An Interview with Serge Lauper

August 23, 1989 San Francisco, California
by Julie Lauper and Karen Danielson
edited by David Peterson

I'm expected to tell a little about myself as the oldest of a family of 10. I can recall as a youngster when a new baby was born. I used to think that we had enough. It was none too many that we had, but it seemed we had enough already. [However,] there were new babies [that continued to come] until my youngest brother Ralph was born, and I always thought it was kind of cute that he made the statement one time that he was my "distant relative".

Some of the things that occurred about Ralph's birth might be of interest at this point because, not only was he the last, but my mother was very ill right after and even before he was born. In fact, they said she had cancer and she would not live. There was a gathering of relatives at the hospital where she was and the word was not to let her know about it, but she managed to find out. It was of interest to me that the bed next to her was taken by a girl of 19 who had had an appendix operation. The two doctors and this girl were all gone within two years: the young woman didn't come out of it very well and she died, and my recollection is that one doctor was killed in an automobile accident and the other doctor died of influenza, which was so prevalent and so worldwide and so devastating in 1918. But my mother [was different], even though after operating and sewing her back up, they said they couldn't do anything. She had cancer, but she said, no, she was not going to die, she was going to live and raise her children. She had that faith and she grew right and they were absolutely wrong.

However, Ralph was "loaned out" or "given up" for the time being, and he went to a family who already had a number of children, in the little community we lived in at Penrose. He was there for, I don't know, it seemed like 9 or 10 months. And the day came that my mother came back from the hospital and gradually began to get better. The day came when she and the rest of the family decided that we must have our baby back and I was assigned to get the baby. I'd be about 15 or 16 years of age, something like that. So I drove our buggy about 2 miles to this place, the little one-horse buggy, one seat and all, and I went alone. I'll never forget this that this family were aware of my coming and were all there in mourning, so to speak, for such a thing as losing their baby, because they had grown so attached to Ralph. I can visualize the experience, yet, of the family, every one of them walking out to the carriage with me, carrying the baby, and even the father was in tears as I put Ralph alongside me in the one-seated buggy and drove home.

Serge & Jean, 1976
Serge & Jean, 1976

That was one of the reasons, I think, that I have never quite had the confidence in doctors that some people have; that plus an experience of my own wife, Jean, where she had four different doctors that gave her different diagnoses and, in each case, why they didn't agree. I told my doctors regularly that I only believed half of what they said, that I knew more about myself than they did and so on. That's a kind of a braggadocio attitude on my part, I suppose, but I have had the feeling that the word "practice", when a doctor sets up a business, is very applicable. He really does just "practice", practices on each one because we're all so different, none of us are the same and they know so little really, compared to what the human body is made up of. It's such a fantastic thing that makes up the individual.

Well, as Julie has suggested, I was to tell a little about our early farm life. From the beginning we learned to work pretty hard and I never regretted that we learned work habits early. [phone rings] As I started to say before I was interrupted, Julie's asked me to tell a little bit about our early farm life, and we grew up on a farm, but we were moving all the time. Some people can't understand it, and I can hardly believe it myself when I tell my girls that we moved nine times in the first 16 years of my life. That is one reason why I suppose I have never moved since I moved into San Francisco and bought my house here. I have been here in the same place for 52 years.

We worked on different farms and different places and, as I mentioned, moved and moved, and I, in spite of it, did not feel bad about a farm. I think that if I had had a chance and a decent grounds or any place that would really have been a place to build up, I would have remained as a farmer all my life because I like to work with horses. And later, maybe I could have acquired some information and knowledge about tractors and all. But the places that we had were not the best. We had a dry farm for one period, and, during the time that I mentioned when Ralph was born, we lived on a 160 acres of hilly side and very little of it was cultivated. It was a place that we lived in for, I guess, about four years.

We had to haul our water to feed the chickens and to take our baths. We'd lined up once a week, Saturday nights. I, being the oldest, lucked out and got the first water and they would use the same water for the subsequent children. Then we'd save the water and feed that to the chickens and the pigs. The cows and the horses we drove down to the canal about 3/4 of a mile to give them water, but this business of hauling water in the summer when it was hot [was tiresome]. We had drinking water in separate barrels from the water we used for [other chores] that we got from the canal. The drinking water had to come from a place maybe 1-1/2 miles away, but it would be warm in the summer and freezing in the barrels in the winter. I have a conviction now that nothing that I can tell my girls or my grandchildren could make them understand or believe that I think the most remarkable, wonderful, luxurious thing of all is to have hot and cold water on the wall. That's something that people do not understand if they've never had the experience of hauling water. And it bothers me a great deal if I watch somebody take and turn on a tap and just let the water run and not use it, to just let it waste as I call it. I suppose that could be explained by this matter of hauling water.

About 1918, we left the dry farm and traded that in on a down payment for a place in Sugarville that was about 10 miles out of Delta, Utah, the nearest town. It's just a wide place in the road. (Our dry farm, in what was termed Penrose, had been about five miles out of Tremonton, the nearest big town, where we did our shopping.) [At] Sugarville, we lived in a place that had 80 acres of ground that had all the prospects of growing alfalfa and sugar beets. They had recently put in an extensive drainage system, no, not drainage, but an irrigation system into that area so that all the fields were crossed with water ditches to be able to water the crops. But in no time at all after we got there we found that there was a real problem with that whole irrigation project because there was a hard pan underneath the soil and water would only go down so far. Then it would build up and eventually, where we irrigated, you'd have an excess of water coming to the top, bringing with it salt. So the whole place would become alkaline and destroy the crops. I can still see the roots from alfalfa that would pop off at the bottom after a frost when the water had been too close to the top and it would freeze and pop the roots. The alfalfa crowns would be all over the fields above the ground maybe one or two inches. And the sugar beets would die out after the salt would come into them.

[Consequently,] they began an extensive drainage project which I worked on for two years, and it reclaimed large sections of [the irrigated land]. Unfortunately, our particular field was on the periphery, or [too far from] the center of the drainage project. They could not lower the tile line deep enough -- they ran tile line through our fields about four feet down but to get an adequate drainage, you had to go down at least six foot. So it was a disaster for our particular place: we could not get the full utility of those drainage ditches. Well, they were not actually drainage ditches, they were tiles that were run all through the valley, starting out with ones as small as five inches, then they'd go to six inch, seven, and eight inch drainage, draining from the lower tile to the bigger lines and then finally with water being syphoned off into the big open canals that would be some 30-foot across.

I worked, like I said, on that project for a couple of years. It was my introduction, really, to the world outside. I found out from talking to some of these men who were from everywhere (they followed construction work wherever it led them) that there were ways of making a living and different things that could be done [besides] farming. I guess that that was something that I had not really thought about, about leaving the farm, but from that time on I began to think about it. Both my [younger] brothers Ivan and John had some experience in being away from home, but I had never left home, staying on to help the family while these two boys had left. (While away in the Tremonton area where we had once lived, John had a terrible accident [in 1924]. He was kicked by a horse, and father had to go and bring him home as a corpse, after he had died in a hospital some miles away.) But before that, I had considered that our place [farm] was not going to make it and didn't have any prospects of paying off. So, just after I had left my teens, Ivan and two neighbor boys and I drove into Los Angeles on New Year's Day [1922]. We were going to make our fortune in Los Angeles.

I don't know how much I should mention about that [starting in Los Angeles] - I think that it's been told by Ivan and probably in some of the other things I've told - but I could say that it was while I was there that I met many new experiences while working at a construction company. The company was building roads, they were paving contractors in Los Angeles, and I was busy with them for some 3-1/2 years. Then I became really shook up when I received a letter from Heber J. Grant, President of the Church, calling me to the Southern States to go on a mission. I didn't even have my [temple] recommend in Los Angeles and I was not too ardent a church member. I was actually busy making what I thought would be money, I had big plans for making some money. I was sending some money home all the time because I knew that my mother and the family needed it. I was very sure that a little bit would help them some and I kept doing that. I later found out that [this money] was one of the reasons why I was given a call for a mission the way I was, without any interview, without any intimation at all that I wanted to be a missionary. [It turned out] that my mother had made the judgment that I was not paying my tithing (which was true), so she paid it all, or practically all of it, to the Bishop in the Sugarville Ward where our family lived. Consequently, I had a very, very good tithing record. On the strength of that, the Bishop sent my name in!

I was called by President Grant, as I indicated, to serve as a missionary, but I did not want to go. However, I found that the letter said that I was to respond within two weeks to give my feelings about it. I didn't do anything about it for 13 days and I couldn't sleep and couldn't eat and just couldn't get the thing out of my mind, although I was sure that it was a mistake and not anything that should be done. My brother Ivan had come down there again with me after he'd been back home for a while. (I had never gone back during my three-and-a-half years away.) He suggested and encouraged me to go. Finally I came to the conclusion that if I was to build my mother the finest home in Beverly Hills, it wouldn't mean a thing if I didn't go on this mission. So I decided I'd go and accept it and sent word. [I was then told] I had about five or six weeks to report to Salt Lake. They threw me a big party when they found out that I was leaving from my Matthew's Ward. Although I had not been a busy attender at church, I had a pretty good record in the Mutual and had become known a little bit for my public speaking and debating by some of the others in the MIA classes. They gave me a another party when I got to Sugarville. All the time I was sure in my own mind that this whole thing was a mistake, that I was not ready to go and I shouldn't go.

When I got to Salt Lake and I was in the second group, I think, of all the missionaries that were being sent out, that had any kind of a preliminary training. They had just started what they called the Missionary Home in Salt Lake City. It was on the same block as the Beehive House and some of the other Church office buildings. (It was later torn down.) We had a week there. It consisted mainly of getting a few pointers on how to act socially, how to use your knife and fork and how to dress yourself. [They did this] because they used to just call missionaries out of the ward and some of them had no experience of being away from home at all.

I found that I was with a mixture of youngsters. There was only one man older than I was. (I was 24.) He had some fingers missing off of the one hand and he had a hair-lip and was bald-headed. and I thought he was a very poor specimen of a missionary, but I later found out [differently] because he was sent down to the Southern States where I was being sent. (We were together in Mississippi.) This young man, who was in his thirties, had always wanted to go on a mission and he was really and truly a man of faith and religious conviction. Whenever there were any problems, a mother with her daughter or a husband and wife or any problems at all, why they didn't send for me, they sent for Elder Crawford. It was quite an education for me on that score.

I fulfilled my mission by serving in three states. I started out in Tennessee for a short time. [It was there I began] my experience with [mission president] Charles A. Callis, which was the saving point of my life. He understood me and pressed all the right buttons, as far as I was concerned. I had only been in his presence a very short time when I came to know that he knew and understood. [Once I realized that,] I was willing to do what he said. He told me he was first going to put me in charge of a Tennessee group. Later on I was transferred to Mississippi where I was put in charge of an average of about 40 Elders for a year. Then I was transferred to Florida where I had about 50 Elders and I served as what they termed District President in both cases.

Serge & Winifred, 1978
Serge & Winifred, 1978

My experiences with Charles A. Callis were very close and very intimate because he liked the Florida districts especially. He had served there as a missionary some 20 years before and he actually served as a mission president some 27 years. Later, when he was released from his mission, he was called to be one of the Council of the Twelve. Later on in my life I had the experience of having him, as a General Authority, in my home here in San Francisco. As a Bishop, I also visited with him in Salt Lake and as one of his visiting companions, we toured the temple, just the two of us. He explained where his seat was and took me into special places like the little room where James E. Talmage spent the hours and the days when he wrote the book, Jesus the Christ. Our association was very, very satisfactory.

My church work has continued since the time I was called on a mission. When I returned, I took a job with a company in Los Angeles and, after some starts and stops with some other firms, I was sent up into Oregon. I was there only one year and then I came to Oakland where I was subsequently called as the Bishop for five years. Then I moved to San Francisco and served as a Bishop over here for another five years. Later I was called to be a counselor in the Stake Presidency. I served as a counselor under two presidents, five years each, and then later as the president of the stake for seven years, so I just continued on. When I was finally released from that assignment, they called me as Patriarch, which I have been ever since.

Now in my 88th year, I think I've been very, very fortunate and very, very blessed in many, many ways. I've had some experiences that have proved to me that I should be more than grateful because as I say, I've got the best of life: I've been given more than I've been able to give. I have four wonderful daughters, 21 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. I wonder why it's sounding as it is, but in summing it up I think that the most serious and heartbreaking experience I had in my life was when my wife Jean died [in 1977]. I was sure I would go before she did. Her mother lived with us the last three years of her life and was over a hundred when she died, and I thought Jean would [similarly] outlive me. I made that kind of arrangements on my retirement because I was sure that she would need something to help her.

You never know what's going to happen and it's now 11 years since I was remarried to Winifred, something I told Jean I never would do. We have had some very good years. She's had some periods of bad health, which has been very regretful, but I can say with certainty that it's been my good fortune to have had two very, very good women for companions. I'm sealed to two women. (Julie asked me if I'm sealed to Winifred in the plan of the church.) A man can marry more than one wife in the temple, or be sealed to more than one wife in the temple, so I'm sealed to both women. I am, in effect, a polygamist, and I don't attempt to try to explain all of that, but my wife Winifred, as such, says she wants full rights on me every Thursday!


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