“The Packard Family,” Ensign, Feb. 1984, 33
“There are a lot of great families in the Church,” says Floyd L. Packard. “We’re just an ordinary family doing the best we can. I don’t think it would be right to put us up as something special.”
It’s true, of course, that there are many great families in the Church. But to call the Forrest and Esther Packard family ordinary would be an understatement. This is a remarkable family which, from quiet and difficult beginnings, has become a large and powerful force for good—sustaining each other in areas of welfare, missionary work, reactivation, dedication, and love.
The family beginnings may have seemed ordinary enough, back in 1910 when Forrest Packard met Esther, the sister of his friend Lamond Carter. Forrest and Esther found a special friendship in their mutual love of horses. Since both of them were physically small, they became excellent jockeys. Few rural horse races or rodeos were ever held in their area in which they did not compete. Years later, Floyd described his mother as “fiercely competitive. She never liked to lose.” After their marriage, Forrest had reason to thank God every day for a strong and able wife, whom he affectionately called “his little dark-eyed Tess of the Storm Country.” Their children have reason still to thank God for strong and spiritual parents.
It’s rare these days for a family to have seventeen children. Even a few years ago, it was a big family. In 1941, when there were only fifteen children, the Packards had moved to Meridian, Idaho. Times were uncommonly hard. They were trying to pay off the debt on their forty-acre farm, with Esther and the children doing most of the heavy farm chores while Forrest worked as a carpenter in nearby Nampa. Still, it looked like they weren’t going to make it. Then an opportunity came for Forrest—who was at that time more than fifty years old—to work for a construction company building an airstrip on Wake Island, in the South Pacific.
Even though baby number sixteen was on the way, they decided in family council that Dad should go. He would contract to be gone for only a year; with the money he made, they could pay off the farm. They could manage in his absence. They had done it once before when, in 1921, he had been called to a two-year mission for the Church in California.
During a stopover in Hawaii, on his way to Wake Island, Forrest went to the temple there and received a blessing under the hands of the temple president. He wrote his family that in the blessing he was promised he “would be blessed on land and sea,” and when his mission was complete, he would return home and find his “family chain unbroken.” Both he and the family were to cling to the hope offered in that blessing, not for just one year, but nearly five!
He was on Wake Island when the Japanese attacked, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Wake held out for two weeks; but it finally fell, and Forrest became a civilian prisoner of war.
Shortly after he had arrived on Wake Island, Forrest had received a letter from President Heber J. Grant, saying, “You are set apart, as though hands were laid on your head, to take charge of all Church activities on Wake Island.” Because he had never been released from that responsibility, he considered it his commission, and continued to minister to the men in his camp. He became known as “the Little Chaplain” and was looked up to by the other men as their spiritual leader.
Forrest kept a record of all the deaths in the camp on a scrap of paper which he rolled up and hid inside a hollow bamboo stick. He guarded the record literally with his life knowing full well what his punishment would be if the prison authorities found it. Later, he turned it over to an astonished and grateful Red Cross official. Among the many names on the list was an account of ninety-five sick and wounded men who were separated from the main group and were promised that they were being sent home. They were never heard of again until the appearance of Forrest Packard’s list.
Brother Packard always emphasized to his family that good came of the experience, too. He recounted many incidents of fair and honorable treatment he received from the Japanese—most of it a result of the respect they held for his gentle behavior and also because he was over fifty years of age. He was greatly admired by both his captors and fellow prisoners for his courageous yet unassuming optimism and faith.
At home, the news of the fall of Wake Island brought Esther the first of three nervous breakdowns she experienced during Forrest’s imprisonment. “The darkest time I ever remember in my life was when mother was ill,” says Dee Packard, oldest of the children. This hardy woman, who had been “a rock” to her own family and to countless others, found herself in a deep, wearying pit.
But she had always told her children the Lord would not turn his back. Priesthood bearers were called in to give blessings; her family, friends, and neighbors rallied around; and in time she was up running the race again.
Nearly two years passed without word of her husband. She and the children continued to send him packages through the Red Cross. Then one day a neighbor heard his name on a survivor list which was read on the daily Red Cross Broadcast. The household erupted with joy!
During Father Packard’s long absence, family solidarity had been Mother Packard’s major concern. She had two purposes: first, to improve herself and her own skills so she could earn a livelihood, and second, to spend every possible moment “living it up” with her family. She made sure to carry on the traditions that she and Forrest had started, and one of those was to have fun, no matter what they did. The children learned to play the piano and to sing. They held regular family nights in which the children performed musically and did dramatic readings. After the work was done in the evenings they played games or had popcorn or a taffy pull or some other fun activity that kept her family members wanting to be home together.
Floyd Packard, now a Regional Representative, remembers those fun family evenings: “Mother would play games with us every night, often until 1 A.M. or later. A real key was that while we were playing she would teach the principles of the gospel in an atmosphere that was easy to accept. There wasn’t much arguing, either, because when some of us started to argue, Mother would stop the game.”
“A team of horses couldn’t have pulled us away from home,” adds his brother, Bill. “If there was a choice of playing with Mom or our friends, we always chose Mom.”
Esther found many ways to teach her children the gospel. She paid them five dollars for every Church book they read, for example, and ten cents for every Church song they memorized. But principally, she taught them to work, and she taught them gospel principles while she worked with them.
Even daughter Cleo, who is mildly mentally handicapped, helped during the day while her mother was gone. At home, Cleo baked eight to ten loaves of bread for the family per day, made lunches, and did the laundry and housekeeping. Today, because of that excellent training, Cleo is able to live by herself and works for Deseret Industries.
Son Dee recalls that in the evening the children would meet their mother at the bus stop and all would go home to work on their chores until dark. Each had his or her own job to do, but their love for one another kept them working, helping each other with their tasks, until all had finished. “Mother worked right with us in the fields and would bring out gospel questions then.”
She had a genius for teaching her children great principles in an unconventional way. Once, two of them tried a cigarette they found, but the smell gave them away at home. Their mother sent them to find a stick—her way of taking time to calm down. When they returned, she insisted that they spank her for not teaching them correct principles! Her children never forgot the lesson.
Their father returned from the war with his health broken, and the physical and emotional pressures of coming back into society were difficult for him. In family council, it was decided that he should accept a call to the Tennessee Mission. He came back from that service more like the father they remembered, the father he wanted to be, but still in poor physical health. It was wonderful, though, for the family to have him home during the next few years.
Still, the family was not to be spared its share of challenges. The most dramatic of these occurred in 1951 when a fire nearly took son Bob’s life. He was critically burned and underwent forty-two operations during ten agonizing months in the hospital. “My mother came to be with me every day I was in the hospital—she never missed even one day in all those months—and I know how hard it must have been for her sometimes. I love and honor her for that,” Bob says.
Esther Packard’s achievements as a mother did not go unrecognized outside her family. Though she grew up with little formal education, an ordinary farm girl whose first store-bought dress was her wedding dress, Esther’s accomplishments won for her the designation of Mother of the Year for Idaho in 1953. She went on to capture “special honors” as a runner-up in the United States national Mother of the Year activities.
In 1957, after the Packards had moved to Bountiful, Utah, to join their sons Dee and Bill in the construction business, their greatest tragedy occurred. Forrest, Esther, Dee, and Bill were flying in a small plane when it crashed just outside Park Valley, Utah, during a blizzard. Miraculously, Dee, who was the least hurt, managed to walk thirteen miles, over unfamiliar, snow-covered terrain, to find help at a family farmhouse.
Rescuers carried the four injured family members to the Tremonton Hospital. Sons and daughters were summoned, many from far away, because Father Packard was not expected to live. But it was Mother Packard who died three days later. Her loss was a terrible blow, but she left her family with an unforgettable example and a set of deeply ingrained moral values and teachings which continue to guide them more than a quarter of a century later.
Forrest was unconscious for more than two months, but he slowly recovered. Later, he met and married Elmira Bigelow, a fine woman who was his companion until his death in 1963. She outlived Forrest by seventeen years.
In her father’s history, Beth wrote of him: “It must have taken a lot to make a man like Forrest Packard, a lot of sacrifice, patience, dedication, and sorrow. He was a talented, confident leader, the patriarch and directing force of his home. Mom was his queen and helpmate. Unitedly they carried out the affairs of their kingdom.”
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the Packard family has always found the spiritual road a smooth one. For several years, two of the seventeen children faltered in living the teachings of the gospel. They put distance between themselves and the rest of the family, but later both came back to the love of that family, and to the happiness and peace of the gospel. They attribute their return to the great example and leadership of their parents and brothers and sisters.
There are now more than four hundred members of the Forrest L. Packard family, and all but eight of them are active members of the Church. Admittedly, this is a most extraordinary statistic. How do they do it? Sister Donna says the Packard children are extremely devoted to each other. It’s as if the Packards are running an organized love campaign.
The strong family bond forged by Forrest and Esther Packard has carried over into their children’s families as well. “One of the great blessings in our family is the influence the children and the cousins have on each other,” comments Von Packard, who recently served as a mission president in South America. “When we were down in Chile, the children (he and his wife Sheila have twelve) greatly missed their cousins. The greatest joy was to receive tapes and letters from them.”
The bond between cousins is a great asset in helping family members achieve. D’On Walker, one of the many grandchildren, says the expectations of other family members influence each Packard descendant to be active in the Church and accomplish goals, but it “isn’t a negative kind of pressure. All of the cousins really encourage each other. There are a lot of advantages to having such great examples in your family. It really encourages me to be the best—especially in the Church.”
The Packard heirs are still passing along those values and character traits taught by Forrest and Esther.
Daughter Beth and her husband Wendell Walker try to instill in their thirteen children some of the self-confidence her parents helped build in their offspring. “Mom and Dad always praised us for doing well, no matter what it was, so we all would have confidence in ourselves. They used to brag about us all the time in front of other people. We would act embarrassed, but inside we were really proud.”
Daughter Barbara adds, “Our parents placed a lot of emphasis on developing talents, but made sure we knew that we can have all the talents in the world and still be unhappy if we don’t develop a feeling of self-worth. We all like ourselves.”
She explains that the children did all they could to gain parental approval, not because they felt insecure, but because “we didn’t want to break their hearts.” Once, she recalls, she and Bernie got into a fight over something. The quarrel caused their parents to take sides and get into an argument themselves. So Barbara and Bernie made a pact that they would never fight again because it made their parents unhappy.
Mother and Father Packard took special pains to be involved in their children’s lives, including dating practices. Some young people might have considered it meddling, but the Packard children considered it perfectly natural. Forrest and Esther made sure their teenagers invited their friends over to the house for Sunday dinner, or for any of the numerous family game nights or song fests. They unashamedly lined their children up to date good boys or girls they knew. That concern with whom the children are dating has carried over to the next generation.
Forrest and Esther Packard’s tradition of service to others has also carried over to their children. Daughter Donna Brown and her husband Kenneth, for example, spend six months a year in Israel, where he uses his dentistry skills in service to the people there. “We were taught to serve,” Donna says. She and her husband wanted to “get lost in service” to something when he retired. “So we decided to go to Israel. My parents taught us that good families are for doing good. My mom imbued a sense of greatness in her children by reminding them of Dad’s patriarchal blessing, which said that his children would be known for good both far and near.”
What kind of legacy can a good family leave the world? Among their posterity are a number of great homemakers, scholars, scientists, builders, attorneys, dentists, teachers, farmers, musicians and orators. Seventy Packard grandsons and seven granddaughters have filled missions; seventy grandchildren have been married in the temple; and forty-four grandsons are Eagle Scouts. Collectively, the Packard descendants have filled a staggering number of Church positions.
One son is a United States congressman. In 1982, Ronald Packard of California became the fourth person in history to win election to Congress in a write-in campaign.
Caring for each other’s needs and keeping track of one another is a way of life for members of the Packard family. But the caring goes far beyond individual relationships.
The Packard Family Organization is a legal, incorporated, non-profit group similar, perhaps, to many family organizations in the Church. It has a president and two counselors and committees dealing with history, genealogical research, family artifacts, college students, welfare, finances, and family reunions.
The main purpose of the organization is to keep the Packard families together, aware of each other, and, most of all, happily involved in the gospel. For example, Barbara and Jay (John) Kunzler, who serve on the college student committee, keep track of all the Packard students, married and unmarried, at Brigham Young University, where Jay is a faculty member and chairman of the Technology Department. Because the students also keep track of each other, a strong support system is created.
The finances of the Packard Family Organization are primarily for relieving the monetary pressures on a marriage. “The goal is to help any member of the family, grandchildren included, who is in need of financial help. Not being able to afford missions, school, or marriage is no excuse. If the help is really needed, the family organization is there as a backup,” says Bill Packard, who handles money matters for the organization.
The welfare committee is equally active. In 1981, a night fire destroyed Bernie and Sarah’s home, taking the life of their nine-year-old daughter and putting Bernie in the hospital. The next morning, members of the family welfare committee or their appointees flew to Texas, and, along with local Church leaders and compassionate members of the community, organized all that needed to be done for the devastated family. As the result of a few phone calls, more than $20,000, to be used as needed, was deposited in the family bank account by other Packards.
Each year, two newsletters, printed under the direction of Dee Packard, go out to family members. Twice a year, the Packards meet at general conference time in Salt Lake City. There is also a giant family camp-out each summer, usually in Idaho.
Perhaps the greatest legacy Forrest and Esther Packard left their family was their example of righteous living, based on the counsel of Church leaders. “The prophets only had to make a suggestion and Mama and Daddy were doing it,” Bob recalls. “We had regular morning and evening prayers. Mom made sure we knew the stories in the scriptures, and every night they read to us from the Church magazines. We were having family home evening long before it became a Church institution. And we always went to Church together.”
Jay adds, “I don’t know of a time when two things were not kept paramount in our family—the individual, and knowing and living the gospel.”
Perhaps the most poignant example of this philosophy is Esther’s struggle to overcome the nervous breakdowns she experienced after her husband was captured on Wake Island. Esther had come away from the period with a new resolve, determined not to believe as society believed, that a woman alone could not raise sixteen children and run a farm too. She remembered the dream she and Forrest shared that when he returned from Wake Island they could pay off the farm. The children carried much of the burden at home, and she became a “Spencer Corseteer,” selling corsets to women door-to-door. She was so successful that she eventually was able to open her own shop in Boise. When Forrest finally did come home, he found a beautifully kept house with three new bedrooms, newly renovated farm buildings, and a new car—all paid for. But best of all, his family was still together, and they still remembered and loved him.
It is the same with the Packards today. They are trying to put their faith in the Lord, and have organized themselves in an all-out campaign to take back to their Heavenly Father the kind of family he dreams of—one in which every member still remembers and loves him.