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Valerie Bybee, Valerie Bybee Photography
Casey and Nicole Harbertson with their three children.

Editor's note: Deseret News staff writer Trent Toone is a member of the Jupiter Hills Ward of the Syracuse Utah West Stake.

SYRACUSE — It was a story that nobody saw coming.

The newly called elders quorum presidency in the Jupiter Hills Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been asked to speak in sacrament meeting. When it was Casey Harbertson’s turn, the new first counselor said he felt impressed to tell a personal experience, one he rarely shared.

It was his conversion story.

Although raised in Davis County by devout Latter-day Saint parents, he’d once been an angry teenager who rolled with a rough crowd, skipped seminary every day and spent all his extra time mastering the art of wakeboarding. He was determined to go pro. A Mormon mission was definitely not in his plans.

But his father refused to give up on him, and a series of events led to a profound spiritual experience one day in seminary, essentially changing his life.

“Never give up on your children,” Harbertson said, getting emotional. “Just because they don’t want to be part of it (the church) doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t have a plan in store for getting them on the right path. The Lord always has their best interests in mind.”

Fading interest

Harbertson began to lose interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around age 12, but was compelled to attend weekly meetings by his parents.

“It was mundane, so boring,” Harbertson said. “My dad said, 'If you live in my house, you will follow my rules and go to church, whether you like it or not.'”

What little interest Harbertson had in the gospel continued to fade as he grew older. He recalled sitting in the priest quorum one Sunday when the instructor asked for those planning to serve a mission to raise their hands. Harbertson was the only one who didn’t lift his arm. He became increasingly annoyed with the priest quorum and began sitting next to his father in Sunday School and elders quorum. He passed the time by drawing skulls and crossbones on his sketchpad.

“Anything not to listen,” he said.

The wakeboarder

All that mattered to Harbertson was wakeboarding.

Going into his senior year at Davis High School, Harbertson and his friends arranged their schedules so they had a construction class and seminary after lunch. But instead of attending these classes, they hooked up boats and traveled to a nearby lake or reservoir. Once on the water, the boys spent countless hours perfecting their wakeboarding skills.

With all the extra practice, they were becoming pretty good. Companies sponsored Harbertson and his friends and invited them to perform tricks, dazzle and entertain crowds at various events. Life was good.

“We thought we were pretty hot stuff,” Harbertson said. “All I dreamed about was becoming a professional wakeboarder. Missions and church didn’t make sense because they took me away from my opportunity.”

The wakeboarding crowd was a rough one, Harbertson said. There were wild hairdos, tattoos, alcohol, drugs, filthy language and explicit music. Harbertson was pondering some sleeve tattoos when he announced to his dad a plan to drop out of high school and go pro in wakeboarding. He also wanted to marry his high school sweetheart. Money was not a concern because he could work at Pizza Hut. His teenage mind had not missed a single detail.

His father, Scott Harbertson, tried to reason with his son.

“How long is your body going to last doing that, son?” Scott asked.

“Probably into my late 30s,” Casey said.

“Then what are you going to do for the rest of your life?” Scott said.

Scott Harbertson knew he couldn’t force his son to go on a mission, but remained consistent with his rules. Casey needed to graduate from seminary and high school, then he could pursue his own course. "You are this close to finishing; do it for me," his father said.

“He was driving me nuts, but I wouldn’t let it go,” Scott Harbertson said. “I had to keep him going.”

Seminary miracle

Casey Harbertson agreed, out of love and respect for this father.

Graduating from high school was still possible, but seminary was a problem. A letter had arrived announcing Harbertson had been kicked out due to excessive absences.

Scott Harbertson went to seminary and pleaded with the principal to give his son one more chance.

He prevailed. The terms of the deal included Casey using his artistic talents to design a cover for the seminary graduation program, and extensive makeup work from a thick manual. Daily attendance was mandatory. He wasn’t required to participate, but he would be permanently banished if he missed another day.

And so Casey Harbertson settled in to a desk in the back of Scott Wilde’s classroom and began to doodle blood-dripping skulls and other dark images each day on his sketchpad. He was only there to please his father, he said.

Then came his spiritual awakening.

Harbertson was attempting to ignore a lesson on temples one day when a student with a riotous reputation asked Wilde why young men are commanded to go on missions. Coming from this particular student, the question piqued Harbertson’s interest. All of the sudden a specifically worded answer, accompanied by a strong feeling, flowed into Harbertson’s mind. To his amazement, Wilde answered the student’s question using the exact same wording he’d heard in his head.

A second question was asked. Once again, the answer came to Harbertson’s mind shortly before Wilde delivered the same words. Then it happened a third time. In the midst of it all, he felt an overwhelming feeling he had never experienced before.

“It told me I needed to change my life and go on a mission,” Harbertson said.

As the new, powerful feeling permeated, he tried to fight back.

“I sat back and shook my head, 'No I don’t. I’m crazy. What is going on? What is happening to me?'” Harbertson said. “The feeling came back even stronger. At that moment, I couldn’t deny it. I knew I needed to do whatever it took to change my life and go on mission.”

New direction

Harbertson decided that nothing would prevent him from serving a mission, but it wouldn’t happen overnight. He began by telling those closest to him what had happened.

First he went to his buddies. As they sat around talking one night, one friend commented that he’d had a change of heart about his future. He wanted to prepare to serve a mission and asked for their support. Not only did the group pledge its support, each one of the guys related a similar experience. They all wanted to change.

“It was the first time I felt comfortable telling somebody that I’m not going to be hard-core Casey anymore,” Harbertson said. “We decided to help each other and started to do more positive activities.”

The response was much different when he informed his longtime girlfriend. She was anticipating their post-high school marriage and was not happy with the news. They continued to spend time together, but it became clear that he had changed and she would not support his decision.

“I realized she was never going to get on the boat,” Harbertson said. “I went home and decided to move on. After three years of seeing each other every day, we stopped talking. Technically, we never broke up. … To this day, she probably has no idea why I stopped showing up.”

Harbertson continued to attend LDS Church meetings with his father. A week or so after his experience in seminary, he leaned over and whispered that he had decided to go on a mission.

“I looked at him, 'What did you say?' He says, ‘I’m going on a mission,’” Scott Harbertson said. “I started weeping. So did he. Then he tells me the story of what happened. … It was pretty amazing. I still get teary-eyed every time I talk about it, even now.”

This news came during a difficult period for the Harbertson family. In addition to Casey’s issues, some of his siblings were struggling with personal challenges and his mother had health problems. The family somehow weathered the storm. Casey Harbertson called his father “Superman.”

“He knew a mission would set the pace for the rest of my life. It was what I needed,” Harbertson said. “That was confirmation of a parent’s continual love and prayer, never giving up on somebody who is basically pleading for you to give up on them.”

Called to Portland

Following graduation, Harbertson still had one obstacle to overcome before his mission. He was months from submitting his paperwork when he was involved in an accident.

While doing wakeboarding tricks at Lake Powell, Harbertson crashed. When pulled from the water, he struggled to move his limbs. Mentally, he was fine, but his body was racked with excruciating pain, especially around the hips. He was basically immobile until he was brought to a hospital in Salt Lake City. It took time to diagnose the problem, but a blood test finally confirmed he had ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine and causes chronic pain.

The next few months were a dark, depressing time for Harbertson, an active young man suddenly restricted to bed rest and pain medication. He was still determined to serve a mission, but he now needed special medical treatment. Further research revealed that a hospital in Portland, Oregon, was the best place for treatment at that time.

Despite the accident, Harbertson learned he could still submit his papers. When his mission call arrived, it contained a most pleasant surprise.

“It said, ‘Portland, Oregon.’ That’s when I knew the Lord was real, and he knew me better than I knew myself,” Harbertson said. “There was no way the church could have known it was the only place that I could receive these infusions. We only knew a few weeks before. It was another answer to prayers.”

Never give up

In addition to now serving in the elders quorum presidency, Harbertson and his wife, Nicole, are the parents of three children. He owns a marketing agency that specializes in the outdoor industry.

Scott Harbertson remembers asking his daughter-in-law once if she would have been interested in Casey had he not gone on a mission. Not likely, Nicole replied.

“See what you would have missed out on?” Scott said to Casey.

Nicole was impressed when she learned Casey’s mission had been interrupted for four months by a broken arm. She admired his resolve in returning to Oregon to complete his two-year commitment. When she learned about his experience in high school, she couldn’t believe he was the same guy.

“When I heard he hadn’t wanted to go (on a mission) at all, that he had struggled spiritually, I was even more impressed by his dedication to serve,” she said.

When asked to share a thought or two regarding parents with wayward children, Scott Harbertson said to never give up on your children or their friends.

“ 'I don’t care how much of a burden or pest you might think I am, I am always going to ask questions and expect the best from you because I know you have this innate ability to be who I know you can truly be,' ” Scott said he would say. “It was also a matter of praying each day and night for hearts to change. Sometimes all I could do was pray. There is always that hope that Heavenly Father can mold them.”

Casey Harbertson is grateful his father made him return to seminary and continue going to church.

“Do whatever you can to get the lost souls into a good environment,” Harbertson said.

Scott Harbertson also pointed to the critical role of Wilde, the seminary teacher who set aside his lesson plan that day to answer a student’s question. It was a turning point in his son’s life.

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Wilde, now an assistant administrator in Seminaries and Institutes, said he learned early in his career that students are a teacher’s true curriculum. Classroom experiences like Casey’s hold a special place in a seminary teacher’s heart.

“We teach students before we teach subjects. As teachers, we know how important it is to teach gospel truths, but we also know the Spirit is able to deliver those truths most effectively when we’re in tune with our students' needs,” Wilde said. “I trust there are thousands of ‘Caseys’ in our classrooms waiting to respond to a prompting.”

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com Twitter: tbtoone