“Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf: On to New Horizons,” Ensign, Mar. 2005, 10–15
On December 17, 1973, the president of Lufthansa German Airlines in Frankfurt, Germany, received alarming news. Five terrorists had hijacked a Lufthansa 737 jet in Rome, Italy, and were making their way to Athens, Greece, with hostages on board. As they did so, 32 people lay dead in Rome, and one of the hostages now in flight was soon to be mortally shot and summarily dumped onto the airport runway in Athens. With guns to the heads of the pilot and copilot and with hostages trembling in terror, the unstable hijackers directed a bizarre path from Rome to Beirut to Athens to Damascus to Kuwait.
In an instant, the president of Lufthansa ordered into the air his chief pilot for the 737 fleet. Thirty-three-year-old Dieter F. Uchtdorf was to take a small group of emergency personnel and follow the hijacked plane wherever the guerrillas took it. In every setting possible he was to negotiate for the release of the plane, the pilots, and the hostages. Then, when all of this had been accomplished, he was to fly the hijacked 737 back to headquarters in Frankfurt.
With fortunately no more bloodshed, this mission, like so many others he had been on personally and professionally, was successfully accomplished. Unknown to him at the time, it was a portent of more important missions yet to come.
Dieter Friedrich Uchtdorf, newly called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in October 2004, has been prepared to face challenges and bear responsibilities all his life. Born in Mährisch-Ostrau, Czechoslovakia, on November 6, 1940, he was destined to see at every turn the devastation of war and the suffering innocent people endure because of the fateful decisions of others. His father, Karl Albert Uchtdorf, was conscripted into the German Army and was taken immediately from his wife and four small children. Little Dieter, the youngest in the family, knew only that his father was somewhere he didn’t want to be and that his mother, Hildegard E. Opelt Uchtdorf, was bravely fending for her little family as the war in Europe swirled around them.
With the Allies’ increasing success in the west and ominous progress by Stalin’s forces in the east, Hildegard Uchtdorf wanted to get as close as possible to the western front. So she left every meager possession the family possessed and, with her small family, made her way to Zwickau, Germany. Fortunately her husband survived the war and joined them in Zwickau, but he was a bitter opponent of both the Nazi and the Communist regimes. The former was now destroyed, but the latter was in control of their lives as a result of the postwar division of Germany. Because of Karl’s political position, their lives were in danger, so the family—for the second time in seven years—left every possession they owned and, despite the danger, made their way to a new haven in Frankfurt, West Germany.
Of this period Elder Uchtdorf has said: “We were refugees with an uncertain future. … 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.”1 The family had every reason to be filled with despair and fear.
But, as President Gordon B. Hinckley once said during another time of international conflict, there is a “silver thread” that can run “through the dark tapestry of war.”2 And so it did for the Uchtdorfs. While in Zwickau they found the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his first message after being called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Uchtdorf expressed his gratitude for that gift.
“After World War II,” he said, “my grandmother was standing in line for food when an elderly single sister with no family of her own invited her to sacrament meeting. … My grandmother and my parents accepted the invitation. They went to church, felt the Spirit, were uplifted by the kindness of the members, and were edified by the hymns of the Restoration. … How grateful I am for a spiritually sensitive grandmother, teachable parents, and a wise, white-haired, elderly single sister who had the sweet boldness to reach out and follow the Savior’s example by inviting us to ‘come and see’ (see John 1:39).”3
It was in those young years as a teenager that his love for flying “took flight,” so to speak. At about age 14 he started riding his bicycle to the Frankfurt Airport, where he would gaze in awe at the planes. Occasionally, with the kind indulgence of the staff who serviced the airplanes, he would climb up to look into the cockpit and dream of the day when he might fly into the freedom of the skies. Little did he know that he would eventually master the handling of a dozen major airplanes, including the Boeing 747, perhaps the world’s most readily recognized passenger plane. Furthermore, he could not have known then that he would be perhaps the most readily recognized and honored commercial pilot to walk through the gates of the very airport he now visited as a young boy.
That career 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 Big Spring, Texas, where, as a German, he won wings in the American Air Force as well. His senior colleagues tell us that Elder Uchtdorf’s most significant achievement there was to win the coveted Commander’s Trophy for being the outstanding student pilot in his class. But in his modest way Elder Uchtdorf says that his more significant achievement there was to help build a meetinghouse for the local branch of the Church, the sweetest memory he has of that important professional time in his life. As Elder Uchtdorf’s life is one of moving from strength to strength, it should not be surprising that years later he would return to the United States to be the director of Lufthansa’s pilot training school in Goodyear, Arizona, the principal and most honored training post offered in the Lufthansa organization.
In 1970, at age 29, Dieter Uchtdorf made captain with Lufthansa, a rank he was once told he could never achieve until late in his career. Then in a rather meteoric rise this airborne Wunderkind was made manager of the 737 fleet (1972), director of the Arizona training school (1975), chief pilot and head of cockpit crews (1980), and finally senior vice president of flight operations (1982).
In the midst of this rapid rise and increasing responsibility, Dieter Uchtdorf was called to be the president of the Frankfurt Germany Stake, then as the president of the Mannheim Germany Stake, and finally as a General Authority, called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 1994.
One cannot talk about Dieter without talking about his wife, Harriet. Longtime friend and Church associate Hanno Luschin says, “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.”
“She is the sunshine of my life,” Elder Uchtdorf says with a smile.
“Yes, and on occasion his thunderstorm too,” Harriet laughs. They are so conspicuously in love with each other that it is a joy to be in their presence.
It was a simple stick of chewing gum that ultimately brought Harriet Reich to the gospel and later to the love of her life, Dieter F. Uchtdorf. When Harriet was a four-year-old girl living in Frankfurt near the end of the war, a handsome American serviceman who passed her on the street kindly offered her a stick of chewing gum. She took it hesitantly and never forgot that friendly gesture or the pleasant look on the young man’s face. Roughly a decade later two LDS missionaries knocked on the Reichs’ door, which Harriet opened while her mother called out to forbid them entrance. Seeing the same kind look on the face of the missionaries, she remembered the compassionate serviceman of earlier years and pleaded, “Oh, please, Mother. Just for a moment.”
The missionaries left a copy of the Book of Mormon with certain passages marked for emphasis. That night, Harriet’s mother started to read. (Harriet’s father had died just eight months earlier.) Harriet recalls, “I couldn’t tell you exactly what my mother read, but I watched her face and noticed something remarkable happening to her countenance.” This little family had been living with the same terrible aftermath of the war that everyone else was living with. The newly widowed mother of two young girls was pale and depressed, unhappy and unclear about what their future could be. But as her mother read from the pages of the Book of Mormon, Harriet says, “I saw joy return to my mother’s life before my very eyes! I saw light come back into her eyes. I saw hope find a place in her soul.”
When the missionaries returned they asked, “Did you read the marked scriptures?”
“I read it all,” Sister Reich said. “Come in. I have questions I want you to answer.”
Harriet, her mother, and her sister were baptized four weeks later.
“Life changed for us that day,” Harriet Uchtdorf says. “Once again we laughed and ran and found happiness in our home. I owe it all to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Uchtdorfs’ now-married children, Guido Uchtdorf and Antje Uchtdorf Evans, agree that they had a wonderful childhood. “Our mother was always at home for us,” Antje explains. The Uchtdorf children say Harriet literally never missed a day of sending them off to school and being there when they came home after school and that, furthermore, she never went to bed at night no matter how late it was until their father came home from his flight, the office, or the church. “Although our father was extremely busy, we knew we were his highest priority,” Antje continues. “When he was home, he was totally devoted to Mom and to us. Of course, 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. So as children we were pretty much in a state of excitement one way or the other all the time!”
For all that excitement (the children and their mother thought that their amateur photographer father and husband always got much too close to the lions in Africa), Antje particularly remembers the quiet times with her father. “Whether it was during his favorite pastime of looking up at the stars, or sledding together in the winter, or just sitting on the porch, my father was always teaching,” she says. “He loves the gospel, and he was always helping us to love it.”
“I don’t remember any sermons,” says Guido. “I just remember him always being interested in me. We had ‘visits,’ which were often walks in the evening and, on more special occasions, hikes in the mountains. I loved those times to talk. And in all such situations he taught by example. I used to travel to distant wards or branches with him when he was stake president, and I was his home teaching companion when I held the Aaronic Priesthood. That is how I learned about the priesthood and other responsibilities I would face—firsthand, shoulder to shoulder, father to son.”
Those who have worked with Elder Uchtdorf praise a host of leadership qualities, but several rise to the surface again and again: his warm personality, his loyalty and endurance, and his courageous defense of the Church and the gospel. Elder Dean L. Larsen, an emeritus member of the Seventy, was an Area President to whom Elder Uchtdorf served as a counselor soon after the latter’s call as a General Authority. Elder Larsen says: “Our area in those days covered most of Western and Central Europe, countries that had been affected by World War II. Everyone who knew Dieter loved him instantly, but in those first months he couldn’t have helped but wonder about traveling and presiding in countries where they did not know him and where there were still painful memories about the war.
“Well, there needn’t have been any concern,” Elder Larsen reflects. “Elder Uchtdorf so genuinely loves people and is so engagingly personable that wherever he went he was embraced literally and figuratively. The gospel works miracles in such situations, and the members of the Church to whom he went were as magnanimous and kind as Dieter was humble, inspiring, and devoted to them.”
Another Area President to whom Elder Uchtdorf served as counselor was Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy, currently President of the Europe East Area. “When Dieter first served with us he was one of half a dozen General Authorities who were asked to remain in their employment and serve on weekends for the Church,” he remembers. “This was a very demanding assignment for Elder Uchtdorf, given his significant administrative responsibilities at Lufthansa plus an active chief pilot role traveling the world on very distant flights.”
Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Seventy, who served with Elder Uchtdorf in an Area Presidency, remembers the stature and appropriate pride that Elder Uchtdorf’s service gave to other members of the Church—and the courage with which he faced opposition. He remembers vividly the difficult situation that developed when the German government was cracking down on some lesser-known religions. An initial list of “sects” included The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To oppose this serious threat to the work, Church leaders needed the most resolute and reputable German representative they could find to go to Bonn. That was Dieter F. Uchtdorf. His bold, courageous presentation there was so persuasive and articulate and his reputation with Lufthansa so widespread and admired that the German officials giving him audience were somewhat stunned at what they had inadvertently done. They said in effect: “If you are a Latter-day Saint, we do not need any more evidence than that. Your church will certainly not be included on any such list of religions in the future.”
Elder Uchtdorf’s son, Guido, remembers a German phrase his father often used when there was a problem or a difficulty in their lives. “Man könnte sich darüber ärgern, aber man ist nicht verpflichtet dazu,” he would say, which roughly translated means, “You could be upset about it, but you are not obligated to be.” Dieter Uchtdorf feels that with agency and self-control, with the gospel of Jesus Christ and power in the priesthood, no one has to be victimized by circumstance. Terrible things can happen—and they have happened in his life—but with our hand in the hand of God, we can still chart a course that will set us free, that will eventually bring triumph. It requires courage, patience, optimism, and faith in God, but things can come out right if we stay with the task and stay in control.
In the final years of young Brother Uchtdorf’s high-level training as a pilot, he was flying solo with an instructor “on his wing” in another aircraft, directing his maneuvers and giving instruction. In one particular maneuver he was to represent an emergency landing by making an abrupt approach to the runway, requiring a sharp, steep embankment of the airplane before leveling out just in time to land. As young Dieter made the maneuver and attempted his steep, angular descent, the steering control of his airplane did not respond. He had, in airplane parlance, a “stuck stick.” The result would be a continuing roll of the airplane, leading to a crash landing upside down. “Bail out!” the instructor called. “Bail out!” But the man with “the courage of a bull,” as one of his Brethren described him, reversed the stick away from the extremity he had put it in and tried again to land. Once again the mechanism froze. “Bail out,” the stern command came again, this time with genuine concern in the instructor’s voice.
Determined that he be in charge of the aircraft, not the other way around, this future Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ wrestled physically with the steering, somehow breaking it free of the earlier resistance, made his sharp descent as prescribed in what was now not an imagined but very real emergency landing, and walked away grateful for divine help in times of need. “Man könnte sich darüber ärgern, aber man ist nicht verpflichtet dazu.” Such will be Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s determined and faithful service to the holy apostleship he now holds. He will give his all for the Lord Jesus Christ, His gospel, and His Church. In doing so he will lead untold legions of others on to new horizons.