Additional Resource

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf: Taking Flight

It was 30 September, 2004, two days before the annual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf was taking a stroll with his wife, Harriet, when the conversation turned to the historic nature of the meeting where not one, but two modern-day apostles would be sustained. The more they walked and talked, the more anxious Elder Uchtdorf and Harriet became for the yet unidentified men whose lives would be changed forever by the lifelong appointment.

“As soon as we returned home we got down on our knees and prayed for these men and their families,” Elder Uchtdorf said.  The very next day, a stunned Elder Uchtdorf was summoned to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s office and asked to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  That weekend he stood before thousands of Church members assembled in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, with millions more watching via satellite around the world.  Expressing his reaction to becoming an apostle he said, “I have a great sense of inadequacy, and I have felt a sweet agony from a deep and often painful examination of my soul during the many hours which have passed day and night since Friday morning of this week.”

Becoming an apostle was an unlikely capstone to a life that began in Mährisch-Ostrau, Czechoslovakia, on 6 November 1940.  Elder Uchtdorf was the youngest of four children in a family that would flee as refugees two times during his childhood.  When his father, Karl, was conscripted into the German army and taken from his family, Elder Uchtdorf’s mother, Hildegard wanted to get as close as possible to the western front.  She left all their possessions and took her small family to Zwickau, Germany. 

Karl Uchtdorf survived the war but was a bitter opponent of both the Nazi and the Communist regimes.  Labeled a dissident, he fled with his family to the safety of Frankfurt, West Germany. Elder Uchtdorf described his father as a very idealistic man with a strong personal character.  “He taught us to do what you know is right and follow that path and don’t worry about consequences.” 

Of his childhood Elder Uchtdorf said, “I played in bombed-out houses and grew up with the ever-present consequences of a lost war and the awareness that my own country had inflicted terrible pain on many nations during the horrific World War II.”

It was his mother who provided sweet moments for the young Dieter at great personal sacrifice.  At Christmastime he recalled there was little money for the necessities of life, much less for presents, but his mother surprised the children with “stollen,” a traditional German Christmas cake.  It was only later in his life looking at pictures that Elder Uchtdorf realized his mother had gone without.  “She was almost like you see in war movies and the people who were starving. That’s how she looked at that time when she was providing for us.”

Despite the harsh circumstances living in postwar Germany, Elder Uchtdorf said the Lord was looking after his family through the efforts of a single elderly woman who invited his grandmother to attend a service at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “My grandmother and my parents accepted the invitation,” he said.  “They went to church, felt the Spirit, were uplifted by the kindness of the members and were baptized.”

When Dieter turned 8 years old, he too was baptized, in an indoor swimming pool.  He vividly recalls his apprehension of going into the water because he had never learned to swim.  “I will always remember the feeling of warmth, safety, and importance as I came out of the water after this sacred ordinance had been performed,” he said.  The family was quite dedicated to their new faith.  Elder Uchtdorf fondly remembers his father and two older brothers deciding who would wear the one suit they all shared to church each Sunday.

It was during Elder Uchtdorf’s teenage years that he discovered his love for flying.  He started riding his bicycle to the Frankfurt airport to watch the airplanes land and take flight and imagining what it would be like to one day take to the skies.

Following his dream, he started with an engineering education at age 18, followed by six years in the German air force.  Then, in a reciprocal relationship between the German and U.S. governments, he entered fighter pilot training school in Texas where, as a German, he won wings in the American Air Force.  At the young age of 29 he was made a captain with Lufthansa airlines and swiftly rose to the top of the organization, being named as senior vice president of flight operations in 1982.

In the midst of his occupational successes he was called to numerous Church positions in Germany and eventually into full-time Church service in 1994.  Those who have worked with Elder Uchtdorf praise his leadership qualities and ability to reach out to others.  Elder Dean Larsen said, “Elder Uchtdorf so genuinely loves people and is so engagingly personable that wherever he went he was embraced literally and figuratively.”

Applying lessons learned from his childhood, Elder Uchtdorf faced opposition with optimism. He helped convince the German government that Mormonism should not be included in a list of “sects” — being included on such a list would have seriously hindered the work the Church in the country.  His colleagues noted that Elder Uchtdorf’s position with Lufthansa gave government officials confidence they had nothing to fear from the Mormon faith.

Although Elder Uchtdorf carried heavy responsibilities, his heart was in the home with his family.  He met his wife, Harriet, at a Church meeting and several years later they married, on 14 December 1962. 

“She’s really wonderful, she’s the best companion I could ask for in my life,” Elder Uchtdorf said.  Longtime friend and Church associate Hanno Luschin agrees: “In spite of his professional recognition and his varied Church callings, a great measure of his success in his life is the quality of his marriage, as expressed in his absolute loyalty to Harriet and her unfailing support for him.”

The Uchtdorfs eventually welcomed two children into their home, Guido and Antje.  Antje said the enthusiasm of her parents made for a charmed childhood. “Everything is exciting to Mom, and Dad makes things exciting.  He made everything an adventure — even going to the grocery store.  They took us on some of the most exciting family vacations a child could imagine.”

Though Guido and Antje live overseas with their own families, they understand their father’s commitment to his calling as a special witness of Jesus Christ throughout the world.  As he performs his duties, imprinted on his memory are his mother’s efforts to build him up when times were tough. Her example is one Elder Uchtdorf follows today. “When we go out and meet with the people of the world, we’re there to uplift and to help and to strengthen those who need being strengthened, strengthen the feeble knees and lift up the heads which hang down. These are really the things that she did.”

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