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 recalled 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 stayed with him throughout his life and influenced him as one of the Church's 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 believed 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 knews 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. In 1974, the Christensen brothers split the farm land and Elder Christensen's family recieved 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.
The morning of 18 May 1980 stands out vividly in Elder Shirley Dean Christensen’s memory. It began as a beautiful, sunny spring day. But by noon the skies over Royal City, Washington, were black, and the once-green fields and orchards were covered in ash. Mount Saint Helens, about 150 miles (240 km) west of Royal City, had erupted.
During the next few days, Elder Christensen watched in horror as the ash-laden trees in his orchards dropped much of their precious fruit. He thought the impact of the catastrophe on his apple-growing business would be devastating.
But eventually Elder Christensen realized that the remaining apples were of excellent quality, and the thinning of the fruit had actually benefited his crop. “The Lord really did protect our crop,” he says. “That turned out to be one of the most productive years we’ve ever had.” He links that blessing to his family’s faithful payment of tithing and to their desire to obey the Lord’s commandments. The experience also taught him that adversity sometimes brings blessings in unexpected ways.
Working together as a family forged a bond between the Christensen children that sustained them when their parents left for Argentina in 1999 where Elder Christensen 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 relationships.
The Church News reported the death of Elder Christensen's wife in its October 15, 2005 edition:
Geniel Johnson Christensen, wife of Elder Shirley D. Christensen of the Seventy,
died Oct. 2, 2005, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Sister Christensen was born Dec. 19, 1937, in Lynndyl, Utah, to Bert Clearance and Mary Nina Ahlstrom Johnson. She was raised in Southerland, Utah, and attended BYU, where she met her husband. They have seven children; their infant son proceeded her in death.
Sister Christensen will be remembered for her love of sewing, gardening, music, her family and the Church. She served with her husband as an ordinance worker in the Columbia River Washington Temple and when he presided over the Argentina Resistencia Mission from 1999 to 2002, as well as in numerous other Church callings.
Funeral services were held Oct. 8 at the Royal Ward Chapel in Royal Camp, Wash.
Elder Christensen continued to serve in the Second Quorum of Seventy until being
honorably released in the October 2009 General Conference.