William J. Christopher, 85, Civil War buff Contractor had sought a role in 'Gettysburg'

July 08, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

When a Hollywood movie studio began filming "Gettysburg" at the historic Pennsylvania battlefield in 1992, William J. Christopher went to the site dressed as a Confederate soldier fully expecting to at least be used as an extra, said James Holechek, a longtime friend and fellow Civil War buff.

"They wouldn't let him participate because of his age, but he stayed around and met the actors, Martin Sheen and Sam Elliott. He was just honored to be on the battlefield," Mr. Holechek said.

That was typical of the enthusiasm Mr. Christopher, a local Civil War lecturer, had for the conflict, say friends and family members. The 85-year-old died Friday of cancer at Pikesville Nursing Home.

While he made his living as a contractor for many years, Mr. Christopher lived for lively discussions about the Civil War, Mr. Holechek said. An East Baltimore native, Mr. Christopher's interest in the war apparently was sparked by his vivid memories of seeing World War I soldiers march along Broadway to board ships for France, Mr. Holechek said.

"He started off studying about World War I. And it's sort of a natural evolution to go from war to war," Mr. Holechek said. "He could remember dates and facts that most people would never remember. He could recall how many troops fought at Culp's Hill in Gettysburg or how many died at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day of the war."

Mr. Christopher, a Union sympathizer, marked the anniversary of that infamous date at Antietam by taking his family there to attend the memorial service each September for years.

He was largely a self-educated man. He quit public school in the ninth grade shortly after his father's death in 1922 and went to work to help his family.

In 1932, he founded Christopher & Sons Contracting, which he ran for 45 years, mostly renovating homes and businesses.

However, he was probably more widely known for his Civil War lectures to local groups and the tours of Gettysburg he led for schoolchildren.

Mr. Christopher was the oldest and one of first members of the Baltimore Civil War Round Table, which meets monthly in Parkville to discuss issues surrounding the conflict. Also, he was a key fund-raiser for the Maryland Civil War memorial at Gettysburg.

In January 1934, he married Helen Huda in Sykesville. They settled near Patterson Park, and moved to Owings Mills about 1949.

His Owings Mills home is sort of a Civil War museum, family and friends say.

"In his den, the walls are lined with books, paintings and drawings, and everything else associated with the war; it's all over his house," Mr. Holechek said. "He was well-known and respected in and around Baltimore for his knowledge of the Civil War, particularly concentrating on [the battles of] Antietam and Gettysburg."

Mr. Christopher's other great interest was gardening. He had one of the largest private collections of peonies on the East Coast, Mr. Holechek said.

The two interests combined in his back yard, where he planted about 35 seedlings of trees plucked from Civil War battlefields on the East Coast, Mr. Holechek said.

The Christophers were deeply saddened by the death of their son, Robert Christopher, 58, in May 1995 of cancer. He was a prominent community activist and conservationist in eastern Baltimore County.

The elder Mr. Christopher was diagnosed and treated for cancer about 10 years ago. He became seriously ill a year ago after suffering a recurrence of the disease. He had been at the nursing home for the past two weeks.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow, after a 9 a.m. viewing, at Grace Bible Baptist Church, 1518 N. Rolling Road in Catonsville. Mr. Christopher built the redbrick building that houses the church's Sunday school classes.

In addition to his wife, survivors include four sons, William of Baltimore, Richard of Manchester, Cranston of Severn and Franklin of Owings Mills; one daughter, Helen Foster of Montgomery, Ala.; 17 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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