OAKHURST—He Made a Difference. How many of us wish our epitaph could read like this? How many of us achieve that goal?
Lars Erik Thorson did.
Before his passing at age 60 after a long battle with end-stage renal disease, he impacted many lives, young and old, and he leaves a living legacy through them. His wife Kimberlee, his children Elizabeth and Joseph, and the hundreds of students he taught carry on the vision he left.
Theatre Was Lars’ Life
Beginning as a child actor who assisted his father in a variety of theatrical productions, Lars continued to pursue his interest through high school. In 1984, he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Emerson College in Boston, majoring in creative writing and theatre arts. He attended graduate school at University of California, Davis, and later graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy from Columbia University in New York City.
During his life he moved from Hawaii, where he was born, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Pensacola, Florida and Providence, Rhode Island, eventually landing in Southern California.
Lars met wife Kimberlee in 1985 while acting and stage-managing Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” for the Fair Oaks Theatre Festival. They married in 1987 and raised two children, Elizabeth and Joseph. From the Los Angeles area they moved to Oakhurst/Mariposa area in 2002 and raised their children in the mountains. They relocated to Fresno in 2011, but Lars continued teaching at Yosemite High School until his passing.
His teaching career spanned 30 years, from Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach to the last 20 years he dedicated to the students at Yosemite High School, where he taught theatre arts.
Evan Higgins, Yosemite High School art teacher, worked with Lars for about seven years. Evan emphasized that Lars dedicated himself to his students, sometimes calling them, irreverently and lovingly, his “Island of Misfit Toys.” Evan says, “He was a dedicated educator who taught as an actor, not as a teacher.”
Brought Students Challenging Plays with Difficult Subjects
Lars brought extremely challenging plays to his students and the community that often dealt with difficult subjects: people who were outsiders, for example. “He created a safe space, an atmosphere of caring and a place to be oneself,” Evan continued.
He worked in education throughout his life and produced over 40 plays and musicals during his tenure at YHS. Lars supported students in their various student-directed productions and mentored many students’ senior projects throughout the years. He also created a monthly lunchtime improvisation show he called “Lunchbox Theatre.” In addition, he taught classes in English and Journalism and directed Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” during the fourth season of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival. “The Outsiders” comprised one of Thorson’s final productions at Yosemite High, in November 2021. Thorson also penned and directed “Doing the Human Act” in 2015 at YHS.
Kellie Solomon taught with Lars throughout his 20 years at Yosemite High School. She called him “a lovely human” and someone who was better at keeping in touch with graduated students and friends than anyone she knows. He used every opportunity to let people know he was thinking about them.
Serious health challenges during the latter part of his life but never stopped him. Even as he sat undergoing dialysis for hours, he used that time productively to reach out. Kellie cites an email he sent to her and others. “This phrase came up today and since I am attached to a machine and immobile I’ve had time to think about it. What did we used to do well? Relationships. Students were not connected to their devices so they connected with their teachers and each other.”
His students frequently remarked that Mr. Thorson was a favorite teacher who knew how to listen to students, inspiring them to do their best work and be the best person possible.
What His Students Say
His students’ words reflect their admiration for him. When news of his death reached former students, remembrances poured in. Friend and former YUSD board member Monika Moulin shared the following student tributes for this story:
Words cannot describe this man. He was not only my Theater Arts teacher at Yosemite High School, but also a mentor, a father figure, and a damn close friend. Hug, text, or call your loved ones and show them how much they mean to you. I wish I had one more chance with this man. Thank you for everything LT. I know I say this a lot, but if it weren’t for Lars, I wouldn’t have pursued theater. If it wasn’t for Lars, I wouldn’t have pursued dance. If it wasn’t for Lars, I wouldn’t have pursued performance OR the gift of life. He gave me my first big role. He gave me his wisdom. He gave me his trust. He gave me the will to do what I wanted. When I heard the news this morning, I was about to start teaching my first class of the day at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. I held back the tears and moved onward. I hope that today, he is smiling at what I have been able to accomplish with all that he has given me. I am grateful. I love you Lars Thorson, thank you for everything! Jacob Caldwell
Just heard the devastating news that one of my favorite teachers has passed. Mr. Thorson, thank you for taking a chance on a awkward overly-enthusiastic 8th grader—Advanced Theatre holds a special place in my heart and is one of my most cherished memories. I loved performing and I am so grateful for the opportunities I had on the YHS stage. Thank you for believing in me Rest In Peace. Elise Keeler-Garcelano
Thanks for the memories Thorson. Thanks for the laughs. Thanks for asking me to be better every chance you could and supporting me exactly as I was in the meantime. Kelly Marie Mears
Lars spent his leisure time following sports of all kinds and was an avid Fantasy Football participant. He loved his dogs, as well as gardening, the ocean, and buying flowers for people. Whenever possible, he enjoyed attending theatre, museums, traveling, fine dining, and visiting with his mother, father, sister and their families. He also loved listening to sister Lisa Thorson’s performances as a jazz vocalist. He valued the time he spent watching his children in the various sports teams and performances, and he enjoyed coaching his son’s soccer teams.
Celebration of Life to be Held April 23
A celebration of life takes place at the Yosemite High School Theatre on April 23 at 2 pm.
If you wish to make a gift, the family asks that you donate to the Madera County Animal Shelter. Checks may be sent to 205 Tozer, Madera 93638. (There is no option for electronic donations.) Please indicate in memory of Lars Thorson and specify whether for adoption fund or spay/neuter fund.
Grateful acknowledgment is given to the following contributors to this article: Kimberlee Thorson, Evan Higgins, Monika Moulin, Kellie Solomon. Photos courtesy of Kimberlee Thorson.