Porterville lawyer's death shocks community
Longtime attorney Robert Christenson, 62, died Wednesday
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.
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.