The Santa Ynez Valley mourns the loss of longtime resident Kris Russell Kersten, devoted Rotarian, lover of nature, proud father, and a man known for his humor, helpfulness and an irresistible candor that could turn strangers into friends within minutes of meeting him.
Kris was born in Bakersfield on February 20, 1942, the middle son of a Republican petroleum engineer from Kansas and a redheaded Democrat homemaker whose roots in California went back to the 1800s. It was a lively household. When later asked about what it was like growing up in a politically divided home, Kris said, “We were complicated. So what?”
The family spent their summers at a cabin in Huntington Lake, where a paraplegic neighbor and WWII veteran taught young Kris how to water ski. He became an expert and instructor, and later taught a young Jamie Lee Curtis how to ski. In the early 60s, the family relocated to Kansas, where Kris eventually graduated from Wichita State, majoring in biology.
Kris was a swing voter his whole life, but his love of his state, country, and community was unwavering. In the early 60s, he served as a backcountry patrolman in the Sierra National Forest, where he fought forest fires. In 1966, he enlisted in the Navy. During training at Camp Pendleton, he found a beehive and transported it closer to the mess hall so recruits could have fresh honey, but some rowdy Marines found it and threw rocks at it.
“I didn't really hold it against them,” he later said. “They were Marines on their way to Vietnam.”
Kris graduated as Honorman, specialized in dental technology, and served in Okinawa. There he met his first wife, Helen Lou Johnston, a Marine corporal from Toledo, Ohio. After a whirlwind romance in Okinawa, the pair welcomed a son, Jason, at Lemoore Naval Air Station in July of ‘69. A great believer in science and a lover of Star Trek, Kris insisted on wheeling the incubator into the base's TV lounge so his infant son could see humanity walk on the moon. Kris and Helen divorced in 1970. They both moved to the San Francisco Bay area and lived close to each other throughout Jason's youth. He carried a picture of Helen in his wallet his whole life.
Kris went on to become one of the most accomplished dental technicians of his time. His talent and love of helping others lead him into a teacher role. Dental laboratories all over the world hired him to train their staffs in his advanced techniques. “He made quite an impact in the industry both here in America and around the World,” said Felix Pages, a longtime colleague and friend. “He developed techniques so that technicians of any skill level would improve their ability to produce better work and faster.” Kris continually experimented with technology and developed his own line of dental lab products. He made teeth for several celebrities, including Jim Nabors, who utilized his services in 1985 while filming “Back to Mayberry” in Los Olivos.
Despite an impressive career, Kris's greatest fulfillment came from people, and serving his community as a member of the Santa Ynez Rotary Club. “He always joked that he was the puppet master behind our rotary club,” said member Mike Limmotta. “Not always out front, but he was involved in everything, and we are only just beginning to learn how important he was to our efforts.”
Kris was also a Master Diver, and well known and mourned among the SCUBA community in Cozumel, Mexico, where he was called, simply, “Kristino.”
Kris died in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital's Medical ICU on December 5. He joked with his caretakers, his son, and his friends up until the evening before he passed. His cherished and playful soul left his body peacefully, with his friends Deepa Willingham, Lou Karpf, Thomas Karpf, and his son Jason by his side.