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Firm as Yosemite

OAKHURST Calif. — As the ground began to shake Robert Painter dashed for cover in his office just south of the San Francisco Bay Area.
I stood in the vault doorway and watched the walls crumble he recalled of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that compounded the stress of some of his previous health challenges. It was time for a change of pace.
Photo by Greg HillOakhurst Ward youth Hannah Stutzman and Blaine Burrow show off their school sign.
As part of the change he resolved to move — either to Monterrey on the Pacific Coast or to the mountains. He chose the mountains and moved his family to Oakhurst where the forested Sierra Nevada runs south from Yosemite National Park. He is now a contented man who serves as bishop of the Oakhurst Ward in the Fresno California West Stake.
We love it here he said. I needed an area to get away from pressure and be around the Lords workplace.
The latter comment is his assessment of a location where nature is so magnificent.
As natural wonders go the area around Oakhurst is among the best crowned by Yosemites giant Redwoods mammoth granite formations waterfalls wild animals and fresh air.
No no dont think so was the answer given by Church members recently gathered at the meetinghouse for Mutual and other activities when asked if the ward has any connection to Yosemite. Then the Scouts and their leaders turned back to planning a school-holiday trip to that very park some to ascend to the crest of the breathtakingly humongous granite Half Dome others to the top of Yosemite Falls.
It is possible to take it for granted; an Oakhurst family National Park season pass in hand could enjoy an evening picnic there needing only about 30 minutes to travel each way.
Photo by Greg HillChance Thomas and daughter Tia find joy in the wooded backyard of their mountain home. He is an award-winning music composer and she is a champion speller.
Besides Oakhurst ward members live in such aptly named places as Bass Lake Fish Camp and North Fork. The ward shares the meetinghouse with the Coarsegold Ward whose members live in the vicinity of the next major community south.
Bishop Painter said Oakhursts approximately 14000 residents are mostly older retired people; there are few young families. The cost of living is high and though it is a dynamic town providing most essential services and desired amenities employment can be hard to come by. Bishop Painter has no problem running from an office near his home his own insurance and financial planning business that isnt geographically bound. But Scout leader Jeff Guynn a fireman for Fresno City is like many others who have to make the 45-mile commute to Fresno for work.
Assistant ward clerk Mark Gudmundsen a.k.a. National Parks Artist has drawn his livelihood from his surroundings. His landscape paintings mostly of Yosemite scenes sell well especially to visitors to the park. He has a studio in the lobby of Tenaya Lodge just outside Yosemite where tourists can watch him paint. He also has a gallery in Oakhurst.
Originally from Southern California Brother Gudmundsens family often vacationed at Yosemite. He loved the outdoors and painting. After serving a mission to Colorado he finished his education and used his talent to earn a living. In 1991 he and his wife Jan moved to Oakhurst where his painting career has flourished.
Among his work is a painting that hangs in the Fresno California Temple. He said he felt inspired while doing it and that the art piece kind of painted itself.
Music composer Chance Thomas the previous bishop of the Oakhurst Ward moved his family to the area in 1996 to work for a video game company. The company went out of business but he started his own business working in a studio within the window-dominated walls of his home in the forest.
He has composed the music for Oscar- and Emmy-winning projects and has done the scores for such video games as King Kong and Lord of the Rings.
He is not the only award-winning member of the family. Tia the oldest of his and his wife Pamelas three children has been to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. three times. This year she made it to the sixth round. When asked what she is doing to improve her spelling the 11-year-old said Im studying the dictionary.
Brother Thomas now a Sunday School teacher has taken advantage of living near Yosemite for missionary work. Some of the best missionary discussions Ive had with people have been in Yosemite he said. You cant help but ponder the power of Gods creative majesty when you see the Yosemite Valley.
Photo by Greg HillYosemite is home to wildlife and scenic wonders.
Missionary work is a challenge in Oakhurst because most residents are as set in their ways as the granite formations of Yosemite. But Bishop Painter indicated that the active members of the ward are also as solid in their faith as the Yosemite granite and they are involved in the community and in fellowshipping their neighbors.
In spite of the older demographic of the Oakhurst area there is strength of youth in the Church. About two dozen attend early morning seminary each day before crossing the street from the meetinghouse to Yosemite High School. Some are required to make a half-hour commute to get to seminary at 6:30 a.m. and that includes teacher Kathy Burrow.
After one class she said Seminary makes all the difference for these kids. Its the best way in the world to learn the gospel. Though the young men and young women face some bias against them they take it in stride she said and are involved in many school activities such as athletics music and student leadership.
Speaking after their seminary class Hannah Stutzman and Blaine Burrow agreed that they fit in just fine with their peers at the school and feel the Church gives them strength. Hannah said I like our small ward because its easy to get to know everyone personally.
She and Blaine each have plans for the future which include further education and for Blaine a mission. Whether the youth find a way to stay close to Oakhurst or move elsewhere they know they have been able to build firm foundations of faith in the shadow of the firm beauty and majesty of Yosemite National Park.
Photo by Greg HillOakhurst seminary students and their teacher Kathy Burrow cheerfully pose during early morning class in Oakhurst Ward meetinghouse. Youth diligently attend each day before crossing the street to Yosemite High School.
Photo by Greg HillA delicate flower grows in contrast to the massive rugged mountains surrounding it in Yosemite National Park.
Photo by Greg HillNevada and Vernal falls add to the splendor of Yosemite National Park. Oakhurst Ward members enjoy recreation in the nearby park.
Photo by Greg HillIn an expanse of granite splendor Half Dome towers over Yosemite home to wildlife and scenic wonders. Visitors flock to the park to enjoy its beautiful nature.
Photo by Greg HillBishop Robert Painter chats in his office on a weeknight. In Yosemites shadow he found the peace he sought in life.
Photos by Greg HillMark Gudmundsen stands next to some of the paintings of landscapes from the natural setting where he has made his home.
E-mail to: ghill@desnews.com

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