Boats 08

John Marshall Christianson

December 1, 1921 ~ June 12, 2020 (age 98)


John Christianson passed away on June 12, 2020 in his apartment at Heritage Senior Living in Madison at the age of 98, or as he would put it, 98 & 1/2.  John lived his whole life in Milwaukee until convinced by his son to move to Madison in 2012.  He was born on December 1, 1921, the eldest of two sons, to John and Rose (Rosman) Christianson.

John married his wife Marie Chworowsky in 1943, having met her in the Bay View High School orchestra viola section.  They were together since that fateful meeting, including 72 years of marriage, until 2015, when Marie died.  John loved Marie deeply, and was very proud of their long and successful marriage.  He briefly attended what is now UW-Milwaukee in engineering until his first son was born, at which time he became a sheet metal worker, staying in that occupation until his retirement at age 62.  For the last two decades of his work life, he was his company’s full time representative at Columbia Hospital, designing and fabricating whatever projects the hospital needed.

John was training to become a bomber pilot during WWII when his family learned his brother had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and later died in a German prison camp.  As his family’s sole surviving son, he was converted to a mechanic and stayed stateside for the rest of the war. 

John was a skilled athlete who ran track in high school and competed in speedskating with his younger brother prior to WWII. He also became an accomplished small sailboat skipper in his youth.  After the war, he returned to competitive small boat sailing, eventually winning his National One Design sailing class national championships 9 times, before switching to an Olympic class boat, the Finn Dinghy.  He ultimately qualified for and competed in two US Olympic Team Final Trials, even though he weighed about 150 lbs and most of his competitors looked like Green Bay Packers players (and we’re not talking about the kickers).

He was an internationally known Finn Class technical expert, who served as the measurer for assuring that all boats were within legal specifications at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as well as for a couple of Finn Class World Championships. 

In 1969, he and his son Roy borrowed a 470 (Olympic class sailboat) and finished 2nd in the inaugural 470 US National Championships, narrowly losing to old friend Peter Barrett, who had won the gold medal in the Star Class the previous year at the Mexico City Olympics.

One of his other great athletic loves was alpine skiing, in which he competed into his 86th year.  His crowning ski racing achievement came when he competed in and won his age group in Aspen, CO for the NASTAR National Championships.  When John was in his early 50s, he took up tennis and played into his middle 80s.  In his late 30s through his 50s, he loved to join his son Roy and his friends to play touch football.  Since John was almost 25 years older than everyone else, his good friend Ken Ebert formulated a special rule whereby opposing receivers were forbidden to run fly patterns if John was covering them, thus assuring a more level playing field.

John was an accomplished inventor who received three patents – two for sailing gear and one for designing and fabricating a device to resolve lower back problems.  This last device was used for some years at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee.  In 1966, while competing in the Finn Class in the Pan American Games, he designed and built a special shock cord device (soon known around the world as a JC Strap) to pull the boom out in light winds.  This revolutionized light air Finn racing around the world.  A couple of years later, he designed and built a measuring jig that assured that all boats in the burgeoning 470 sailboat class would be within permissible tolerances.  It so impressed the International Olympic Committee that it cinched the boat’s entry as a new Olympic sailing class in 1968.

John and his wife spent 26 summers following their retirement at their cottage on Lake Leelanau in Leland, MI, where John sailed, wind surfed and played tennis with great regularity.  They were visited most of those years by their son and their granddaughter, Lauren.  John regularly attended daily Men’s Coffee Hours at the local fire station there, where he made good use of his story telling skills.  He could also be seen riding his bicycle with very small wheels around the village of Leland, and generally becoming one of the town’s characters.

John was a kind, funny, inquisitive, pioneering, loving, entertaining and lively soul.  He had a calm presence blended with a vivacious, rambunctious personality.  He taught his children and grandchild to appreciate the natural wonders of the world through curiosity, exploration and activity.  John was a great friend to his only grandchild, from the day she was born through her 30th year, teaching her to discover nature, encouraging her dreams, humoring her performances, and always complimenting her.

Early on, John would often take Lauren to Lake Leelanau to look for snails under rocks, skip stones, and look into the water.  John reminded her how lucky she was to have the parents she does and the childhood she had.  Some of Lauren’s best childhood memories include walking down the magical path to the lake with John and looking upon the wonders the lake beholds.  John also showed Lauren the Sleeping Bear Dunes, joining her in gleefully jumping down steep inclines into the sand.  He set a wonderful example of living life to the fullest through activity, humility, togetherness, gratitude and joy.

John LOVED chocolate – possibly more than anyone.  Whenever Lauren would return from Fishtown with chocolate fudge, half of it would be missing by morning.  John was also one of the world’s slowest eaters, to which one might credit his long and healthy life.  John’s family would sit at the table until he was finished, amused by how long he took, and enjoying this unique tradition.  He was mischievous, often playing pranks and cracking jokes that left his friends and family in stitches.  His smile lit up a room.  His expression of elated surprise when he saw the people he loved warmed their hearts.

John was preceded in death by his wife Marie, his son Miles, his only sibling, Roy, and his parents, John and Rose.  He was also preceded by his brother-in-law John Chworowsky and his sister-in-law Carol Towne.  John is survived by his son, Roy, his granddaughter, Lauren, his sister-in-law, Johanna Chworowsky, his nephews Peter and Andrew Chworowsky, and his niece, Elizabeth Kelly.  Once the pandemic ends there will be a memorial held in either Madison, Milwaukee or Lake Mills.


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