I met Elder H. Burke Peterson while he was serving as a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, 1972-1985. After he was sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy during the April 1985 general conference, I met with him and his wife, Brookie Cardon Peterson, for an interview.
I’ve always remembered our conversation, mainly because of how straightforward Elder Peterson was in telling me about what he called “hurdles” in his life.
During the dozen or so years I’d crossed paths with Elder Peterson, I had always seen him as a confident, self-assured Church leader. I was surprised when he revealed he had a very different view of himself.
In the first few minutes of our interview, Elder Peterson said, “My hurdles today are the same ones I had as a boy — feelings of inadequacy.”
“Those feelings,” he added, “were not brought about by my parents. I was raised in a family where there was never a question that we were loved.” With palms turned upward and a shrug of his shoulders, he surmised, “These are just feelings I’ve always had and will probably never get over, so I quit worrying about them.”
While he acknowledged being “scared to death” when he spoke in general conference, or even stake conferences, he managed to appear calm. “I do an awful lot of praying and an awful lot of preparing,” he said.
His profession as an engineer led him to being very thorough and “preparing to the hilt.” He said he would get overly prepared, but he developed a confidence in the Lord. “I know when I do my part I won’t fail; that if I am prepared, He will draw it out of me.”
Elder Peterson was the eldest of four sons of Harold Antone and Juna Tye Peterson. He was born in Salt Lake City but grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. “We were poor boys in the sense of not being able to do things the neighbor kids did. We never had a lot of money.
“My parents were always dedicated, always obedient to the Lord. I never heard them speak down to each other. They always lifted and made us feel important. I guess the most important things we learned from them was love, obedience and discipline.”
I know when I do my part I won’t fail; that if I am prepared, He will draw it out of me.
He painted a verbal picture of himself as a youngster: “I was a run-of-the mill, garden-variety kind of kid. I was a tow-headed boy with straight hair. I never put anything on my hair; it just laid there. I was not the handsome, dashing type. Physically, I was just a little kid. When I entered high school, I weighed 115 pounds. You can’t do much on the football field at that weight. My size added to my feelings of inadequacy. I wanted to be in sports … but I was never much at them in high school.”
Academically, he was in about the middle of his 1941 graduating class in Phoenix. He said he often told young people, “‘Not every one of you can be a valedictorian, so marry one.’ That’s what I did.”
After he proposed to Brookie Cardson, he said, he began getting excellent grades at the University of Arizona. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering in Arizona and a master’s in the same field from Utah State Agricultural College, now Utah State University. He completed a civil engineering course at the University of Oklahoma. During World War II, he served as a U.S. Navy officer in the engineering corps and worked on projects in the South Pacific theater.
He said he had “some choice stories” about his experiences in the Navy, but he didn’t talk about them. But he would sometimes talk about times when he and two or three other Latter-day Saint servicemen gathered for sacrament meetings under a stand of coconut palms or in a tent on a South Pacific island. “I remember things like that, which were good for me. I decided to put the other things, the bad experiences, aside.”
Elder Peterson had traveled extensively to fulfill responsibilities as a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, and knew he would go to many places as a General Authority Seventy. His extensive travels, he felt, were partial fulfillment of the patriarchal blessing he received as a young man.
He opened a desk drawer and retrieved a copy of his blessing and said, “I didn’t go on a mission. I was in the military. I had never read the Book of Mormon through before I was 30. … But one day, when I was 29, I was reading this blessing and I was reminded to ‘seek to know the will of the Lord in all things, thereby will success come to you in your life and you will know of a surety that the Lord lives, that He is watching over His people.’
“I started then. I decided I was going to study the scriptures every day, and I have, with few exceptions, for the last 30 years.”
Elder Peterson put the copy of the blessing back in the drawer and said, “It’s not a long blessing. I was 18 when I received it and was disappointed because it didn’t say much.”
Several years later, he confided to his bishop his disappointment. The bishop advised him to pray about it and, if still concerned, to talk with him again. “I did what he said, and I never went back,” Elder Peterson said.
After having served in the Presiding Bishopric 13 years, and with his calling to the First Quorum of the Seventy, he said he realized how much that blessing really contained.
Elder Peterson served as a General Authority until October 1993, when he was given emeritus status. He died April 14, 2013.