Growing up in the seaport city of Tacoma, Wash., Bill Upton remembers digging for clams, playing in the water, and falling asleep to the sound of lapping waves.
Decades and several moves later, Upton, 67, now lives in Stansbury Park. To this day, he still loves the sea.
“I love the ocean,” he said. “It’s consistent. There’s something therapeutic about the waves. To me, it’s beautiful.”
This love is evident in how Upton, the pastor of the First Assembly of God Church in Tooele, has decorated his office. On the shelf, there’s a compass and miniature sailboat. A wood ship’s wheel, about 3 feet wide, hangs on the wall. A lighthouse hook holds up a lighthouse-themed calendar.
The lighthouse is a fitting analogy for a man who has spent the last 25 years of his life guiding others to spiritual safety. As Tooele City chaplain, he also brings light where there’s darkness and despair.
Upton, an imposing man with a direct gaze and warm smile, finds joy in simple things. In his office, a non-working theatrical light stands in the corner because, as he explained, “There’s always drama in the pastor’s office.” When asked if he has a favorite book he’d like to use as a prop for photos, he quips, “I only use one book.”
His chaplain work came about after 9/11. “(The First Assembly congregation) felt like the nation was really hurting and we wanted to minister to that,” he said.
First, it gave shirts to the Tooele City firefighters. Then, Lewis Franco, its youth pastor, put together a video of images from the terrorist attack, of the two planes crashing into the twin towers. Of firemen going in and never coming out.
Thirteen years have since passed, but the memory of the intensely poignant video still elicits strong feelings in Upton. He paused to collect himself before speaking again during his interview with the Transcript.
“I joined the Navy at 17, so I guess it just stuck with me,” he said. “I don’t know if catharsis is a good word. It was appropriate for us to do something for (policemen and firefighters). We think about the police department when we’re speeding. Other than that, we don’t think about them. 9/11 reminded people of those who serve, protect and pay the ultimate price.”
After 9/11, he and a few other religious leaders in Tooele County offered their services to the county and city police forces. Since then, Upton has been the Tooele City chaplain.
As chaplain, he’s on call 24/7 to notify a family of a loved one’s death, or to provide support, whether it’s through a bottle of water, holding their hand, or letting them cry. Each call is different, but invariably, his job is to “go and let people know their loved one wouldn’t be coming home.”
“The first call I went on was to the family of a motorcyclist killed very close to his home,” he said. “The parents knew about it even before we got to their home (to give them the news).”
Once, he was called by the Sheriff’s office to go calm someone down. “You never know if something funny will happen (at police situations).” Another time, the highway patrol called him in to help support a family with a traffic death. When asked if some visits are easier than others, Upton said, “There aren’t easy ones.”
He said suicides of children are particularly difficult. “Parents ask, ‘What could I have done? What could I have done different?’ Sometimes, there are no signs.”
“You’re always reminded that life is so precious,” he said. “The ones left behind are suffering and carrying the weight. People handle [grief] differently. Some have automatic support systems. Some are alone. They go through stages. First anger, then bargaining. They ask, ‘God, can we reverse this?’ or they tell themselves, ‘If only I could go back.’”
Upton considers his chaplain work important, but downplays his role. “The reality is, I go out only when I’m called out,” he said. “The officers go out every day. Officers are therapists, judges and counselors. They do incredible work. It’s a great honor for me to be affiliated with them.”
Working with law enforcement was a natural progression for a boy who grew up with earlier generations of military men.
“My father was a World War II vet,” he said. “My grandfather, World War I. There were military people in my family. I just thought I would go to school, go into the military, then go on with my life.”
In 1962, his parents moved to Utah when his father got a job at the Tooele Army Depot. One day during his senior year at Cyprus High School in Magna, he skipped class and went to a Navy recruiter.
The recruiter said, “You know, if you graduate, I’ll give you a better deal.” So Upton stayed in school and graduated at the age of 17. For the next three years, he worked on a Navy ship and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. At 21, he got out of the Navy and started college in Price.
One day, while driving at Soldier Summit, the car he was driving spun out of control, slamming his body against the steering wheel. Bleeding internally from a broken clavicle, detached ribs and a contused heart, he nearly died that day. He said it was one of the major turning points in his life. Slowly but surely, he healed both in body and spirit.
Afterwards, he worked for a year at the Tooele Army Depot as an operation technician. Along the way, he dabbled in finance. Later, at an Ogden hospital, he worked his way up the ranks to Director of Behavioral Services. While there, he started doing lay ministry as a youth pastor.
Eventually in 1987, he chose full-time ministry and got ordained with the Assemblies of God. Two years later, he became pastor of the First Assembly of God Church.
As pastor, he also conducts Sunday services and Bible study at the Tooele County Detention Center. He shares passages from the Bible, but for the most part he simply lets the inmates talk.
“My basic premise is, you shouldn’t be answering what people aren’t asking,” he said. “I don’t gang up on churches. That doesn’t solve anything. Bottom line, I help them have a relationship with Christ.”
During Bible study, he said, “We’re always discussing something on their minds. People will open up and talk about their feelings. Sometimes, some people like to argue.”
He considers his work as pastor and chaplain a great privilege. Like a lighthouse, it’s his way of sharing light and dispelling darkness.
“I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he said. “I can minister to people. I hope I can show the love of God.”
He added, “The world is hurting. We live in a world without hope. I’m able to tell people that there’s hope.”