Dieter Friedrich Uchtdorf is the Second Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is frequently misnamed the Mormon Church).
Dieter F. Uchtdorf was born in Mahrisch Ostrau, Czechoslovakia, on November 6, 1940. He was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and was called to be second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. on February 3, 2008.
Dieter’s father, Karl Albert Uchtdorf, was drafted into the German Army during World War II and immediately taken from his wife and small children. Dieter was the youngest in the family and didn’t understand where his father was going, only that his father was taken away from him. Dieter’s mother Hildegard knew then that she would have to care for her family alone during a time when the war in Europe was endangering them at every turn.
With the Allies in the west and Stalin’s forces in the east, Hildegard wanted to get as close as possible to the western front. She took her children and left for Zwickau, Germany. Fortunately, her husband survived the war and joined his family in Zwickau; however, Karl had become a bitter opponent for both the Nazi and Communist regimes. The Nazis were now destroyed, and Stalin now controlled the lives of the Germans as a result of the postwar division of Germany. Karl’s political position put the family’s lives in danger, so for the second time in seven years, the family left everything they owned and, in spite of the danger, made their way to Frankfurt, West Germany.
Dieter remembers this period: “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” (“The Global Church Blessed by the Voice of the Prophets,” Ensign, Nov 2002, p.10).
As a young teenager, Dieter would ride his bicycle to the Frankfurt Airport and gaze at the planes. As he watched the planes and was allowed by the airport staff to look into the cockpit, his love of flying grew. He dreamt of one day feeling the freedom of flying in the skies.
Through the clouds of turmoil that engulfed their lives, still the silver lining shined through. It was while the family was in Zwickau that they found the Mormon Church. “After World War II, 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’ (“The Opportunity to Testify,” Ensign, Nov 2004, p.74).
At the age of 18, Dieter was educated in engineering, followed by six years in the German Air Force. Then, because of a mutual relationship between the German and United States governments, Dieter entered fighter pilot training school in Big Spring, Texas, where he earned wings in the American and German Air Forces. The most considerable achievement at the school for Dieter was winning the coveted Commander’s Trophy, this for being the outstanding student pilot in his class.
Harriet Reich had been four years old and living in Frankfurt near the end of World War II. She remembers a handsome American serviceman who passed her on the street and kindly offered her a stick of gum. She took it tentatively and never forgot the young man’s face and his friendly gesture. Ten years later, two Mormon missionaries knocked on the Reich’s door. Harriet opened the door as her mother forbade the missionaries to enter. Seeing the same kind of look on the face of the missionaries as she did on that of the serviceman, Harriet begged her mother to please let them in.
The missionaries left a copy of the Book of Mormon ( a companion book of scripture to the Bible) with certain passages marked for importance. That night Harriet’s mother read the Book of Mormon. Harriet recalled how her mother’s countenance changed almost immediately. Since the war had ended, Harriet’s mother, newly widowed and the mother of two little girls, was depressed and unhappy. But as her mother read from the Book of Mormon, Harriet saw light return to her eyes. 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 into the Mormon Church four weeks later. “Life changed for us that day. Once again we laughed and ran and found happiness in our home. I owe it all to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” explained Harriet.
It was while attending a youth activity at thirteen years old that Dieter first met Harriet. Dieter recalls, “I always loved her. I fell for her from the very beginning. . . . She was a very beautiful girl. She still is.” It was love at first sight for Dieter, but not for Harriet. It was not until Dieter had completed his military duty and had returned to Germany that she began to appreciate Dieter. They began dating and were married December 14, 1962, in the Swiss Temple. Two children blessed this family–Guido and Antje.
Even with his busy professional schedule and with church callings, Dieter’s first priority was always his family. Antje recalls, “When [dad] 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!” Guido says, “I don’t remember any sermons. I just remember [dad] 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.”
In 1970, at the age of 29, Dieter was made captain with Lufthansa Airlines, a rank he was once told he could never achieve until late in his career. In 1972, he was made manager of the 737 fleet. In 1975, he became director of the pilot training school in Goodyear, Arizona—the principal and most-honored training post offered in the Lufthansa organization. Later his responsibilities would be as chief pilot and head of cockpit crews in 1980, and as senior vice president of flight operations in 1982.
In December of 1973, the president of Lufthansa German Airlines received distressing 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 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.
Fortunately, there was no more bloodshed and the mission was successfully accomplished.
While attending fighter pilot training school in Texas, Dieter helped to build a meetinghouse for the local branch of the Mormon Church. Despite all the awards and promotions he received, he always felt that this was much more significant.
Amidst the changes and responsibilities of his career, Dieter was called to be the president of the Frankfurt Germany Stake and then president of the Mannheim Germany Stake. And then in 1994, he was called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy.
Elder Larsen was an Area President for whom Elder Uchtdorf served as a counselor. 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. . . . 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” (Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf: On to New Horizons”, Ensign, 2005, p.10–15).
A particular situation occurred when the German government was cracking down on some lesser-known religions. Elder Anderson of the Seventy who served with Elder Uchtdorf recalls the situation, “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 Elder 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.'”
In October 2004, Elder Uchtdorf was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He is the first apostle in more than fifty years who was not born in the United States, and the first ever from Germany. He was called to serve as Second Counselor in the First Presidency on February 3, 2008.