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John Christensen sits between the Mayfield Town sign and a banner supporting his re-election during his third campaign in 2017.

 

Trials are what you make of them

 

Desire to serve keeps former Mayfield mayor John Christensen going through health battles

 

By Ben Lasseter

Staff writer

11-25-2020

 

MAYFIELD—John Christensen says it breaks his heart to move away, but he is ready to turn a corner toward recovering from the health struggle he has been through for nearly three years.

The former mayor of Mayfield grew up in Mt. Pleasant, was a Mt. Pleasant police officer, became commander of the security unit at the Central Utah Correctional Facility, retired from law enforcement and then became a probation officer.

Now at 65, he has spent his life keeping communities safe and improving people’s lives in Sanpete County.

“I love Mayfield, and it’s tough to step away,” he said, when he resigned as mayor in early November.

“I love having been there and (having been) part of Mayfield’s growth” and serving alongside “the council and community I’ve gotten close to.”

John grew up in Mt. Pleasant, attended Mt. Pleasant Elementary, Moroni Junior High School and graduated from North Sanpete High School in 1973.

During John’s childhood, his father, Chesley Christensen, was first sergeant of the Utah National Guard in Mt. Pleasant. Chesley Christensen went on to serve five terms as mayor of Mt. Pleasant before he died in 2009.

“From his example and a lot of other things, I’ve loved working as a public servant,” John said.

After high school and a short stint at Snow College, John was moved to Salt Lake City where he worked as an EMT for the commercial ambulance company that served the city and much of Salt Lake County.

He served a mission based in Minneapolis, Minnesota from 1975-77, came back to Utah, and spend part of another year with the ambulance company in Salt Lake City.

In December 1977, he married his first wife, Shirley Westenskow. and in 1978, he got on with the Mt. Pleasant Police Department, which had just two other officers at the time. He was hired before he went to training on the condition that he would do so later in the year.

In September, 1978, right before John and Shirley moved to Salt Lake for his police training, Shirley had twin girls—Sonja and Alice. The four of them lived at Shirley’s parents’ home near Westminster College, where the police academy program was based.

During his early days on the force, a speeding motorcyclist hit the Mt. Pleasant chief of police at the time as he turned onto Power Plant Road and died instantly. The motorcyclist was a member of what John called an “outlaw group,” some members of which John had grown up with.

That night, the chief’s barn was burned down, and members of the group threw bricks at police from store roofs in the following weeks. The chief was under pressure to resign and did so not long after the accident.

“For a new guy that hadn’t been to the academy yet, it was a great learning experience,” John said. “It helped me realize if I wanted to stay there, I was going to be involved with arresting people that may have been my friends and relatives.”

Three years into his time on the Mt. Pleasant force, John became the youngest police chief in the state at 24. This came after neither of two replacements who followed the ousted chief stayed for long.

“I was a working chief,” he said about spending his days in the field, rather than an office. Some of his memories there are of having to keep an ongoing narcotics investigation into one of his officers secret from him, the challenge of covering the 24-hour cycle with only three to five officers and riding on horseback wearing a scary mask on Halloween nights.

“It was a good crime prevention technique,” he said about the Halloween tradition.

John was

John and Julie Christensen stand outside their new home in St. George. They live in a small, community area on the outskirts of the city.

chief of police from 1980 to 1990. During that time, he had three more children—Chesley John, Jacob and Elizabeth. He served in the Seventy and did missionary work then as well.

After one night when an intoxicated man who “very easily could have pummeled” him nearly made an advance, he decided to take up martial arts.

He became a black-belt instructor in kenpo, a Korean type of martial arts. He and a friend set up a company called the Society of the Black Lion and taught kenpo in community settings in Mt. Pleasant and Spring City as well as at Snow College.

He said aside from the combat techniques he learned, kenpo also taught him emotional discipline and a way to manage physical pain internally.

In 1990, he left the Mt. Pleasant police force to join the Central Utah Correctional Facility as captain of the security unit, which was responsible for guarding the fences and staffing the control tower to be sure no prisoners escaped and sometimes with putting down uprisings inside the facility.

In that role, he and other officers had thorough SWAT training (the acronym stands for “special weapons and tactics”) in California and learned to manage K-9 dogs.

“The officers I had were the top, the best,” he said.

Because they were the only officers with that kind of training in the 1990s, they responded to requests for assistance from police agencies outside the prison.

He says it was especially during his time at the prison that he started to empathize with people on the wrong side of the law. He says he would make a point to have conversations with even the most distraught convicts on a human level when they became calm.

“I believe people, even if they’re doing bad, are still people, God’s children,” he said.

His 13 years at the prison brought about big changes in his personal life.

In 1995, he and his first wife separated. He married his second wife, Julie, in 1996 and moved to Mayfield, where Julie lived. The couple have lived there together ever since.

Julie had three children already—Adam, Kira, Whitney, Jacob and Elizabeth. John and Julie had one daughter, Hanna, together.

By 2003, John had put in enough years to qualify for retirement as a law enforcement officer. So he left the prison, but went straight to work for as a probation officer. “I took one day off and went back to work for Adult Probation and Parole.” he said.

“It was my job to help [people on parole], and I really enjoyed that,” he said. “The ones that were ready, it was great to see them progress with their lives.”

About the same time, John got involved in Mayfield Town government. In 2004, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the town council. The following year, he ran unopposed for the council seat.

About two years after John had come onto the council, the mayor stepped down, and subsequently, a resident appointed to fill the term also resigned.

John was appointed as mayor in 2005 and in 2007 was elected for the first of three terms. When first elected, he was still working for AP&P, although he retired later in the tenure. During his last term, he was also serving as Elders Quorum president in the Mayfield Ward.

As mayor, he is responsible for many Mayfield roads, the current culinary water irrigation system, improving the cemetery and a restored spring that had gone dry. He served on four executive boards, including the Six County Association of Governments, Sanpete Sanitary Landfill, Gunnison Valley Recreation, and as chairman of the Gunnison Valley Fire Department Board.

During his final term in 2018, John hit his knee on the trailer hitch on his car. It took him months to realize his knee was broken from the incident, because he was used to knee pain after having had knee replacements about ten years prior.

“It hurt, but I was used to having it hurt,” he said. He had surgery months after hitting the hitch when he learned the kneecap was broken, by which time part of it had died.

So, he had another surgery to repair the knee, and that third surgery, counting the replacement operation from a decade earlier, caused a staph infection. He had to have a fourth to take the knee out completely, because they did not know from which part of the knee the infection had come.

By this time, John’s overall health was suffering, and he was not healthy enough to get his kneecap replaced for 13 months.

The decline was sharp and nearly fatal. Shortly after the knee replacement to prevent further spread of infection, he got pneumonia, and soon after the pneumonia onset, the doctors found blood clots in his leg. The clots in his leg ended up causing three more in his lungs.

The clots popped while he was in Utah Valley Hospital. Medical had to intubate him.

“It got worse enough that they called all my family all together,” he said. “They called all my kids to see if they wanted to come say goodbye. They didn’t expect me to survive.”

He got somewhat better after staying in the intensive care unit for a month. He said it took a huge effort to keep going during his time there and that he leaned on strength he had gained from kenpo training.

This included “learning how to handle pain and pain medications and knowing how to use them without having problems. My life experience has made it possible for me,” he said in reference to kenpo-related techniques.

At this point, he was still serving as mayor and Elders Quorum president in the Mayfield Ward. He gives credit to his town and Elders Quorum councils for keeping things going smoothly in his absence.

About continuing to serve while fighting for his health, he said, “I thought about if I should resign or move on, but it was good to be able to continue to serve. In any situation if you’re discouraged or if you can do something serving others, I guess that’s what this public service stuff is about.”

Around this time in May of 2019, John lost his adult son Jacob, who his father said was “bright,” but was “struggling with some mental issues.”

Jacob had moved in with his father and step-mother. John had helped him find a job on a ranch. Jacob seemed to be doing well when one day he became upset about news of his father’s health problems and took off on an ATV owned by the ranch where he was working. Sanpete Search and Rescue looked for him for two weeks. Fliers containing his photo went up throughout the county.

Ultimately, his siblings organized a private search. Volunteers found the ATV on the east slope of the west mountains and found his body nearby. The death triggered shock and an outpouring of sympathy from throughout the county.

John said he dealt with the loss on top of his health problems with a mind-over-matter approach.

“You don’t always have control of what happens to you, but you have control over how you respond. You can be angry at God, angry at lots of things, or you can look at everything and find something good in it,” he said.

In January of 2020, John had a heart attack after a funeral in Provo. In the months that followed, he learned he had Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a disease that kills 95 percent of patients.

“I’ve learned to love the nurses, the caregivers. They take such good care of people,” he said.  He joked about how with so few survivors, they have done well to manage his condition with “not a lot of experience with the life after” ARDS.

He also contracted Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension this year. Even in St. George, where he is moving to be able to breathe more easily, he is still on oxygen most of the time.

“It’s a miracle, things now even compared to what I was a couple months ago,” he said. “By doing everything I can to get better, it feels as though the Heavenly Father is able to cover the rest of the road.”

He said he decided he needed to move in August. He realized the severity of the difficulty he has breathing in Sanpete County altitude while on a camping trip. By comparison, he said he barely needed breathing support on a recent visit to Disneyland.

During his final meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 4 after living in St. George for two weeks, he told the town council “it does make a difference in my life” to live and breathe there.

His  final act as mayor that night, typifying his commitment to public service, was to plan a pandemic-friendly way for Santa to visit all the families in Mayfield this year, a tradition that has gone on for decades.

He said aside from leaving the place he calls home, he also regrets that he cannot beat his father’s record for terms spent as mayor.

Going forward, John and Julie will look forward to seeing their 21 grandchildren, as well as another on the way for Hanna.

John and Julie live near the Virgin River on the outskirts of town in a “quiet, small, community-minded area.”

John plans to stay in the loop with Mayfield and the council and  to keep his position on the Board of Utah Cities and Towns to give voice to rural communities there.

He says although he has to make sacrifices, he has learned to be happy regardless. He compares his experiences to Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Trial Number Five,” in which a woman is presented with the” trial” she fears most, gift-wrapped. The final stanza of the poem reads:

“Sent with love from / Those whose assignment it is / To make sure you know / That you can go / Through trials one, two, / Three, four, ninety-nine, / Or five- / And, incredibly, / Come out alive.”

“I know we only get blessings, part of that is we have to do what we can to make things happen,” he said, reflecting the bitter sweetness of moving to St. George.

 

John is pictured in his patrol car while he was the leading tactical officer of the Central Utah Correctional Facility security unit.