Several weeks ago, we lost American Fork City Councilwoman Barbara Christiansen to cancer. Others have written eloquently of her, and her seat on the council has been filled by another able and well-respected member of the community, Ryan Hunter.
I wanted to write of her myself – and sooner, but I think it’s not too late. Notably, today began the filing period for our next municipal election. It’s a great time to reflect on a remarkable woman who wore out her life serving our community.
Barbara Christiansen made me less cynical – first about reporters, then about elected officials.
Barbara in the Byline
In 2001 my oldest son, then a fifth grader, won the grand prize in a regional science fair. This led to some media interviews. You can gauge my cynicism by what I told him: If they spelled his name correctly in their stories, that’s all he could expect. Anything else was a bonus.
Barbara was the reporter who took the time to understand the science and get it right in her story.
Most often I saw her at American Fork City Council meetings. I quickly learned to have an extra copy of everything, when I made a statement or presentation to the council, because Barbara would ask for them. She’d also ask substantive questions, not “gotcha” questions.
She took the journalistic high road, advancing the cause of self-government by keeping the people informed, to the extent that one reporter could. I never saw her take the much-traveled low road, spinning or otherwise abusing the facts to create or expand controversy.
Some reporters sent on local stories have neither the time nor the background to understand local issues and institutions before reporting on them. I think there’s room for mercy here, since most or all of them have multiple communities and issues on which to report. But, Barbara found – and spent – the time necessary to become an expert on American Fork.
One autumn, two teenagers, including one of my neighbors, died in a tragic accident which injured three others. I helped plan and conducted the neighbor boy’s funeral, which we held at the Alpine Tabernacle in American Fork, to accommodate about 900 people. We planned for the American Fork High School Marching Band to form an honor guard for the casket on its way from the building to the hearse, and then perform at the cemetery.
I told the family I wanted to call Barbara – only Barbara – and tell her how, where, and when things would take place, so she or her photographer could be in the right places at the right times, outside the tabernacle and at the cemetery. The family knew Barbara’s reputation too, and they agreed. We trusted her to be professional and humane, and she was.
On a personal note, when I was continually engaged in publishing opinion and analysis online about city issues and other topics, she encouraged me. I’m sure she sometimes disagreed, in both substance and style. Yet she was kind and encouraging.
Barbara on the City Council
If you’ll pardon my riffing off James Madison for a moment, if people were angels, we wouldn’t need governments. But people are not angels, so we do – and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to expect all our institutions to be filled with angels.
I try to be realistic about that, but my own cynicism is well documented and deeply rooted. Many people share it. Some exceed it, as when they think that every elected official, by virtue of holding office, is selfish and corrupt.
In two decades working with local officials in American Fork, both in volunteer roles and in writing about issues and elections, I’ve been surprised at how often my well-fed cynicism has been unwarranted. More than a few of them have proved to be conscientious, intelligent, well-meaning, and candid. Most of the others have been at least one, two, or three of those things, which helps.
Barbara was all of those things.
Campaigning for and serving in elected office is not the most relaxing role one can choose in retirement. I saw her work conscientiously to master even difficult technical matters which came before the council. Her native intelligence helped, but it would not have been enough with the work.
She wouldn’t say one thing to your face and do something different behind your back, and she wasn’t the sort who would publicly support other officials while acting to undermine them behind the scenes.
I’ve known a few elected officials who would happily and conscientiously find the right person in their respective government to answer your question or help with a specific problem, but who carefully avoided giving their own views on issues of legitimate concern to the electorate – as if they were judges, not the people’s elected legislators. Barbara was the opposite. When I discussed an issue with her, she told me where she stood and why. If she didn’t know yet, she’d tell me so and still describe her thoughts. She didn’t pretend to agree when she didn’t; she didn’t want me to pretend to agree with her if I didn’t. And I never heard her say anything in public or in private which I knew was not true.
That’s How It’s Done
She may have peers, including locally, in all these virtues. But I can’t name a better example in our local public life of kindness, integrity, common sense, hard work, intelligence, honesty, and basic human decency combined. If all reporters were like Barbara, public trust in the news media would be very high. If all elected officials were like Barbara … Well, you know the rest.
We are better for having had her among us. We’ll be better still, if we continue to remember her service and her qualities.
Two of her colleagues on the American Fork City Council shared their thoughts about Barbara with me, when I asked. Here’s what they said – and we’ll give them the last word.
Councilman Kevin Barnes
“I first met Barbara in 2007, shortly after our son was killed in Iraq. She came to our home to visit us in preparation for her news article. She was very professional and compassionate and showed real empathy. She was there to understand and learn for her article, so she could write a good tribute to him and his service, and then she did this with the excellent article she wrote.
“As I served with her on the council, she was always very well prepared and professional in her service. She had some wonderful perspectives on life and on what a city council should and should not do. This was all wrapped up in a wonderful person with a very pleasant personality.”
Councilman Clark Taylor
“I had the good fortune of knowing Barbara most of my adult life. I read her columns in our hometown Citizen with great interest and diligence. I remember the first time she interviewed me when I ran for council in 1995. I was young. … I was nervous and knew that nothing flashy or slick was going to get by Barbara. She was going to drill down to the actual content and write authentically about it. She was objective and articulate and had a tremendous grasp of reality. If she wrote about a subject, it was actual, not embellished. Over the years we became friends, and I appreciated her writing and storytelling acumen even more.
”When it came time for her council run, I was certain she would be an excellent candidate. She had watched and written about this city for decades. Every meeting for all those years, she had been in attendance, rarely missing. The experience and knowledge she could draw from would be more than any candidate in the past. She was objective and well read with all things American Fork City, and I was confident she would be a wonderful civil servant.
“For the first time in my life, aside from choosing my wife, I was 100% right. She was the consummate pro. She did the work. If she spoke out, it was salient, compelling content, never pontification. She wasn’t in love with her own voice, and everyone on the council paid attention.
“Her dedication to the city was perfectly manifest in her participation in our council retreat this past February. She had every reason in the world to stay home in recovery, participating virtually, but … when given the opportunity to be there in person, she was there. She offered feedback and, frankly, had the rest of us worried, just surveying her physical state. She was a bit subdued but still completely immersed.
“I will forever appreciate Barbara. She was knowledgeable, work willing and always kind. Our community will miss her involvement, objectivity and integrity. As a council we will miss unfailing example, her insight, work ethic and camaraderie. I have been so blessed by her association.”