The Saints of St. Johns


Members in this Arizona community still demonstrate the faith of early Latter-day Saint colonizers who settled along the Little Colorado River.

The Saints of St. Johns

Milford and Doreen Richey

Doreen’s handsome sideboard covered with cups and mugs reveals where the Richeys served their mission. The top shelf of the hutch is lined three-deep with delicate china cups from all over England.

Milford and Doreen Richey returned to St. Johns this past year from their mission. “It was glorious,” says Milford. Both he and his wife grew up in St. Johns, but because of Milford’s work in radio broadcasting as an engineer, they reared their two children in Dallas and Phoenix. They moved back to St. Johns in 1977 when both their aging parents needed their help.

Milford set up a cable TV business in St. Johns, which he operated until he and Doreen went on their mission. Now that they’re back, they’re busy in the St. Johns Second Ward. Doreen is Relief Society president and Milford is an assistant clerk in the St. Johns stake.

The favorite aspect of St. Johns for Milford and Doreen is its traditions—along with “just the simple life of trust between citizens.” Those traditions include elaborate celebrations of both the Fourth and Twenty-fourth of July. On the Fourth, citizens are awakened by the explosions of thirteen sticks of dynamite, then are treated to speeches by veterans, to barbecues, to games, and finally to a fireworks display. The Twenty-fourth is actually celebrated over a three-day period that includes a camporama, dinners, a family-style rodeo, and a parade.

“People from all over try to get back here for those celebrations,” Brother Richey sighs. “Those gatherings really let you feel the spirit that’s kept this town alive. Lots of great stories are shared around those fires and at those dinners. Lots of great stories.”

Steve Bradburn and Risa Udall

One student in St. Johns is especially grateful for a devoted teacher. His name is Steve Bradburn, and the teacher is Risa Udall.

Of the four hundred students at St. Johns High School, each year a handful are selected to represent the school in academic competitions called the Academic Decathlon. “The school is too small to afford Advanced Placement courses,” says Risa, “so this program offers many of the same rigors.”

Ten subjects are studied intensively after school every day with the help of a skilled and dedicated coach—Risa Udall, an English teacher who has also taught early-morning seminary. The combination has proved successful: St. Johns has taken first place in its region for the last four years.

To prepare the students for this college-bowl-type competition, Sister Udall selects a number of students both from among honor students and from among average students. Steve Bradburn was one of the average students, but with her guidance over a year and a half, Steve has blossomed.

Steve had little self-confidence and little motivation when Risa selected him to study. But the combination of the decathlon and the stake’s youth pioneer trek gave Steve a dramatic boost of self-esteem.

His mother describes the difference: “Steve experienced an incredible transformation. He’s more mature, more considerate, more appreciative. Risa Udall is a true teacher.”

In Steve’s own words, “Sister Udall became a model for me of what having knowledge can do to enrich your life. She opened my eyes to a whole new world of appreciation. She takes a personal interest in her students and is the smartest person I know.”

Like the other nine team members, Steve has developed skills of speaking intelligently about classical and romantic music, about why Renoir is his favorite painter, and what is valuable about studying astrophysics.

Last year, when the awards were given at the competitions and St. Johns took top honors again, Steve Bradburn was among the best and the brightest. He received third place in math, second in science, and first in economics, fine arts, literature, history, and the varsity-level interview.

As a result of Risa Udall’s efforts, Steve Bradburn has discovered not only that he has a keen memory, but that he loves to learn.

Denis and Carol Ashton

When you walk into a mechanic shop to have your car repaired, you may not expect to hear Wagner’s Tannhäuser blasting from large speakers on the walls. But Denis Ashton is an unusual auto mechanic.

When Denis and Carol came to St. Johns in 1972, Denis held a master’s degree in automotive and industrial education from BYU. He began by teaching, but he has since opened his own automotive shop. Carol teaches piano and is a school-board member.

The Ashtons have a married son living in Safford, a son serving a mission in Madrid, Spain, and one studying architecture in Mesa. The youngest three children still live at home. “The things I’ve come to love most about St. Johns,” Carol says “include the warmth of the people and the way they welcome you, the way everyone watches out for each other’s children, and the smallness that keeps everything close to home and manageable.”

Then she gives the standard, though short, list of the town’s shortcomings: limited selections for consumers. If there is a unanimous complaint about life in this small town, it is that when you need new shoes for the family or want to go to a movie, you have to drive to one of the larger towns nearby.

“But Denis and I manage to keep pretty busy,” she explains. “Denis directs the volunteer ambulance crew and is assistant chief of the volunteer fire station, in addition to being on the town’s economic development committee and serving as president of the elders quorum in our ward.

“We came for the quality of life St. Johns offers,” she adds, “and we haven’t been disappointed.”

Brian and Marcia Heap

As a man fascinated with flight, Brian Heap lives in a good place. Brian and his wife, Marcia, live high on the western slope of town just above the high school, surrounded by fields. From those fields over the years, countless hurt hawks and spent sparrows have found their way into the Heaps’ infirmary for birds.

The seven Heap children, ranging in age from seven to eighteen, have grown accustomed to their father’s way with wounded birds. It’s nothing official, but even the Fish and Game Department has come to rely on Brian’s capability and his success in restoring injured birds to health.

“They will bring raptors to me—birds of prey—that have been hurt someway,” says Brian, unassumingly. “We’ve had good luck most of the time.”

When there’s not a bird to care for—that is, besides the family’s pair of bright cockatiels, Herman and Sandra, and their yellow finch, No-Name—Brian likes to fly large remote-control airplanes with his children. The wingspan of these hefty toys is often six feet across, and he builds them himself of light wood, covering them with a heat-shrink vinyl skin.

The son of a rancher, Brian met Marcia when both of them played in the band at Eastern Arizona College. He plays the trumpet, and she, the French horn. Marcia volunteers a good deal, helping the elderly and widows in town, and serves in the ward Primary presidency. Along with being Blazer B leader, Brian likes to get involved in his children’s 4-H projects.

Joey and Lakay Grant

The search for gold began soon after Joey and Lakay Grant were married, before they graduated from Arizona State University. And the search has continued ever since.

“Some people search for security in their occupation, and some search for opportunity,” says Joey Grant, great-grandson of Jedediah M. Grant—counselor to President Brigham Young. Joey is a carpenter, businessman, and—like his father—a gold prospector. He has panned for gold from Colonia Dublan to the Yukon territories.

But he and his wife are better known in St. Johns for the way they have mined another form of gold—memories. Joey and Lakay Grant have been activities directors in the Second Ward for ten years and have been creating golden moments to share with other members of the stake.

The Grant’s library of scrapbooks, photo boards, and videotapes of a decade of events could rival a professional portfolio. “We have a lot of fun and have had some deeply spiritual moments doing this,” Joey smiles. “The kids love to relive many of the stake adventures. It seems to mean a lot to young people to know how much others care about preserving these meaningful experiences.”

So skilled have the Grants become that their videotapes of the important activities and events of recent years—edited and dubbed, with music soundtracks and voice-over narratives—are considered comparable to TV documentaries. Whatever the event—youth pioneer treks or Christmas dinners for widows—Joey and Lakay are on hand with cameras whirring.

“Joey loves to do these projects,” says Lakay, who has her own special tradition for preserving memories. Every missionary sent from their ward receives from her a “Missionary Book”—a personal book full of photographs of his or her involvement in stake activities while growing up. Lakay has done the same for the last four bishops released in the stake.

In the long run, these rich memories are the only true gold anyway.

Tim and Sharon Raban

They say you can tell a real cowboy by the tilt of his hat and the fit of his jeans. On both counts, Tim Raban qualifies. As much as anything else, it’s the ranch life that brought Tim back to St. Johns after he and Sharon were married.

“We wanted to work beside our children as they grew up,” says the six-foot father of three, who in his thirties maintains the broad-shouldered physique of the wrestler he was in high school. “I love ranch work,” he adds, twisting wires taut as he repairs a stretch of fence retaining his small herd of thirty cows. “I grew up working hard, and it’s in my blood. Our way of life won’t give my children much time that they don’t know what to do with. We’ll keep busy together.”

At age four, their daughter Jacqueline began riding beside Dad on her own horse as he went to do his daily chores on the ranch. Now that she’s five, Jackie is mentor and coach to Tyler, who at age three rides in the saddle behind her, his black cowboy hat bobbing and swaying as they check on calves, fences, and expectant mother cows.

The Rabans both served missions—Tim to Montana and Sharon to Ireland. After their missions, they met at BYU, where both earned degrees in education. Besides teaching her own three children, Sharon tutors local students after school in math and reading. Tim, a cowboy from his earliest memories, teaches eighth-grade science, he says, “so I can afford to ranch.”

Naturally confident and well-directed, Tim combines his skills in education and ranching to provide some wonderful summers for boys who benefit from a change in environment. Tim brings boys onto his ranch for the summer, where he teaches them the things he loves best—hard work and the satisfaction of putting oneself to the test. They have a lot of fun in the process. “Out here,” Tim explains, “it’s possible to make doing the right thing easy, and the wrong thing difficult.”

Sharon says he’s a master budgeter who really knows how to save. “He’s building up this ranch without going into debt,” she says with admiration. Similarly skilled, Sharon runs her home like a miniature elementary school—constantly sharing ideas with her preschoolers and giving piano lessons.

Tim has served as a stake missionary and now serves as a Primary teacher. Sharon is a counselor in the St. Johns Fifth Ward Young Women organization.

[photo] Some of the Ashtons: (from left) Quinn, Carol, Felicia, Denis, Colby, and (seated) Ryan.

[photo] Brian Heap shares his interest in flight with Brock, Scott, Barry, and Jennifer.

[photo] Tim and Sharon Raban and their children Jackie, Tyler, and Randall.

[photos] Photography by Craig Dimond and J. Scott Knudsen