PHOENIX, Arizona — A literal walk down memory lane recently took Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Sister Harriet Uchtdorf from the flight line of Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix, Arizona, to the historic Mesa Arizona Temple on the other side of the Valley of the Sun and then back to a meaningful palm-lined residence in the western suburb of Glendale.
The member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife — in Phoenix Nov. 10-13 for weekend leadership trainings — returned to special sites, many from 60 years ago, as they celebrated faith, family and flight.
From opening-night messages to Latter-day Saints gathered at the base where he trained in 1962 to a concluding afternoon visit to an ailing local bishop, Elder and Sister Uchtdorf taught and exemplified ministering — to the many and to the one.
He repeatedly spoke of how his patriarchal blessing and temple endowment 60 years early had served “as a Liahona, a compass” to guide him early in his life. He reminded of the two great commandments — to love God and to love one’s neighbor — and how it easily and effectively it can be done “in normal and natural ways” with the principles of love, serve and invite.
Another common theme at the Luke devotional and the Glendale multi-stake leadership instruction was God’s gift of agency and the wise use of time. Time is an equalizer, since all have the same 24 hours in a day, Elder Uchtdorf said, adding that what makes the difference is how an individual uses that time.
In his messages to families, youth and children at Luke as well as to the ward and stake leaders gathered in Glendale, he pulled out copies of the new “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet and card and underscored that “Jesus Christ is your Strength.”
He also continually taught that small efforts can result in big impacts — sometimes coming later in life, sometimes not known at all.
Luke Air Force Base, 1962
German pilot Dieter Uchtdorf, age 21, was finishing his two-year training with the U.S. Air Force in Texas and Arizona with four months of weapons training at Luke in mid-1962.
Just as formative as the fighter-jet training were the spiritual highlights for the young man — first a calling from his Glendale Ward leader, Bishop Melvin Huber, to teach the 14- to 17-year-olds in Sunday School, followed by receiving a patriarchal blessing and then his temple endowment in Mesa.
His “small things” teachings came full circle his first night of instruction, as a former nonmember teen who attend of his 1962 Sunday School lessons introduced herself as having been baptized a short time later, the start of a multi-generational family of Church and mission service.
“The experience in 1962 was special for me, with wonderful, positive memories,” recalled Elder Uchtdorf.
He earned not only his wings but the coveted Commander’s Trophy for finishing No. 1 in the training class — the nine German pilots and the many-times-larger group of U.S. pilots.
And 1962 continued to be special, as he returned home to Frankfurt, Germany, to court Harriet Reich, whom he first met when she and her mother and sister were baptized when Harriet was almost 13 years old. The two were sealed in the Bern Switzerland Temple on Dec. 14, 1962 — meaning another 60-year milestone is just weeks away.
“I have a husband who is a ‘Top Gun’ kind of guy,” Sister Uchtdorf told listeners during the Arizona meetings.
Luke Air Force Base, 2022
On Thursday evening, Nov. 10, Elder and Sister Uchtdorf visited Luke, hosted by Latter-day Saint jet-fighter pilots, Lt. Col. Travis “Fist” Passey, Lt. Col. Josh “Switch” Larsen and Major Kyle “Baller” Benham.
They showed the F-35A Lightning II fighter jet on the 61st Fighter Squadron flight line and aircrew flight equipment. The tour group — including the Uchtdorfs and Elder Paul B. Pieper, General Authority Seventy and president of the North America Southwest Area — then participated in an on-base devotional for military Latter-day Saints and immediate family.
The Uchtdorfs spoke about her conversion, his time at Luke in 1962 and the spiritual milestones of his calling, patriarchal blessing and temple endowment during that time. The Apostle emphasized the importance of agency, covenants and the wise use of time and covenants, and he spent time speaking about the new “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlets, including the reminder “Jesus Christ is your strength.”
He also conducted a question-and-answer session, drawing inquiries from the children and youth and leading all in his favorite Primary song, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”
Elder Uchtdorf concluded by inviting the around 150 attendees for a personal greeting, handshake and photo, if they wanted. And they wanted that with the Apostle.
“With his prior experience, being in the armed forces and being able to empathize with what we’re going through, it was amazing when he was talking about managing our time wisely,” said Passey, who is also bishop of the Legacy Parc Ward in the Surprise Arizona West Stake and was deployed a year ago in the Middle East. “And even though we may be distant as a family, we can be spiritually connected.”
Elder Uchtdorf returned to Luke early the next morning, anxious to get a better look at the base, jets and operations in daylight.
With Luke now home to the likes of F-35s, F-22s and F-16s, Elder Uchtdorf noticed the base’s mounted “legacy” jets on display, including the F-84, F-104 and AT-6 of Elder Uchtdorf’s era. “These are my kind of birds,” he said, happy to pause next to an F-84 similar what he flew in 1962.
Friday’s return visit included driving along the flight line and runway and a stop at the control tower — both inside and out.
Arizona Temple, 1962
While training at Luke, young Dieter Uchtdorf decided to receive his temple endowment at the Arizona Temple — as it was called then — in Mesa on the valley’s east side. “I think this was the best decision I could have ever made,” Elder Uchtdorf said in hindsight.
Invited by other pilots to join them after hours and on weekends, the young German instead frequently drove his old yellow Oldsmobile to Mesa to spend time at the temple.
“During the day, I dropped bombs out on the gunnery range, and in the evening I went to the temple,” he said. “What greater contrast can you have?”
Mesa Arizona Temple, 2022
Later Friday morning, Nov. 11, the Uchtdorfs arrived at the Mesa Arizona Temple grounds, greeting surprised Latter-day Saints along the walkways and stepping in to congratulate two different bridal pairs taking photos outside after being sealed earlier in the temple.
President Kenneth M. Smith and Sister Jody Smith, the temple president and matron, welcomed the Uchtdorfs, showing them through different areas of the temple. The jaws of youth participating in proxy baptisms in the baptistry dropped when the Uchtdorfs stepped in, sat down and reverently watched the ordinances being performed.
After the temple visit, the Uchtdorfs stopped at the nearby Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center to meet staffing missionaries and visiting patrons. They left signatures on the crayon wall and a message — “The Savior is your Strength” — on the center’s central chalkboard.
After six years in the military, Dieter Uchtdorf became a pilot for Lufthansa German Airlines, later concluding a three-decade career as senior vice president for flight operations and chief pilot.
In 1975, he brought his wife and their children — Antje, age 12, and Guido, 5 — to Glendale when he took a three-year job overseeing Lufthansa’s pilot training school in nearby Goodyear.
“When we came here from Germany with our family, it was really a step into a new world,” Sister Uchtdorf recalled.
They purchased a new home on West Olive Avenue, added a backyard pool, planted palms and bushes and posted a railroad tie to bear a streetside mailbox. Melvin Huber, his former bishop, was now their stake president in Glendale.
The kids learned English while they attended school, and the Uchtdorfs immersed themselves in hiking, rockhounding, backyard grilling and callings and activities in the Glendale Third Ward with Bishop Gordon Eliason. The Church in Arizona provided the stability of stakes and wards and frequent visits by general authorities from Salt Lake City.
“We learned about the Church and the gospel during those three years — perhaps more than any other years,” recalled Elder Uchtdorf, adding, “It strengthened our marriage in a way I think no other place could have done.”
On Saturday, Nov. 12, Elder Uchtdorf joined Elder Pieper and Elder Kevin Lythgoe, an Area Seventy, in providing instruction to stake and ward leaders from five west-central Phoenix stakes. The meetings were held in the same Glendale stake center where then-8-year-old Guido had been baptized.
Later that afternoon, the Uchtdorfs traveled to their home from nearly a half-century before, eyeing the 70-foot-high palms standing as sentinels and visiting with the current resident, the widowed wife of the couple who purchased the home from them 44 years earlier.
The following day, the Uchtdorfs attended sacrament meeting with the Copperwood Ward in the same Glendale meetinghouse they had attended in the 1970s and afterwards paid a ministering visit with Glendale Arizona Stake President Gus Squire to the ward’s bishop, Bishop Bill Colebeck, who has been ill and unable to attend the Sunday services.
Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Copperwood Ward as the Cottonwood Ward.