The Legacy of Valdemar J. Christensen

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Val Christensen works in a lab with a PLNU student on an experiment
At age 92, on Oct. 17, 2018, my father, Val J. Christensen, died at home holding the hand of his wife of 69 years, my mother, Mildrene L. Christensen.

Just two years earlier, for his 90th birthday, my dad had invited 100 of his closest friends to a finely catered first-class dinner celebration at PLNU’s Cunningham Dining Room, and 110 family and friends showed up. During the evening of personal toasts and roasts and professional tributes to his enduring legacy, his eight grandchildren wrote and read him their version of his legacy and life lessons learned, which said in part:

“The importance of faith and family, tax avoidance philosophy, the true value of perseverance and boldness, the art of pomegranate jam and salsa making, and the science of growing tomatoes. We also express gratitude for his steady disposition, his mind that is always working on a puzzle, his wisdom, his good nature, his ability to find cheap gasoline, write anything and everything on a notecard, and to preside over eight “coming of age” ceremonies. Lastly, we express gratitude for his model of how to be retired but still a full-time gardener, traveler, and investor and for the instructions in essential ingredients, for cooking and life: sugar, Tabasco, patience, and good people to share it with.” 

You also can’t understand my father without understanding his love of science. Chemistry and Life is the title of Dad’s textbook for nursing students that he and the Heasley brothers co-authored some 25 years ago. Now in its 6th edition, it represents my father’s commitment to scholarship and his success in research, science, and senior administration.

Chemistry and Life is an apt description of my father’s general outlook on the world.  Physicist Stephen Hawking famously said: “Mysticism… is for those who can’t do the math.” Dad could do the math. A rational-empiricist, Dad used to say: “Chemistry, given time and money, will be able to explain almost everything.” Yet he was a Christian, honored the place of faith and mystery in life, believed in Christian higher education, and wanted to help build a bridge between science and religion.

As a theologian who works at the other side of that bridge, I have been forever shaped by my dad’s prophetic imagination, church commitment, and scientific temperament. He had compelling ideas and interesting opinions about religion and politics – about which we seldom agreed. Yet, he encouraged me to think for myself, do my best, not give up, and figure things out.

Missionary Kid, born in Calcutta, raised in Holiness sect

My dad was born Valdemar Junior Christensen in Calcutta, India, on May 15, 1926, the eldest of four children, to independent holiness missionary parents, Soren Valdemar Christensen (from Denmark) and Lydia Zook (of Swiss German descent). “Junior’s” parents built churches and took in orphaned girls and boys, raising them as Christians in the boys’ and girls’ homes of the Hephzibah Faith Mission in Adra and Raghunathpur, India.

After the family left India in 1931, they returned to the Hephzibah Faith Farm in Tabor, Iowa, where Junior grew up in the sheltered subculture of this Amish-Mennonite Holiness sect led by his grandfather, David Zook. The Hephzibah Faith community had roots in Pennsylvania where his mother’s Anabaptist ancestors settled in the 18th century after being banished from Switzerland for refusing to bear the sword, pay taxes to the emperor, and meet other requirements of the state.

After the death of my great-grandfather, the family left the faith farm and joined the Church of the Nazarene in Wichita, Kansas. They moved into a house my grandfather built near a Holiness Camp Meeting. A child of the Great Depression, my dad and his three siblings knew how to grow vegetables, raise chickens, can fruit, and use the Sears catalog as TP in the outhouse since they had no indoor plumbing. The family of six was poor, but they found a way to survive.

At 17, Junior left home by bus for college with a $10 bill in his pocket. He enrolled at Bethany-Peniel College in Oklahoma and completed his freshman year. But then he was drafted at 18 by the U.S. Army in 1944, and he deployed to the Philippines and Japan for 18 months during World War II.

“Junior” during his time serving with the U.S. Army

Master Sargent in the 24th infantry division of the U.S. Army

Boot camp was a struggle for all the boys becoming men, but especially for a holiness kid named Junior, barely able to shave, with simple, non-colorful language skills, who didn’t “cuss, drink, gamble, smoke, or chew, nor go with girls who do…” as the holiness kids used to joke. Not as athletic or physically strong as other guys, not as outgoing or confident as he would like to have been, Junior had to struggle and strive to find his way, to gain respect in other ways – and one of the ways he did so in boot camp was to learn how to aim and shoot a gun.

The little guy who never held a gun in his life, whose religious tradition forbade its members to carry worldly weapons of war, whose ancestors in Switzerland and Pennsylvania were pacifists, learned how to carry and hold and shoot a gun. Junior listened and learned and achieved the designation of “Expert Rifleman” in the 24th Division of the U.S. Army.

The little guy who never held a gun in his life, whose religious tradition forbade its members to carry worldly weapons of war…achieved the designation of “Expert Rifleman” in the 24th Division of the U.S. Army.

Before deployment to the Philippines, the lieutenant asked the privates, “Who wants to take a typing test?” My dad wasn’t sure if this was a trick question; perhaps those who answered yes would be sent to the front lines of combat. But he took a risk and answered yes. Even though he didn’t know how to type, he figured he could learn. He managed to pass the test – good enough for the AG Office – providing noncombative administrative support to Army field commanders. “I am typing for my life,” Junior wrote to his parents. Assigned to staff duty, he rose in rank to Master Sergeant; in fact, he was the senior of six Master Sergeants in charge (when the Major was away) of the 2,200 soldiers of the 24th Division of the U.S. Army in Japan – at 19 years of age.

Chemistry Major, Bethany-Peniel College

After the war ended, Dad returned to college in Oklahoma, majored in chemistry, and started using his nickname “Chris” instead of Junior. He met and dated Millie Hale (the pretty girl from Shawnee, Oklahoma). He was elected editor of the authorized student newspaper and also started with his roommate, Kenneth S. Armstrong, an underground school newspaper to publish more satirical and questionable items. Chris graduated from Bethany-Peniel College (now Southern Nazarene University) in 1948, the first member of his family to graduate from college. After asking her father, Leonard, for permission, he proposed to Millie on New Year’s Eve, 1947, and they married June 19, 1949.

Val’s army buddy and college roommate, Dr. Kenneth Shelby Armstrong, pays tribute to their long friendship

Phi Beta Kappa man at University of Kansas

Dad said he was ill prepared for grad school, flunked his physical chemistry course, and was told to drop out. But his appealed to his faculty advisor: “I’d rather fight than switch”— a reference to a Lucky Strike cigarette advertisement popular at the time — and his advisor gave him another chance to pass. He recovered and excelled, and he was selected for membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the premier national honor society. He was only 25 when he earned his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, in 1952.

After being hired as research supervisor at The Dow Chemical Company in Freeport, Texas, he and Millie moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, bought their first home, and had three sons: me (Michael) in 1953, Jeffrey in 1955, and Steven in 1960. Chris was promoted at Dow, became associated with the company’s invention and production of saran wrap, and held two patents for extracting magnesium from seawater.

Professor of Chemistry, Chair of Science Division, Pasadena/Point Loma College

In 1960, my dad was recruited from industry by the president of Pasadena College, Dr. Russell Delong, and his administrative vice president, Dr. Kenneth Shelby Armstrong (Dad’s Army buddy and college roommate at Bethany), to teach chemistry and head up the science division. Upon arrival, he was surprised to find that he was the only faculty member in math and science with a Ph.D. He changed his name again, from Chris to Val, and became determined, as chair of the division, to recruit and build a strong faculty in math and science who could in turn teach, inspire, and mentor pre-med students and science majors. (He took particular pride in recruiting and hiring two newly minted Ph.D.’s in chemistry – Victor Heasley and Dale Shellhamer.) 

Val (far right) chats with PLNU science majors

During his 36 years at Pasadena/PLNU, he served as professor of chemistry and chair of the science division (1960-1977), associate dean of the college (1977-1988), and vice president for academic affairs (1988-1996). While associate academic dean, he advocated for the creation of a new School of Nursing, facilitated funding for the Wesleyan Center for 21st Century Studies, and personally participated in the construction of Brown Chapel (built by San Diego First Church of the Nazarene and shared by PLNU) by volunteering to serve as general contractor for the auditorium and church sanctuary on campus. As academic VP, he worked alongside President Jim Bond in shared commitment to build a great Christian university. Val recruited high-quality faculty in the arts and sciences and created an outstanding pre-medical program. He served as the program’s advisor for 27 years. He envisioned and established, with his colleagues Heasley and later Shellhamer, Research Associates, which today has over 260 professional members (science majors, professors, and alumni) who have contributed to or received outside grants through the university to further their research in the natural sciences. Val now has a chemistry lab in the science center named after him.

Val (far left) and other science colleagues pose for a photo at a Research Associates gathering

Loyal Layman, Church of the Nazarene

A loyal churchman, Val served for a decade as Sunday school superintendent at Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene under Pastor Earl Lee. Later a member of San Diego First Church of the Nazarene beginning in 1973, he served as chairman of the church board and building committee and sang in the men’s choir. He was treasurer of the Fantastics Sunday School class, which became my mom and dad’s community of dearest friends.

Globetrotter in Retirement

During their retirement years, my parents traveled extensively, sometimes with close friends, to dozens of countries and enviable locations, including the British Isles, Western Europe, Asia, and the Arctic Circle. He took my brothers and I with him to India in 2000 to visit the place of his birth and the mission compound where he lived from 1926-1931. Before we went off to college, Dad had taken us in a 22-foot motor home through 48 states in the continental U.S. By the time we toured the 49th state, Hawaii, together, there were two spouses in the mix. Once it came to Val’s attention that there was a 50th state to visit, and that the family had grown to “16 souls,” he made a promise and took the entire Christensen clan on an Alaskan cruise in 2008 where they enjoyed the midnight sun and Mount Denali.

Staying Alive

To stay alive at 92, Dad had to take aim and restrict his diet. He carefully regulated his body chemistry and made a daily graph of his blood sugar level. Low sugars, low potassium, low phosphorus, and low sodium — he hated it. One time he measured out 1,000 mg of salt, put it in a spoon, and said: “This is all I have to work with today.” He had charts on the refrigerator about what foods and chemical elements to avoid.  

In his declining days, Dad wanted to travel more. We were delighted to take Mom and Dad to Ireland, Catalina Island, and to Carmel to see his younger brother before he died. A road trip back to Pasadena in June — celebrating mom and dad’s 69th wedding anniversary — was particularly memorable and important. It was just the five of us—Mom and Dad and their 3 boys — going back to Pasadena where we grew up. We visited our home church, “Paz Naz” (Pasadena First Church). We walked through the original Pasadena College campus, and saw the old science building that Dad designed and built.  We saw the gymnasium, which holds lots of childhood memories of Pasadena College basketball tournaments featuring college seniors Darrel Nickerson and Ben Foster. And we remembered chapel services in the auditorium with Reuben Welch. Dad splurged to let us stay overnight in the old Huntington Hotel and Resort in Pasadena where they had taken each of us when we turned 13 as a rite of passage to the finer things of life. My parents saw some of their old and dear friends in Pasadena. Our family got to go down memory lane.

The Christensen family: Jeffrey, Millie, Val, Steven, and Michael

He Gave Me His Sword

Mom loved him for over 69 years of marriage, and Dad invested in his wife and family.  He gave us everything he could and more.  Most precious to me, Dad gave me his Japanese nobleman’s sword — a trophy from World War II after his division disarmed the enemy.  He didn’t formally present me with his sword (tapping the blade on my shoulders as I might have knelt down to be knighted), as I would have preferred.  He simply pointed and said: “You’ve shown interest in this over the years.  You keep it.” Later, he gave me a big bear hug. 

In the Samurai tradition, one’s sword is a noble extension of one’s body and soul. To me, it represented the “Sword of the Spirit” — the discipline to take aim and stay the course, wisdom to take risks and try new things, courage to slay the dragons of fear and self-doubt, and strength to survive, thrive, and stay alive. Dad gave me what he could, and I got from him what I needed.

Faithful to the End

On September 6, 2018, Dad suffered two heart attacks while under treatment for end-stage renal failure at Scripps Hospital. Declining invasive treatments, he opted for home care with Sojourn Hospice. A fabulous multidisciplinary team offered high quality comfort care. He hoped to hang on to life until the weekend of Nov. 2-3 in order to fly with me to Oklahoma to attend his 70th college class reunion at Southern Nazarene University (where his army buddy and college roommate, Kenneth S. Armstrong, and dear friend Forrest Ladd would meet him at the alumni luncheon). He also hoped to make it to December 31, 2018, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his engagement to my mom. But all this was not to be. In his final days, all family members had their moment to say goodbye, and he told each one of us how much he loved and appreciated us and how he was so proud. Mom sat with him, held his hand and rubbed his brow. His final words included: “I can’t believe it!” “Appreciate you!” “So blessed, so blessed.”

About a week before he died, Dad was sitting in his living room easy chair, but not saying much. Mom was baking cookies. Grandkids were working on his 1,000-piece unfinished jigsaw puzzle of the Periodic Table (a gift from Vicki Hestermann). And Raul (Rachel’s boyfriend) was trying to talk chemistry with Val. “What’s the most electro-negative element in the Periodic Table?” he asked him.

Though he was in a withdrawn, liminal space, Dad rallied and responded to Raul’s question. “Fluorine!” he said. Suddenly, he got animated as he clicked into lecture mode. “Fluorine has only seven electrons in its outer shell, so it’s not full. And it can’t be happy unless it gets one more electron.” He began using wild hand motions to make his point. “It grabs, grabs, grabs an electron from anywhere, from any element, in order to be complete. And that’s how fluorine becomes fluoride.”

I told my dad’s nephrologist, Dr. Andrew King, about Val’s last chemistry lecture and his jigsaw puzzle. Dr. King had been keeping Val alive for several months by tweaking his meds and monitoring his body chemistry, and they respected each other. Dad brought him ripe tomatoes from his garden on each visit. Dr. King called me before Dad died and said this:

“Please tell your father that if he were an element in the Periodic Table, he would be a Noble Gas… he’ll know what I mean.”

A noble gas has a full set of electrons… in its outer shell. It’s stable, complete and whole; lacking nothing. Noble Gas/Noble Soul – that’s my Dad.

A noble gas has a full set of electrons…in its outer shell. It’s stable, complete and whole; lacking nothing. Noble Gas/Noble Soul – that’s my Dad.

At his memorial service at First Church, family and friends paid tribute, in person or proxy, including former President Jim Bond, emeritus professor of biology Darrel Falk, Kenneth Armstrong, and my brothers and I. His eight grandchildren read the legacy they had written for his 90th birthday. Symbols of Dad’s life were on display, including: his Japanese sword, an American flag given to my Mom at the burial, a chemistry flask from his lab, tax strategy booklets, his old slide rule, academic regalia, homemade salsa and jam, and pomegranates from his trees. A moving video story of Val teaching his young grandchildren how to make pomegranate jelly, alongside footage of him making jam for the last time, was shown in the service—the highlight for many—followed by a reception serving ice cream with toppings of pomegranate jelly.

The extended Christensen family makes pomegranate jelly with Val for the last time

During his lifetime, my dad left a legacy gift to the university for student scholarships for science majors and a charitable remainder trust for building bridges between science and religion in the classroom. Memorial gifts for scholarships and bridges can be designated for the Val and Millie Christensen Science Scholarship at PLNU through the Office of University Advancement.

The Christensen clan gathers for a family photo

Point Loma Nazarene University is a legacy school for the Christensen family. Val’s survivors include:

  • Michael (77) and his wife, Rebecca Laird (82), who is currently a professor in the School of Theology and Christian Ministry, and their children Rachel (12) and Megan (15).
  • Jeffrey (78) and his wife, Mardie Caldwell Christensen, and their children: Andrew and his wife, Whitney; Amber (06) and her husband, Zach; Kevin (09); and Alyc (12).
  • Steven (83) and his wife, Renee, currently PLNU’s university cashier, and their children: Lauren (15); Danielle (17); and Sarah, a current student planning to graduate this year (19).
  • Val’s great-grandchildren include: Elka, Liv, Crew, Brielle, Kael, and Camille.

Story by Michael Christensen

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.