Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Radio Tubes

Radio Tubes

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 18, 2014

Before there were itty bitty chips inside wafer-thin iPods and cellphones, there were transistors inside hand-held radios and portable televisions – gadgets that seem like bricks today, but which were masterpieces of miniaturization in the 1960s and ’70s. Before transistors, electronics were controlled by multiple glass-and-metal vacuum tubes of various shapes and sizes. These tubes burned out with use and had to be replaced. One bad tube might mean a loss of volume and some scratchiness; a second bad tube might mean severe static; additional failed tubes meant progressively poor reception, until the radio failed entirely.

That’s necessary back ground for a story told frequently by Harold B. Lee. One version of the story, from which I pull excerpts for this post, is found here.

“Some years ago when I served as a stake president,” President Lee said, “we had a very grievous case that had to come before the high council and the stake presidency and that resulted in the excommunication of a man who had harmed a lovely young girl. After a nearly all-night session of the council that had taken that action, I went to my office rather wearily the next morning to be confronted by a brother to this man whom we had had on trial the night before. This man said, “I want to tell you that my brother wasn’t guilty of that thing which you charged him with.”

“How do you know he wasn’t guilty?” I asked.

“Because I prayed, and the Lord told me he was innocent,” the man answered.

I invited him to come into the office, and we sat down. I asked, “Would you mind if I ask you a few personal questions?” and he replied, “Certainly not.”

President Lee asked the man a series of questions: Did he keep the Word of Wisdom? Did he pay his tithing? Did he attend priesthood meeting? Did he hold family prayer? Did he study the scriptures?

“No, sir,” was the answer to one question after another.

President Lee continued, “In my home I have a beautiful instrument called a radio. When everything is in good working order, we can dial it to a certain station and pick up a speaker or the voice of a singer all the way across the continent or sometimes on the other side of the world, bringing them into the front room as though they were standing right there. But after we have used it for a long time, there are some little delicate instruments or electrical devices on the inside called radio tubes that begin to wear out. When one of them wears out, we get a kind of a static—it isn’t so clear. Another wears out and if we don’t give it attention it fades in and out just when we are about to hear who makes the winning touchdown. If we don’t give that attention and another one wears out—well, the radio sits there looking quite like it did before, but something has happened on the inside. We don’t hear. We can’t get any singer; we can’t get any speaker.

He went on to say that there was something analogous in the soul – a “Go-to-Sacrament-Meeting” tube, a “Pay-your-tithing” tube, and so on.

If one of these becomes worn-out by disuse or is not active—if we fail to keep the commandments of God—it has the same effect upon our spiritual selves that that same worn-out tube in the radio in my home has upon the reception we otherwise could receive …

“Now, then,” I said, “fifteen of the best-living men in the stake prayed last night. They heard the evidence, and every man was united in saying that your brother was guilty. Now you who do none of these things, you say you prayed, and you got an opposite answer. How would you explain that?”

And then this man gave an answer that I think was a classic. He said, “Well, President Lee, I think I must have gotten my answer from the wrong source.”

This was a story I heard a number of times in my childhood and youth, when President Lee was first an apostle and then president of the Church. President Lee’s was a favorite name in my extended family, since he had been the beloved long-term stake president of my mother’s childhood stake. Like many other members of that stake, my mother had been very happy when he was sustained as president, and like many she was shocked when he passed away after such a short term.

We don’t hear this story as often as we used to, probably both because President Lee’s administration was so brief and so long ago, and also because, well, who responds to an object lesson about radio tubes anymore? But it was very familiar to Church members at one time, as familiar as President Monson’s widows.

Almost as familiar to me, that is, as some of my mother’s stories about her life in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. I liked to look at her photo album from those years – she was a photographic specialist, and her album was more extensive and more exciting than most people’s. It included a series of pictures of my mother with her little sister, a girl in her late teens, wearing pilots’ jackets, posing in the cockpit of a small airplane. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder why Aunt J— was there, in Texas, far away from her Salt Lake home.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” my mother started, and then stopped. I held my breath, hoping she would go on.

“Your Aunt J— wouldn’t like me telling you this … Oh, well. J— needed to get away from home for a while, to clear her mind and see new things. I arranged with my commanding officer to let her come and stay with me on the base for a week or so. She lived in the barracks and went with me to work every day.”

That was a surprise. I can’t imagine that happening on a military installation today. But that was not nearly as surprising as what came next.

“You know that story President Lee tells about the man whose brother was excommunicated? The man who admitted that when his inspiration differed from President Lee’s, it was because his radio tubes were burning out, so he got a garbled signal?

“Well, that happened when he was our stake president. J— had become involved with a man who had convinced her that she should become his polygamous wife. When our mother found out about it, the man was excommunicated, and J— came to stay with me to help her get her feet back on the ground.”

That’s the only time I ever heard that story. I have no documentary evidence to support it. But my mother – whose stories, usually oft-told, never varied from telling to telling – has proven time and time again to have been an uncannily accurate reporter, so I believe it.

Image courtesy of W5GW & the Mountain City, Texas Observatory.



  1. Great story, Ardis. Reminds me of a similar incident in Hugh B. Brown’s family.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 18, 2014 @ 7:53 am

  2. Simply amazing connection! I remember hearing the story when Pres. Lee told it, I suppose in Conference. But I never expected to know anybody who knew someone who was involved in the story.

    On another point–some of us do remember Pres. Lee. He signed my mission call, and his death, just six weeks after I arrived in Japan, a very foreign place where everyone spoke what was to me an unknown tongue, was a huge shock.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2014 @ 8:09 am

  3. Wow. It took me a minute to realize what you weren’t saying. I guess my current day job project is beginning to take its toll. But very cool. I’m pretty sure that for confidentiality reasons, the Church would not be forthcoming with any kind of confirmation.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 18, 2014 @ 11:05 am

  4. Wow! Absolutely WOW! I will remember this story in the future with additional appreciation.

    Comment by David R — June 18, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

  5. In my personal and non-professional historian opinion, a story like that, with a photo, a back story, and a reason to keep it private, is more believable that that stories that have been told so many times that there are now multiple versions within the family.

    On another note, Ralph remembers that Harold B. Lee was confusing to many primary children in Baton Rouge, LA. Harold B? Robert E? Huh?

    Comment by LauraN — June 18, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  6. I don’t have anything to add, but Keepa doesn’t have a “like” button, so I must actually type a comment. Facebook has made me so lazy.

    Comment by The Other Clark — June 18, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

  7. I could add a Like button, and I suppose that would sometimes draw more response, but I resist adding one. You can’t know how much it means to me to know which individual readers enjoyed something and cared enough to leave a comment. A tally of anonymous “likes” can’t equal that. Thanks, TOClark.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 18, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

  8. One more like.

    Comment by Carol — June 18, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

  9. No, wait. With these rules I can say:

    1000 more likes.

    Comment by Carol — June 18, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

  10. It is incredible how a personal touch to a oft told story can make it so many times more influential.Thank you and several “likes.”

    Comment by Maurine — June 19, 2014 @ 1:37 am

  11. I’d add more likes, but I’m pretty sure I embarrassed you enough when I was bounding with excitement getting to talk to you. I tend to spend the day afterward going to anyone who will listen “I got to meet Ardis Parshall!”

    Comment by Frank Pellett — June 19, 2014 @ 9:51 am

  12. Oh, fer cryin’ out loud, Frank! You’re my kind of nut! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 19, 2014 @ 10:03 am

  13. I don’t know how far the whole situation went, but I feel like J probably deserved more than a week away.

    Comment by LauraN — June 19, 2014 @ 10:37 am

  14. Thank you for sharing this part of the story Ardis. A side note, I remember going with my father when I was very young to the local drug store to use a large machine to test tubes from our old tv to determine if they had gone bad. Now my kids watch tv on phones and tablets that are smaller than and weigh less than those old tubes did. My how things have changed.

    Comment by andrew h — June 20, 2014 @ 12:23 am

  15. I just learned that my Aunt J– passed away, at age 88, the day before this was posted. She was a grand and good lady.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 21, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

  16. I wish Aunt J great happiness in her next adventure.

    Comment by LauraN — June 22, 2014 @ 8:53 am

  17. Thanks, LauraN. I’m a little envious of her — she must have seen my mother by now.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 22, 2014 @ 9:56 am

  18. Another great example of Keepa and Auntie Ardis at their best.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — June 25, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

  19. as familiar as President Monson’s widows.

    I had to look at that twice. Been on travel and wondered if I had missed some big news …

    Comment by Vader — July 16, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

  20. This particular possessive may be unique to President Monson!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

  21. I too have fond memories of pulling the tubes out of radios and TVs and going with my dad to plug them into the tube tester to find out which one was bad.

    I don’t remember Pres. Lee much, but I’m thankful that he taught and baptized my great-grandparents as a young missionary in Colorado.

    Comment by lindberg — July 17, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  22. That is an extremely powerful twist. This is sort of like a gospel version of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story,” which I always loved. That could be a cool feature! This is a wonderful story, though. Thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by Braden — July 20, 2014 @ 12:42 pm