I grew up in Porterville

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. ”  

Barbara Kingsolver

You probably have never heard of it but you might have seen it on a Highway 99 sign. It’s not much…not the hub of a shopping area, not much more than a town to drive through on the way to somewhere else, If you Google “Porterville” images, all you will see pretty much are the people who live there. Thousands of them. You won’t seen dozens of picturesque photos because at heart, Porterville is it’s people.

For me, it was perfect. My father came to Porterville from Inches, Ireland at 17. He said it was the second most beautiful spot he had ever seen. (Inches was number one.) Having had lived and traveled on most of the continents, I agree. And if we get to chose what our own Heaven looks like, mine will look exactly like Porterville at dusk, in the springtime, on top of Lewis Hill.

I lived in two houses when I was growing up, each one only about a mile from the other. We shopped weekly at Town and Country Market. I attended Rockford School and graduated with the first class of Monache High School. If you never heard of Porterville, those words would be all but meaningless. But if that was your hometown? It would tell you volumes about me.

I think it is pretty safe to say I knew pretty much everyone in town. I know we had people over almost every week and while I don’t know what the heck the grownups did, I know that all of the kids just ran around chasing whatever would run. I knew their homes and parents almost as well as I knew my own. Their parents knew mine, too and any craziness would have been reported long before I got home.

In my memory my friends are still young and beautiful, courteous and handsome. Their eyes will never dim, their steps will never falter. The Christenson boys will forever be young, golden-haired and spirited, chasing a ball and laughing. I can still hear Freda’s voice saying “Not in the house! or “Not in the dryer!”
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Robert will forever be folding up his long legs to drive us somewhere in the family VW. Every Sunday Joyce will be leading the choir and my dad will ask after “his” nightingale. Carrie will be playing the piano. Davalyn will be adding little modesty v’s to the necklines of her dresses as did so many of those of us who made our own clothes. Randy will always be willing to carry stuff wherever I needed it carried. Mike seemed to be always laughing and Dean  never made me wait. Jana will be teaching the Sunbeams to stand up and shout “Yay, Sunbeams!” Beulah will always patiently be teaching even the clumsiest of feet how to waltz.

LaRon? Always willing to tackle any project with a smile and a positive attitude. Luann and Suzie will have handmade clothes (not home made…handmade), as did Diane and Karen.Carrie will always have an idea…good, bad, silly…but she always had one. Her brothers were devoted to their parents and their little sis sis.

Did we have bad days? Of course….but they were few and far between. I was so very lucky to grow up at the very edge of the 60’s Most of our mother’s were at home and were always up for an impromptu sleepover. If there were a skill I wanted to learn, someone’s mother knew how and would teach me….Mary Valine taught me to cook,(her daughter Sandra, looks exactly like her) Jenny Lunstead taught me to knit. I think I probably learned everything I know for sure from people like that who were willing to share their knowledge. If I had a problem, I had a community of adults to talk it out with. The advice I got was solid and right.  I know that my Mama Serpa walked through the fire for me many times. These women, girls and boys all taught me invaluable skills and lessons that I would use and rely on some one day. Even today, I sometimes will think, “Oh I have to tell Mama Serpa that!” or “This will just make Connie laugh!”

I’m the lucky one. Those friends of my youth? They never age. I may lose them for a time and the world will be emptier for their loss but while they were here? I was so very blessed and the world was so very lucky just for their presence. Each year of course, I lose another friend far too soon and so young but to me they are not lost. They are just around the corner, waiting. Sometimes I will be somewhere far away…Grafton Street, St. Marks Square, Key West and I will see someone whom I am so very sure I know. Sometimes I am right, especially if I hear them talk but usually it is some lithe young thing that looks like an old friend, untouched by time,

For those of you who lived in Porterville, here is an article about Robert Christenson that skims only the surface of a wonderful man gone far too soon for his family and all who knew him.

Porterville lawyer’s death shocks community
Longtime attorney Robert Christenson, 62, died Wednesday
January 19, 2013 6:00 AM
By ESTHER AVILA
eavila@portervillerecorder.com

As news about the unexpected death of local attorney Robert Decker Christenson spread, numerous residents began expressing shock and sadness.

Christenson, a Porterville native, Bishop with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Porterville Ward 3 and a prominent and beloved local lawyer, died Wednesday in Fresno following sudden complications following knee replacement surgery.

“I had been driving to Fresno every day to see him — except that day,” said his wife LaDawn (Barfuss) Christenson. “He was going to come home today. I stayed home that day to prepare the house.”

Born and raised in Porterville, Mr. Christenson attended Olive Street School, Bartlett Junior High and Porterville High School, where he played basketball and tennis for the school and clarinet in the band. He graduated in 1968, was a missionary in Brazil for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, graduated from Brigham Young University and BYU Law School, marrying LaDawn Christenson two days before graduation. He returned to Porterville and joined the law firm of Christenson and Kralowec, known today as the Christenson Law firm where he eventually worked alongside his father, his brothers, James and Richard, and brother-in-law, Judge Glade F. Roper.

“Robert was a giant in all respects — physically and emotionally. He was kind, a very thorough person, a man without guile. I’ve never known a man like Robert. He was kind, humble, the embodiment of an attorney,” said Roper. “He was honest, upright, absolutely ethical. He taught me a whole lot about what it means to be an ethical attorney.”

Roper said he remembers arriving in Porterville, working next door to Christenson, and getting advice from Christenson following one of his first court cases.

“He set me on the right course,” Roper said. “Robert lived in such a way that he was an example of what an attorney should be.”

The sentiment was repeated again and again from colleagues and community members.

“I was shocked when I first heard. I had gone up to see him Monday. He was in such good health, in high spirits and looking forward to going home,” said Ted Hatch, who has known him since 1973 through church and through several service programs. “The best memory I have of him is I never once knew him to be negative. He always had positive things to say about everyone. He will be greatly missed.”

Memories were also shared by Vonn and Dallan, two of Mr. Christenson’s sons. Mr. Christenson and his wife had four children — Wendell, Vonn, Dallan and MaryDawn.

“He was passionate about sports and never missed a single sporting event — home or away.

He was always there for us,” Dallan said.

Vonn agreed, adding he also never missed a single band event.

When his four children went into the mission field for two years, he wrote each one of them faithfully each and every week for two years. He also made family trips memorable as he took his family to national parks, Washington, D.C., to visit ancestors’ graves. Dallan also remembered one trip where he and his dad were stranded in the middle of Death Valley in the middle of the night, the summer before Dallan married. It is something he’ll always treasure, he said, as the two of them spent two hours talking and laughing.

“Because of his mission to Brazil, he loved anything Brazilian,” LaDawn Christenson said, adding the family hosted five different Brazilian exchange students over the years. “We’ve stayed in touch with them. In 2010, we went to Brazil and we found four of the five of them.”

His brothers also said they had wonderful memories of him.

“He was my hero. I always wanted to be as tall as him and as good in basketball as him,” said his brother James Christenson, five years his junior. “He was my big brother. I kind of wanted to emulate him. He taught me to be fiercely competitive.”

Some of the brothers’ fondest memories took place in the back yard — a yard that served as a football field, baseball diamond and basketball court.

“He was my immediate older brother, my protector, my mentor. He broke the trail for me and showed how to follow — Olive Street, Bartlett, Porterville High, BYU and Law School. He was my hero and a dear friend and mentor,” Richard Christenson said. “But, what I’ll remember the most is his laugh. He loved to tell a good story and he loved to laugh. He will be missed sorely. We worked as partners for 33 years and never once had an angry word over anything work related.”

Lana Stidham, his secretary for 25 years, also praised him, calling him friendly, personable, easy to work with and someone who laughed a lot.

“I always said he was the other man in my life,” she said. “He was the boss, but he was a friend.”

The phone lines have been busy all day, she said, with numerous clients and friends calling to express their condolences, most of them expressing shock upon hearing the news.

David Prestage was one of them. Prestage said he was a good friend and someone he has known him for more than 30 years, working alongside him with the Optimist Club, Sequoia Dutch Ovens Society and Boy Scouts of America.

Mr. Christenson was involved in numerous service clubs and organizations. In 1989 he served as the president of the Tulare County Bar Association, was a charter member of the Porterville Optimist Club, and president of and regional lieutenant governor for the Optimist Club.

“I was in total shock when I heard. It’s a loss. His sudden passing is going to leave a gaping hole in his family, law firm, the Optimist Club and the community,” Prestage said. “Robert was a giant of a man with a larger heart. He had tremendous love for his kids, was extremely family oriented and was my mentor in optimism. All these years, I always looked up to Robert. That kind of man is irreplaceable.”

A closed-casket viewing will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday at Myers Funeral Home. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 837 E. Morton, with internment at Hillcrest Memorial Park to follow.

 

Robert did not serve his country in battle, unless you count the broken hearts and lives he helped mend. He captained no massive ship, unless you count the people he helped to navigate life. He didn’t chart unknown lands, unless you count the people whom he helped to learn about themselves and how they might achieve their dreams. He spent time making his part of the world a safer, finer place. He spent his time encouraging and leading by example so that his children could have that same community ethic no matter where they settled.They will probably hear his voice inside their heads for the rest of their lives…applauding their successes and offering advice, just as I hear my father’s brogue every day of my life. Robert  had not a mean bone in that big gangly body, he just shot up so that he could tower over others, not to intimidate us but so  we could see him Ias a landmark, a light, on our own life’s journey.Robert was the kind of man who would lend a hand up or hand over his jacket, still warm from his back .

His philosophy was as straightforward as he was.. Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Be true. It takes only one glimpse of his family to see how very well those principles worked. He and LaDawn were partners in every sense of the word. Perfect? Heck no.But perfectly matched for eternity.,

I am beyond grateful that I had Robert in my life…a lighthouse I could look for in the darkness that sometimes covers us all. No matter how long it had been that we had seen each other, he always made me feel as if he had just been talking to LaDawn about me.

Lucky as always, I am grateful for the many friends that I remember fondly and with great affection. My memories will last a lifetime. In my memory, we never age but we do acquire some measure of wisdom.

Godspeed, Robert. Hurry home. You have family waiting for you. We’ll all be along soon.

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