Russell Christensen, 73, Navy veteran, teacher, law clerk, real estate manager

January 22, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Russell E. Christensen, who began his working life as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota and ended it as a law clerk to one of Maryland's most distinguished judges, died of lung cancer Wednesday at his Towson home. He was 73.

The native of Wynot, Neb., had a varied career. He also had been a World War II Navy seaman, a real estate manager for Phillips Petroleum Co. and an assistant to historic preservationists in Annapolis.

His wife, the former Nona Kastl, said the couple's 51-year marriage began with an introduction worthy of a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy: In a freshman English class at a small Lutheran college in 1946, she hauled off and slugged him in the jaw.

"I had very long hair and it always fell over the back of my seat," Mrs. Christensen explained, "and the boys in the class were always trying to tie an eraser or a pencil in my hair."

One day, she felt a sharp tug and looked down to discover that someone had cut off a large piece of her hair.

"I was so upset, I turned around and swung at the first person I saw. It happened to be him," she said.

As she hollered accusations, the quiet Navy veteran said nothing -- the only one in the room who kept his peace.

"It got so rambunctious that the professor said, `Class dismissed,'" she said. The next day, Mr. Christensen's younger brother confessed that he was the malefactor.

"I felt it was my duty to apologize to this guy, so I did," Mrs. Christensen recalled. "He said, `I forgive you, but you have to buy me coffee every morning for the rest of the semester.'"

She did, and they were married in 1949.

That year, Mr. Christensen transferred to the University of South Dakota, graduating with a degree in education and modern languages in 1950. His first teaching assignment was at a rural one-room schoolhouse. He later became an English teacher and principal at Centerville (S.D.) High School.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Christensen went to work as a real estate manager for Phillips Petroleum Co., negotiating the purchase of gas station sites for the growing company.

In 1961, he was transferred to Baltimore, where he scouted for station sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

At the same time, Mr. Christensen studied at Mount Vernon School of Law, which later became part of the University of Baltimore. After earning his law degree in the late 1960s, he worked on land acquisition for the state of Maryland.

In 1973, he became assistant chief clerk for Judge Robert C. Sweeney, the late chief judge of the District Court system and an architect of the modernization of Maryland's court system.

Mr. Christensen continued to use his real estate expertise on historic preservation projects, his wife said. One of the transactions he worked on was the transfer of Annapolis' Brice House, described as "the most beautiful house in Colonial America," from a bankruptcy court proceeding to Historic Annapolis Inc.

Mr. Christensen was a skilled amateur woodworker, who built scaled-down roll-top desks for his children and exquisitely detailed doll furniture for his grandchildren.

A funeral service was held Saturday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Lisa Kelly, and a son, Eric Christensen, both of Towson; two brothers, Cecil Christensen of Davidson, Mich., and Gary Christensen of Sarasota, Fla; two sisters, Lorraine Lingert of Sarasota and Wanda Davies of Milton, Iowa; and five grandchildren.

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