In memoriam: Jon D. Tate, 1937-2016
A sad but not unexpected bit of news: Jon D. Tate, my former bishop and longtime friend and mentor, passed away this past Friday morning, June 3, at his home in Nampa, Idaho, four weeks after his 79th birthday. (As a sidenote, he was born on the day the dirigible Hindenburg exploded and crashed, and he left the world on the same day as Muhammad Ali.) I have been thinking about him and about his family ever since learning of his passing, and I put their names on the prayer roll when I attended the Mesa Temple the following day. His funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, June 8, and while I will not be able to attend it in person, I will most certainly be present in spirit. I plan to wear my Sunday best that day, including a black tie purchased specifically for the occasion. Although purely symbolic, owing to the circumstances, this is a gesture that he surely would appreciate.
Jon Douglas Tate was the first bishop I had after joining the LDS Church, and he was also, without question, the most influential bishop I have ever had. One of the great blessings of my life is that I have always been attracted to individuals who appealed to my nobler instincts and made me want to be, or become, my best self; and on that list, which has grown to be lengthy and impressive over the years, he has always ranked very high indeed. He and his family joined the Church only about three years before I did, but by March of 1970, when I was baptized, he was serving as president of our branch in Greenville, Mississippi. At just about exactly that same time, the Greenville Branch became a ward, and he continued serving as its bishop. He was released on December 1, 1974, about five weeks after I returned home from my mission. In later years he served in a number of other callings, although to my knowledge he was never again called to serve as a bishop. But to me he always has been, and always will be, Bishop Tate. I have never felt comfortable addressing or referring to him in any other way.
Bishop Tate was born a few years too late to be a member of the Greatest Generation, but in every other respect he was entirely worthy to have been one of them. He was unabashedly patriotic during an era when old-fashioned patriotism had mostly gone out of fashion, and he took justifiable pride in his military service, which included three years with the Mississippi National Guard and two more on active duty as an NCO with the storied 82nd Airborne Division. In later life, and while serving as bishop, he still carried the persona of the Army sergeant he once was. Fortunately, he never had to serve in combat, but I have often reflected that if I had ever had to go to war, I would have wanted to serve under someone like him. My respect and affection for Bishop Tate were accompanied by the merest touch of fear, just enough to ensure that I would never step too far out of line if I knew he was going to be aware of my doings -- or misdeeds, as the case might be.
As bishop, and throughout his life afterward, he was always rightly thought of as a gospel scholar, but he was first and foremost a man of action. We are told in scripture that Christ "went about doing good," and Bishop Tate always followed the Savior's example, often in ways that went unnoticed and unheralded by others. He and his wife were both exceptionally good to me, and today I shudder in shame and embarrassment when I consider how thoughtless and inconsiderate I, in return, was at times to them. I was still quite young then, cursed with a personality that was as aggravating and annoying as it was unusual, and in particular, I was appallingly naïve, inept, and ignorant where interpersonal relationships were concerned. I also battled with some terrible insecurities, which were largely the result of the way I was raised. All of this was obvious to the Tates, but they took me in anyway. During the summers of 1971 and 1972 I lived with and worked for Bishop Tate, who throughout his career was self-employed as an agricultural consultant, and more specifically as an entomologist. I spent that first summer trying to save some money for college, and during the second I was saving for my mission. Hiring me for those two summers was a purely unselfish act on his part, as I know beyond question that I was far from ideal for the job. I was a city boy, through and through, scrawny and underweight and with bad eyesight, in addition to which I have always suffered from chronic attention-deficit disorder. He tolerated my shortcomings anyway, apparently far more concerned about helping me develop my character and sense of self-respect than he was about my ability to pick up on the initial, subtle signs of boll-weevil infestation. Bishop Tate clearly did not succeed in turning me into a country boy -- but then, he wasn't trying to; but to this day I consider those two summers in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to be among the best experiences of my life.
After returning home from my mission in October, 1974 -- the Tates, by the way, had helped to finance it -- I stayed in Greenville for a short time and moved to Utah early the next year. I wish I had done a better job of keeping in touch with Bishop Tate and his wife, and I can safely assume that anyone reading this can make a similar observation about someone who was likewise important in that reader's life. But I take comfort in the knowledge that he and I did maintain at least sporadic contact over the years, and never completely disappeared from each other's radar screen. Through the 1970s and 1980s I managed to write at least once or twice a year, especially at Christmas, so he was always generally aware of what was going on in my life. There were occasional phone conversations as well. Several times he came to Utah on business and made it a point to try to contact me, and more often than not he was successful. One particularly memorable occasion was during the fall of 1979, when I was taking a year off before law school and living in Provo with roommates. That night, a few minutes after I had gone to bed, there was a knock on my bedroom door, accompanied by a voice I did not immediately recognize; but when I opened the door, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see a grinning Bishop Tate on the other side of it. We had a nice chat for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. In more recent years we have occasionally exchanged e-mail messages, the last such exchange having taken place only a couple of months ago. He seemed pleased that I was still active in the Church after so many years, and I hope he had long since concluded that his rather substantial investment in me had proven to be worth it, my frequent aggravations notwithstanding.
The last time I saw Bishop Tate face-to-face was when I attended my 25-year high school class reunion in Mississippi in July of 1996. During the three days I was there, I stayed with the Tates at their home in Indianola, a familiar place to me because I had lived with them in that house during those two summers in the early 1970s. I attended church with them at the Greenville Ward that Sunday. Bishop Tate had recently suffered a heart attack and undergone bypass surgery, and during my visit he said he thought our next meeting would probably take place in the spirit world. This has indeed proven to be the case, but I don't think he expected to live another 20 years, or even anywhere close to that. He put the bonus time to good use, however. Through our intermittent contact since then, I learned that he and Sister Tate later sold the house and moved to Orlando, Florida, where they served either as missionaries or temple workers -- I don't remember which, but as they are different aspects of the same work, I don't suppose it really makes much difference. Either way, he followed the example of the Savior by going about doing good, as he had done for so many years before that. Eventually the Tates moved yet again, this time to Idaho, which proved to be the last stop in his long journey. (I would occasionally smile when I thought of what a huge contrast this must have presented to them, especially during the winter months, after all those years of living and working in the Mississippi Delta.)
Not long ago I remarked to a very dear friend that the most comforting words to a Latter-day Saint are perhaps "Thou hast been faithful," which appear several times in the Standard Works of the Church. I'm sure Bishop Tate has heard them a few times by now as he starts to become accustomed to this new phase of his existence. I never knew a man with a better heart, but he was also a no-nonsense type who could be blunt and forceful when he thought he needed to be, and as an unfortunate result of this, he was often misunderstood and unappreciated by the people he most sought to help. In that regard at least, he deserved far better than he received in this life, but I rather suspect that this deficiency is now being made up for in a big way. If I had been present with him during his final hours, I would have read to him this passage from the Book of Ether, one of my own favorites, and from which Hyrum Smith took such comfort at Carthage Jail:
"And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father."
Few individuals have ever had as much impact in my life as did he, and I hope he will be among those who greet me someday when my own turn comes to enter the world of spirits. As noted above, I wish I had done a better job of keeping in touch with him here on earth; but thanks for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, I know I can look forward to the time when he and I will at last be able to catch up on each other, no longer burdened by the limitations of our mortal bodies and the hassles and distractions that accompany so much of our existence in this life. Today, however, in a spirit of both sadness and gratitude, I say farewell to Bishop Tate, although Lowell Thomas's trademark radio sign-off might be more appropriate: "So long for now." His online obituary may be read here.