COVER STORY Richard and June Christensen
The lucky individuals who live in the Santa Ynez Valley share a profound kinship with the land and a strong bond with their community. From the Danes who founded Solvang in 1911 to locals helping a neighbor in need, the people of the Valley have always taken care of each other.
Dick and June Christensen, area residents for more than fifty years, believe that good citizenship requires participation, a credo that has guided their lives. Founders of the Solvang-based accounting firm Christensen & Drake LLP and longtime community volunteers, the couple has been instrumental in improving local schools, medical care, and judicial efficiency, as well as preserving the region’s rich history.
June has lent her expertise to causes as varied as the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Support, Domestic Violence Program for Santa Barbara County, Friends of Hearst Castle, and Solvang Lutheran Home. She was also Mayor of Solvang.
In 1984, the California Farm Bureau voted her Person of the Year, and in 2009 the Santa Ynez Valley News and Santa Ynez Valley Foundation named her Woman of the Year. In June’s home office, thank-you certificates and commemorative plaques blanketing the walls testify to her energy and involvement.
Over the years, Dick built their business into one of the largest accounting firms in the Tri-county area, all while vigorously engaged in community life. He has sat on the boards of the Solvang School District, People Helping People, Dunn School, and Friends of the Library, among others.
“There’s a pureness to this Valley,” Dick says, “that makes people very generous. Almost everybody we know contributes in their own way. Some with money, some with work, intellect, or good feelings.
“It’s part of what this Valley is all about,” he adds, “and it’s an amazing thing.”
June lays credit for this collective participation at the feet of the region’s Danish settlers, who came from a tradition of inheritance that often left all but the eldest child fending for themselves.
“I think they knew that you need to make your own way,” she says, stroking MacGregor, the couple’s black Labrador/bull mastiff mix, “and when you’ve got something good, you take care of it.”
To honor the legacy of those settlers, Dick Christensen partnered with Martha Brandt-Erichsen, an artist who came to Solvang in 1946 with her husband, a Danish sculptor. Together they created the Elverhoj Museum, and in 1988, five years after Martha’s death, the Danish-style home she and her husband lovingly built was dedicated as a showplace for Solvang’s Danish culture and history.
“Of all the things I have done, I’m most proud of the Elverhoj,” declares Dick. “Martha was a dear friend and I used to stop and have a little schnapps with her. One evening we talked about how good the Valley had been to us and the concept of giving back. I thought, ‘let’s make a museum’ and she loved the idea!”
Putting his accounting skills to work, Dick helped set up a legal framework to ensure the future of the museum.
“The Elverjoy is a cultural treasure,” Dick says, “and a lot of people worked hard to contribute to its success. It’s financially secure, has an active board, and it’s got a marvelous collection and great art exhibits, which June helped organize.”
June, who moved to the Valley as a high school freshman in 1951 when her father began felling trees for the Bradbury Dam project, quickly developed an affinity for local history. During one of her first jobs, a stint at the Santa Ynez Valley News, she helped create a special edition for Santa Inés Mission’s 150th anniversary.
“I’ve always been a history buff,” June explains, the dark ruffles of her blouse and fair, chin-length hair framing her face, “so they had me interview the old-timers and write their stories. I learned the history of each business to include in the ads, and I did features about homes in the Valley.”
In 1961, this immersion in Valley lore led the Christensens to join with fellow preservationists to set up the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society and Museum. They chose the old Bum Steer Restaurant in Santa Ynez for the site of the museum.
“The group got the money together to buy it,” Dick remembers. “We got an attorney to draw up the corporation papers, and I got the charitable status work done. Again, it was just a lot of people coming together.”
Having arrived in Solvang in 1942, Dick witnessed some of the colorful history that informs the character of the Valley. Among his favorite figures of yore is Charlie the Chinaman, who operated a shoe repair business in an alley off First Street.
Dick’s father, a Danish immigrant who learned the cobbler’s trade while recovering from a tubercular kidney, was unable to return to his damp job at Knudsen’s Creamery and so went to work for Charlie.
“The shop was on skids,” Dick remembers, “no foundation, so you could pull it around. Charlie was a neat guy. He would go to the river and catch big turtles and make soup. It stunk up the place, but it tasted good.”
Dick’s father bought Charlie’s business in 1946, brought in new inventory, and the beloved Solvang Shoe Store was born. The two men remained friends, even after Charlie moved to Sacramento and promptly purchased an entire city block.
“The way Charlie made all his money,” Dick reveals, his eyes twinkling behind wire frame glasses, “was gambling. He was a big card player. This isn’t written up much, but in Solvang was a little eating/drinking place with a billiard room in back. Behind a curtain was the card room.
“Solvang was a gambling center,” he declares. “All the gamblers came through. They’d go to Oxnard, Solvang, Guadalupe, Pismo, right up the coast.
“That’s how my grandfather made his living, too,” he adds. “He worked on a few farms, did a few things, but he was a gambler.”
As a child, Dick did his share of farm chores, including milking cows, delivering milk, and even raising pigs in a willow patch on Alisal Road for college money. After helping to deliver a calf that sent him sprawling in a puddle of muck, he decided to forgo farming.
In fair weather he’d fish in the river and on snow days, make a beeline for the nearby mountains. Nearly everyone in town drove a pick-up truck, and wealth was measured by grain storage and cattle herds.
“Growing up here, wow, was I fortunate,” Dick marvels. “I spent a lot of time in the river, learned to swim there, drank my first beer there. It was famous because of the steelhead that ran here. We never had fishing licenses, no one could afford them.”
Local children built makeshift rafts to see how far down the river they could go without hitting a tangle of barbed wire. Equally daring were the young couples, among them Dick and June, who rendezvoused beside the swirling water.
“There were some boy-girl dates that went on down there,” Dick admits with a grin. “There was a red bridge that went over the river and to kiss a girl under that bridge was pretty special.
“The Valley was a safe place,” he adds. “If you got in trouble the police would take care of you. Or take you home.”
Dick learned the cobbler’s trade in his parents’ shoe store and remains proud of the scars on his hands. As a young man, however, he focused on numbers – not shoes – and with June and him both working seven days a week, attended college and became a Certified Public Accountant.
“I’m really pleased I became a CPA,” Dick says, “because I had a wonderful career and got to do lots of fun stuff. I had clients who were big tomato ranchers, hay operators, cattle ranchers, and who had Arabian horses. Each industry that came along, I got to be involved in.”
Beyond the work, Dick treasures the friendships he formed with his clients, many of whom he regards as family. He recently consulted with the grandson of his first client, who was calling, in part, on behalf of the client’s great granddaughter, forging another link in the Valley network.
“One of the things I believe has made it possible for us to do some of the things we’ve done,” Dick says, “is we’ve had wonderful mentors.”
June adds, “If it wasn’t for Arden and Flossie Jensen, I don’t think Dick would have made it through college,” referring to the future superior court judge and his wife. The Solvang couple employed both Christensens during Dick’s school years and always sent them home with baskets of food.
“The greatest reward of being in business,” Dick remarks, “is when you can touch somebody’s life and make a difference through this mentoring process. And I’ve gotten to do that several times.”
Dick reveals that he and June agreed to tell their story because “it’s really not about us, it’s about our community and our two children, David and Diane. It’s about telling our grandchildren what our heritage is all about.”
Musing about life and his longtime home, Dick adds, “I’ve concluded that the Valley is a sanctuary. People gravitate towards it, and those who stay here take care of it.”
June’s theory about the magic of the Valley and the character of its people reflects the no-nonsense nature of her Finnish-Swedish heritage.
“Everyday I see people I’ve known all my life,” she says, her blue eyes alight in the afternoon glow. “It’s really special.
“Seeing some of these people,” she adds, “you get to relive and rethink your whole life. Living in the Valley keeps you humble.