One of my life’s greatest experiences began with a small enough request.
Bing came home late one Wednesday night in 1991 after his weekly stake presidency meeting, saying President McGregor wanted to talk with me. Eddie Kawai had just passed away, and President McGregor was mourning the loss of yet-another stake pioneer whose personal stories now would go uncaptured for stake historical purposes. As he expressed his wish to have someone interview other senior stake leaders before it was too late, Bing volunteered, “Oh, you should talk with Susie – she knows something about oral histories.”
That was a bit of a stretch. What I knew was that my father in the 1970s was the chairman of the Cal State Fullerton Japanese American Oral History Project, which published interviews with pioneers of the Orange County Japanese American community. My grandmother, Shizu Kamei, was one of the interviewees. In the days before Apple multi-lingual keyboards, it was quite a feat to interview, record, transcribe, translate, and then publish in Japanese and English the interviews of these elderly Issei. I was present when my grandmother was interviewed and otherwise helped my dad with various parts of this project, so I got the gist. But certainly I was no expert oral historian, nor historian of any kind.
I asked President what he wanted to do with the oral histories – what should I be asking? At first, his priority was just to get what we could get. He strongly felt the urgency to just start. As I started making the rounds of the “Senior Saints,” I also found myself collecting oddball records; a program here, a photograph there. I went back to President McGregor.
The oral histories need context, I remember discussing with him. Then he shared what he really hoped for: a comprehensive history of the stake, modeled after the one published in 1987 by the Los Angeles Stake. And so over the next 18 months, the oral history project became the stake history project. I worked on it while Akemi, a baby, napped and after she went to bed in the evenings. It took over the gaps between teaching real estate development at USC and teaching piano lessons in the afternoons.
The stake history project grew and grew, evolved, and took shape into chapters devoted to eras defined by each stake president. I pored over microfilm records requested from Salt Lake, sifted through ward and stake file cabinets, and made the rounds of the wards, inviting more interviews. Whenever someone cleaned out a closet, looked under a bed, and otherwise discovered scrapbooks or a box of memorabilia, the watchword became “give it to Sister Leung.” By the time the 90+ page manuscript “wrapped,” I had 14 boxes of indexed documents and photos in our garage and odd corners of our small house, with many more filled with treasures such as a hand-embroidered Relief Society tablecloth. I had become a self-taught historian and archivist.
Around the 18-month mark, the stake presidency and I shifted our attention to turning this manuscript into a book, affordable to produce, yet worthy of being a keepsake. Jeff and Jana Parkin became integral to the success of what became the beautifully produced How Firm a Foundation: The Story of the Pasadena Stake. Over the second 18-month period, we edited and re-edited every word, agonized over every photo selection and graphic element, and prayed over virtually every production decision. Akemi, now a toddler, was growing up in the Parkin home, with fellow toddler Josh and Schubert, the Parkins’ Sheltie.
On parallel track were plans for a stake reunion timed for the release of the book. For lots of reasons, the stake presidency decided upon the stake conference weekend of October 15-16, 1994. When our former stake president, Howard W. Hunter, became the prophet that June, many things started to fall into place. He faxed his foreword to the book. His health improved and he indicated he would be delighted to attend our reunion stake conference. He gave his approval for two other former stake presidents then serving as a temple president and as a General Authority to leave their districts to attend. While the Parkins and I raced around the clock to get the galley to the printer, a veritable army swung into action for the conference weekend preparations. After a briefing by the Church security detail, President McGregor and I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
All of our former stake presidents, their wives, and nearly 2,000 stake members, alumni, and friends gathered on that picture-perfect fall weekend. I will never forget the way everyone stood and fell into a reverent hush as President Hunter in his wheelchair entered the cultural hall at the start of the Saturday evening session. As the stake choir sang the opening “Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise,” I saw each of our former stake presidents sit up tall on the stand, each of them so happy and proud to be looking out over their stake congregation again. The long look President McGregor and I shared during that joyous opening hymn will remain one of the happiest moments of my life.
I can’t begin to recount the many heaven-on-earth aspects of that weekend. I learned that the veil is very thin. Angels sang with us, and even the air had a glow and a heaviness, thick with the spirit. Jack McEwan, then president of the Los Angeles Temple and of our Pasadena Stake diaspora, took me aside to say how I will never know the extent of eternal blessings brought about by the book and that weekend – they will just “ripple forward like a pebble on the water,” he said.Seventeen years later, that pebble is still rippling. Yesterday, our stake celebrated its 75th anniversary and the rededication of our stake center, built by President Hunter, significantly renovated over the past three years. As we prepared ambitious open house plans, many told me they had gotten the stake history off the shelf, and marveled at it again. As I was writing it, I very much felt that I was just the available imperfect instrument of the Lord’s powerful will. Reviewing it again to prepare my talk in the rededication ceremony, I felt even more humbled that it all came to pass and remain even more convinced that it was not about me.
Waiting on the stand, I knew another heavenly gallery was witnessing the rededication. Angels sang with us again, this time during “The Spirit of God’ with the Hosanna anthem. Doctrine and Covenants 64:33: “And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”