When Shirley Dean Christensen was 12 years old he watched his father say goodbye to his wife and four children for two years. It was 1951, the Korean War was raging and, with young men being drafted, the Church was calling seventies to serve missions. LaGrand Christensen answered the call of a prophet to serve in Toronto, Canada.
More than half century later, the younger Christensen still vividly recalls the responsibility that "fell on my mother's shoulders. She was totally devoted to Dad and to the calling."
The family had adequate funds, as the family dairy farm in Boise, Idaho, had just been sold. But when the missionary returned home in 1953, the money was gone. "I suppose my father could have been frustrated when he came home from the mission. Everything was pretty much gone, other than the value of the home. They could sell the home and get some money but it wasn't enough to set himself up in business like he had envisioned before the call came."
But his father and mother placed their trust in the Lord without complaint leaving an impact on their oldest son that has stayed with him throughout his life and will, no doubt, influence him as one of the Church's newest General Authorities. Elder Christensen, 64, was sustained to the Second Quorum of the Seventy April 5, 2003, during general conference.
Elder Christensen described being called as a General Authority a "sobering experience."
His wife, Geniel Johnson Christensen, certainly believes in him. Sitting beside him, she said: "He has a great testimony and he's a good teacher. I think he'll do a great job."
She knows something of his tenacity, having worked by his side for 35 years as a fruit grower in Washington state and serving with him when he presided over the Argentina Resistencia Mission from 1999 to 2002.
His tenacity and endurance were cultivated as a young boy as he worked alongside his father and brothers on the family farms. Born in Preston, Idaho, to LaGrand and Blanche Christensen, he moved with his family when he was 2 years old to Ontario, Ore., then to the dairy farm at Boise. After his father's mission, the family moved to the state of Washington where his father found work and ultimately purchased what Elder Christensen called "barren, virgin ground."
Despite the backbreaking work and worry, LaGrand Christensen continued to set an example of Church service. "I think the thing I remember most about my father, other than his daily example of good living, I never once heard my father profane. He was a person who had a deep love and respect for the Lord."
Life was not all work in the Christensen home. A young Shirley Christensen was student body president and loved football. He was chosen as the first all-state player from Othello High School and after graduation in 1957 was invited to play for BYU. He played fullback during the 1957-1958 season. After serving in the Uruguay Mission from 1959 to 1961, he fully expected to once again pull on a blue jersey and return to the sport he loved. But a month after returning home, he was diagnosed with hepatitis, contracted while in South America. No more football, doctors said, or you'll suffer permanent liver damage. His playing days were over.
BYU, however, brought him more than just football. In February 1962, he met Geniel Johnson, the daughter of Bert and Nina Ahlstrom Johnson (both deceased), and married her in the Manti Utah Temple that June. From their union have come seven children and 22 grandchildren.
"I've said many times that she comes from the finest stock," Elder Christensen said. "Her mother was a person of great faith, great devotion. Her father, too. She has those same qualities."
Those qualities carried Sister Christensen and her husband through one of the most heartbreaking times of their married lives. Their sixth child, Kent A. Christensen, was 2 months old when he died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). They speak quietly and tenderly of that Sunday morning when Elder Christensen was a bishop and was in his study preparing for meetings. Sister Christensen had been up during the night with Kent and was getting some much needed rest when their little daughter came in the bedroom. "Mom, what's the matter with Kent?" she asked.
The rest is a blur for the family. They had heard the baby cry about 5 a.m. They later learned he died soon after. For years, Elder Christensen recalled, his wife asked herself the normal "what if" questions, but she was able to receive spiritual assurance her son was not meant to stay on earth. When asked what she would say to another mother suffering this heartache, she said: "I just think she has to have a lot of faith and reassure her that this was the way it was supposed to be. I just have the feeling that he came to earth to get his body and he didn't need to stay here. He was that good."
Kent has stayed close in their hearts as the family carried on with their farm in Royal City, Wash., near his parents' farm where his mother, now 84 years old, lives in the family home. (LaGrand Christensen died in 2000.) In 1974, the Christensen brothers split the farm land and Elder Christensen's family has about 200 acres, some 90 of which are orchards, mainly apples. Some of Elder Christensen's most tender memories are of talking to his children while digging ditches, and fishing and water skiing for family recreation. Today, one son still crop farms much of the acreage.
Working together as a family forged a bond between the Christensen children that sustained them when their parents left for Argentina in 1999 where he served as mission president. Getting up in the middle of the night during frost season to protect fruit trees and watching their father sleep in the truck at night helped forge those family friendships which Elder and Sister Christensen are sure will continue as they embark on this new chapter in their lives.
Family: Born Jan. 8, 1939, to LaGrand Christensen and Blanche Naef Christensen in Preston, Idaho; married Geniel Johnson on June 23, 1962, in the Manti Utah Temple; seven children (one deceased), 22 grandchildren.
Church Service: Former president of the Argentina Resistencia Mission, 1999-2002; gospel doctrine teacher and temple ordinance worker at time of call as General Authority; former counselor in stake presidency, regional welfare agent, bishop, high councilor, branch president, and full-time missionary in the Uruguay Mission, 1959-1961.
Education: Studied political science at BYU.
Employment: Fruit grower for 35 years.
Community service: Volunteer county fire chief, board member of Washington State Farm Bureau and president and board member of Grant County Farm Bureau, member of governor's Industrial Insurance Review Commission, agricultural representative on Industrial Insurance Advisory Committee for Department of Labor and Industry, president and board member of Washington State Mint Commission, president and board member of Washington State Mint Growers Association, Washington representative on Horticulture Advisory Committee for American Farm Bureau.
E-mail: [email protected]