LDS Student Association hosted and organized the conference, even taking visitors into their apartments to alleviate the cost. Penn nursing student Liz Harbuck, a sophomore from Salt Lake City who was one of the organizers, hosted girls in her apartment with air mattresses. Penn sophomore Victor Salcedo had four strangers squeezed into his tiny flat.
I was their keynote speaker in what was a very informal gathering of roughly 40 students — small enough for us to all fit into the Relief Society room. I showed a short video of my work that they seemed to enjoy, then told them my life story of immigrating from Tonga, boxing, BYU, mission, marriage, family, my careers in the NFL and broadcasting and service in the Church. I concluded by quoting Doctrine and Covenants 115: 6, "And that the gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, may be for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from the wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth."
I encouraged them to stay close to the Church, as its stakes worldwide are to be "a defense, and a refuge from the storm, and from the wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth." I suggested to kids much smarter than I, that "wrath … poured out without mixture upon the whole earth" must mean that Satan's "wrath" will be unleashed, undiluted, heavily concentrated and at full strength.
Our stakes will serve as a safe haven, but as they obtain their education, serve missions, find spouses, start families and embark on careers, they will be expected as Isaiah wrote to "enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitation: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes." I viewed their little conference as a refuge and a defense from the storms, but also a preparation to "strengthen thy stakes."
My remarks were followed by fun activities, games and a viewing of "Hunger Games" at a local theater. On Saturday, they went to see two first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon in the Penn Library, then went on a sightseeing trip to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and religious sites in Philly, and of course consumed a few cheese steaks before they adjourned.
Most of them are undergraduates but a handful were grad students. They gather annually for the same reasons our youth gather for youth conference, EFY, and for the same reason we have stake and general conference — to be edified, instructed and strengthened in each other's company and testimony.
I love their spunk and their optimism. I love how idealistic and faithful they are. I love their goodness but also admire their immense intelligence because it isn't something that comes naturally to me as it did with my siblings (who have graduate degrees) and my children (who all got into BYU without football scholarships).
They come from various backgrounds, experiences and family life — and I learned you can't make even simple assumptions about them. For instance, Penn sophomore Blake Ellison grew up in Salt Lake City, graduating from Hillcrest High. Lifelong LDS with pioneer heritage, right? Nope. Blake was raised by his single mother as an only child and actually joined the church while in Philly at Penn.
Kasey Strawbridge is a tall, strikingly beautiful African-American young woman from Missouri who studies at Columbia. Convert to the Church, right? Nope. Kasey was raised in the Church, in a St. Louis suburb.
And Victor Salcedo, of Houston, is a business major at Wharton, who recently returned from a mission to Honduras. His Mexican parents are converts — his mother studied engineering at one of the top universities in Mexico and his father graduated from BYU and later got his MBA from the Marriott School of Management.
It was such an honor to be in the presence of such exceptional young single adults and to share my life experiences and testimony with them.
A couple of years ago, a group of my peers who grew up with me in the same LDS ward in Mesa, Ariz., organized a " Mesa 24th Ward Reunion." We're now in our late 40s to early-mid 50s. I wasn't able to attend, but as emails went back and forth trying to locate people, it was fun to reminisce of experiences from our youth.
It got me wondering about some of the people whom we couldn't find but were so instrumental in my life — my first home teaching companion when I was 14, Marty Klein; one of my mother's visiting teachers who often tutored me, Barbara Nielsen, because she taught English and happened to be the faculty advisor of the high school newspaper; my 11-year-old Blazer B teacher, Sally Sue Nelson and her husband, Neal, who would later be my Scoutmaster; Dick Wheeler, my junior high principal, in whose office I spent a lot of time; Anita Hallsted, my best friend Roger's mother, who baked us cookies while we did our homework at their kitchen counter; Arizona millionaire developer and philanthropist Ross Farnsworth Sr., who assisted our family in bringing my younger siblings from Tonga. There were many, many others.
For about a year now, I have been an amateur detective. I've been trying to reach these special angels in my life. Predictably, some have died. One was widowed and remarried so it was difficult to find her because she had a new last name. Another moved away and I would discover, became disenfranchised and drifted from the Church. Keep in mind, these aren't folks who are on Facebook or Twitter, so it made my search more complicated.
Bottom line is I reconnected with nearly all of them, most of whom are now in their 80s. They're scattered around the country and I've flown out to see and meet with them. A few I've stayed in touch with, but many of them I haven't seen in over 30 years! Their stories are fascinating and most were amazed that I found them and that I came with a message: I remembered specific details of lessons they taught me as a youth. They seemed genuinely touched that I returned to thank them. As you might imagine, our reunion was sweet and tender.
Over the course of the year, I will share my experiences and the specific lessons I learned from each of these wonderful people, along with photos of our reunion in a series I will call "Angels From On High" — because that's exactly what these men and women were to me.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company