John R. Christian, the Parks and Recreation Director for the City Sunnyvale, California, was recognized as a leader in the park and recreation field and was awarded the City of Sunnyvale’s "Distinguished Citizen of the Year" only last May. As Sunnyvale Mayor Robin Parker said on that occasion, "John Christian has redefined the term public service and is deeply involved in this community as a citizen, as a neighbor, and as a parent."
John also served as chair of the Legends in Parks and Recreation Committee and as Associate Editor for the Journal for Park and Recreation Administration.
He came to Sunnyvale in 1988 after serving as Chief of Operations for the Suburban Hennepin Regional Park District near Minneapolis for 19 years.
On his death, the California State Assembly also paid its tribute to John Christian by adjourning their meeting of the day and Dominic Cortese, Chair of the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee cited John’s leadership in the park and recreation field, which extended beyond Sunnyvale to the state and as an example to the nation. The Minnesota Recreation and Park Foundation has established a memorial fund in his honor.
Source: Academy Bulletin, 1996.
The following appeared in the Sunnyvale Sun, April 24, 1996
Dorolou Swirsky has only know John Christian for a few years, but she talks about him like he is an old friend. "The first day I met John, he walked right into my heart and sat down." Swirsky says.
"He is one of the most beautiful people I have met in my 85 years."
That’s the kind of thing a lot of people say about Christian.
The city will say even more about him May 9, when Christian, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, is honored as Sunnyvale’s Citizen of the Year. The ceremony is scheduled to take place during the State of the City celebration at Sunnyvale Town Center.
Among his other contributions, people praise Christian, 49, for forming partnerships with schools and other organizations. They say he has broadened after-school activity programs from the Community Center to school sites. He also participates in community events, such as opening-day ceremonies for Sunnyvale’s Little League teams, instead of sending someone else.
Former Mayor Pat Castillo says Christian brings a cohesiveness to the community. "He could have been home cutting his own lawn on Saturdays, but instead he was out on the field with the kids. You don’t always see a director so involved with day-to-day activities," say says.
Castillo, who as a member of the City Council helped choose Christian for the job, said he had a sparkle and enthusiasm that brought him out from the crowd.
"He stood head and shoulders above the rest. He had a certain drive and was ready for any challenge. We needed someone like that to give the department new direction," say says.
Although he tries to maintain a low profile, Christian says he is honored that others would think what the Parks and Recreation Department has accomplished has made a difference.
"To me, this is a job. This is what I do. I’m trying to do the best that I can. To be recognized for that is over and above what I would ever expect," he says.
Christian says he has always had a desire to work with people and make communities better places to live.
Christian, who has directed the department since 1988, said he enjoyed his earlier face-to-face work with kids as a summer leader, and he regrets that nowadays his job takes him away from that kind of direct contact.
Christian is pleased the Parks and Recreation Department has grown more customer-service oriented and is a distinct part of the community. "I take great joy that we’re service-minded as opposed to being dictatorial about our programs. We work to benefit customers," he says.
Christian has fostered strong partnerships between the city and schools and community organizations so both can benefit. For instance, Little Leagues hire their umpires, select coaches and staff snack bars while the city provides scheduling and facilities.
When asked about Christian, those who know him agree he is warm, sensitive and caring.
Swirsky’s friendship with Christian grew closer last year when she received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the National Parks and Recreation Association. He had volunteered to help her write an acceptance speech.
On one of these visits, Christian noticed a round, smooth stone resting on one of two pillars that stand on either side of Swirsky’s front gate. Swirsky told him she had found the stone in her yard. Christian later found a slightly larger stone in his own yard, and it now sits atop the other pillar.
Those stone are now a part of their friendship.
Vicki Piazza, a city planning commissioner who worked with Christian on the expansion of Fairwood park, said Christian is friends with everybody, "No matter where he goes, he knows people. When he looks at people, he’s very focused," she says.
Carol Butler, Sunnyvale’s deputy city clerk, says she treasures her friendship with Christian. The two share a passion for college basketball and always find time for a Monday morning recap of the past week’s activity.
"He’s always there for me. He always has time for everybody. He always sees the good in something and not the negative." she says, putting in that Christian is a modest man.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Christian grew up on baseball. He and his brother, Paul, spent a lot of time watching the Milwaukee Braves and Chicago Cubs put bats to balls.
"We both still love the game. I sort of followed in his footsteps although I didn’t achieve being president of my class in high school like he did. I look up to him," says Paul, a sport columnist for the Rochester Post-Bulletin in Minnesota.
Christian received a bachelor’s in recreation and park administration from University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, where his brother also attended school a few years later. Christian went on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
"We don’t see as much of each other because we’re so far away. I wish we lived closer. We never could touch base in the same state, which is kind of sad," he says. As a sportswriter, Paul obtained an extra credential to get John into the clubhouse and the press box for a visit.
When the two saw each other for holidays, they always ran together and would sit up talking, sharing a couple beers and reminiscing about old times, Paul says.
Christian has shared his love of baseball and other sports with his family. He lives in Sunnyvale with his wife, Carolyn, son Cory, 18, and daughter, Kelsey, 14. His children attend Homestead High School.
An avid sports fan, Christian coached in Sunnyvale Southern Little League until his son graduated from the program. Christian and Cory have a long-standing Friday Night tradition of traveling to Stockton or Lodi to watch minor-league baseball games.
Debbie Seguin, a friend of the family who also works with Christian on Music Boosters at Homestead, says Christian taught her son, Christopher, the ropes of getting players’ autographs at a San Jose Giants game.
"He always had a box of three-by-five note cards and an indelible marker," she says, which he takes to games and keeps handy when players are near. She adds that Christian’s wife no longer has a coat closet because it is chock full of baseball cards and memorabilia. She says whenever Christopher comes home from a visit with the Christians, he brings a memento from the closet.
"There’s not a life (John) comes in contact with that he doesn’t touch for the better. He’s the most loving giving person I’ve ever met." Sequin says. "What you see is what you get."
Christian constantly gives his time to benefit the community, she says, especially when it comes to the kids. He is serving his second year as president of Music Boosters, an organization that supports the marching band, drill team, color guard, orchestra and other music groups.
Sequin says Christian played the coronet, a small trumpet, when he was in high school, and has a love for the musical aspect of his kids’ lives. Cory plays trombone in marching band, and Kelsey is in the color guard.
"He’s so supportive of what his kids and his kids’ friends are doing," say says.
Christian supports his colleagues, too. Gene Endicott, a former Parks and Recreation Commissioner, says Christian was always helpful and took the role of commissioners seriously.
"He and other staff members made us feel more important than we really were," he says.
When Endicott and Christian would meet to talk business, it would always be in the early morning over a cup of Denny’s coffee.
When they had a few minutes before or after meetings, they would catch each other up on the goings-on in the major leagues, Endicott says.
"I always knew I could get an up-to-date score on games during Parks and Recreation Commission meetings, because John’s daughter would call his pager and punch in the score. I would get these notes passed down to me. He could even tell if it was the top or bottom of which inning," Endicott say, laughing.
Endicott says he was shocked, as was everyone, when Christian revealed after a meeting that he has been diagnosed with cancer.
Christian, who values his privacy, has not elaborated on his condition or treatments.
Despite his illness, Christian continues to manage the Parks and Recreation Department.
But his condition concerns his friends and colleagues, particularly Swirsky. In the past when Christian would jog by her house, he always moved those smooth stones from one pillar to another to say hello.
"He goes by morning and night, and I could always tell when he said hello because the stones had moved from one pillar to the other.
"They’ve been there for four weeks now, and that’s way too long."
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