When John Christian took on a job, he went all out.
As a pioneering disk jockey in the 1950s, he was called “Sir Walter,” and true to form, could be seen in public sporting a bowler or top hat or in tails, and sometimes wearing a monocle.
As a salesman and business owner he overcame White prejudice and excelled. And as a television newsman and producer, he won many awards.
John Christian, Sir Walter, passed away Nov. 29 following a long illness. He was 92.
Local television host Chris Moore said Christian paved the way for him and other African-American broadcasters.
“I wanted to do a tribute with him about five years ago on ‘Black Horizons,’ but his health wouldn’t allow it,” said Moore. “It’s the passing of an icon. He pioneered a lot for us in radio and TV. He was an example of how to succeed that we all hope to emulate. He will be missed.”
After graduating from Virginia State University in 1940, Christian played in the semi-pro baseball circuit in New Jersey with the Orange Triangles.
“I never made a quarter at sports,” he said.
He had to make a living, so he went to work managing one of the largest liquor stores in New Jersey. Christian was successful, but was in an awkward position because he was the only Black state store manager in New Jersey.
In 1951, he headed for California to seek his fortune, but never made it past Steubenville, Ohio. At the time, there were no Blacks doing anything worthwhile there, he said.
“They were still fighting the Civil War in Steubenville,” said Christian.
In spite of the racism he faced, Christian got a sales job. He excelled to such an extent that he was able to quit and open the first Black-owned retail business in eastern Ohio.
One day in 1955, he made a routine sales call to WILY radio in East Liberty. Christian’s sonorous voice mesmerized the station manager. Within days, he had sold his store and was hosting his own radio show.
Two years later, Christian, now dubbed Sir Walter by a Time magazine writer who liked his slight British lilt, moved to WAMO. There, joining Bill Powell and the platter pushin’ papa, Porky Chedwick, he gained a whole new audience of listeners.
“That’s when WAMO took off,” Christian said years later. “There was a segment of people who obviously appreciated what Porky was doing. They were primarily White people. When they brought on African-American talent, that’s when the total community, White and Black, became involved.”
In the late 1960s, when marketing personnel began taking control of music playlists from the disk jockeys, Christian objected and quit WAMO.
In 1969, he joined the news staff at WIIC, now WPXI as a reporter. He later became a producer and was repeatedly honored for his work covering every aspect of life in Pittsburgh, from sports and politics to business and education.
Christian’s full talent for community affairs programming was realized when he began producing features, news stories and talk shows. He won national honors for “Blacks in the Republican Party,” “The Hon. K. Leroy Irvis” and “Rumble in the Jungle.”
His public affairs and production credits include: “Starting Today,” “Talking Pittsburgh” and “Black Impact.” He left WPXI in 1992, but continued to serve as a community liaison and consultant for the station for another seven years.
In his later years, Christian devoted himself to charity, establishing the John Christian Charity Trust Fund to awards grants to different area social and community cause, one of which brought his other great love, golf to urban Black children. The charity’s major fundraiser was the annual John Christian Celebrity Classic.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for John. He was one of the giants on whose shoulders I stand,” said WQED President and CEO George Miles. “I’ll always remember his humor and his encouragement. That’s what he was about.”
(Services for John Christian will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the POISE Foundation, One Gateway Center, Suite 500, 420 Fort Duquesne Blvd., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222.)
(Send comments to cmorrow@ newpittsburghcourier.com.)