Friends and family described John Christgau as a brilliant writer with a tremendous sense of humor who established a sense of community wherever he went.
The prominent author, educator and Belmont resident died Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the age of 84 after suffering a heart attack.
“He was amazing and super inspiring,” daughter Jennifer Christgau said. “He had an incredible gift for figuring out what made someone special and he wouldn’t just say that, but made sure for the rest of your life you knew that and were going to fulfill your potential.”
Many can attest to that, including students he taught going back to the 1960s who would regularly call or share lunch with him.
One of those students was KCBS news anchor Jeff Bell. John Christgau taught journalism to Bell and was his newspaper advisor at San Bruno’s Crestmoor High School in the early 1980s.
“I’ve lost my mentor and a great friend,” Bell said. “For nearly 40 years, John and I stayed in contact and he remained my mentor throughout the entire stretch. We’d grab coffee in San Francisco every two to three months and swap stories on our latest projects and John was always working on a new book or podcast and he inspired me with his passion not only for writing, but for life.”
John Christgau is survived by his wife Peggy Christgau, daughters Jennifer and Sally Christgau and son Erick Christgau.
He was born into a family of writers in Crookston, Minnesota, in 1934 and moved to Minneapolis during the war. From a young age, writing and basketball were his two big passions, Jennifer Christgau said. He played basketball in college, coached students and wrote about the sport and its history in a number of his books.
John Christgau published more than 11 books, including fiction and non-fiction stories: one about a Mustang fighter plane, another about a horse fixing scheme in the 1930s and one of his best known books, “Enemies,” is an account of internees in the United States during World War II. He also wrote poems, plays and completed one season of a podcast about the Payless murders in San Mateo.
“One of the most remarkable things about him is he’d walk into a room of people he didn’t know and he’d see each person as someone he might get a good story from, and he’d learn that person’s history or what made them tick and he had an incredible ability of making you feel like you were the most important person in the room,” Jennifer Christgau said. “He’d meet people and hear their stories and he’d often find book topics in those conversations. ... He was a really skillful interviewer, listener and dogged researcher. He’d relentlessly pursue data, figures and work the legal or government system to get whatever it is he needed to tell his story.”
She said her father would wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast and then sit in his office and write from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.
“He’d just go on a tear and maybe stop for lunch, but keep writing and writing,” she said. “His main passion was writing and anything that detracted from writing he found annoying. He was mostly annoyed with his medical state not because he was in pain, but it made it so he couldn’t write. He hated doctor’s appointments because it was time that could be spent writing.”
John Christgau’s first book, “Spoon,” was published by Viking Press in 1978 and won The Society of Midland Authors prize for best fiction work that year. He was simultaneously writing and publishing books while working as an English teacher, first at Crestmoor High School and then at San Mateo High School, where he later became vice principal until he retired in 1990.
Prior to his career in education, he enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Oahu, where he was an intelligence officer.
He attended a number of colleges, including San Francisco State University, where he played basketball, earned a master’s degree in creative writing and met his wife. Monday marked their 58th anniversary.
While attending university, he also met Steve Gehre, who described John as his best friend. Gehre would go on to teach at Crestmoor as well after John Christgau put in a good word for him.
“He was one of the funniest people alive. His humor was special,” Gehre said, adding that John Christgau regularly wrote humorous memos satirizing certain aspects of the job. “[Those memos] were priceless and I have a whole stack of them that I’ve saved since 1963.”
While working at San Mateo High School, one of his colleagues was Debby Martin and the two worked together for at least 10 years.
“I taught for 32 years and I knew many good administrators and there were two of them who were head and shoulders the best — John was one of them,” she said. “He was unbelievably kind and funny and could’ve been a standup. He had this very keen analytical mind and ability to talk to people who didn’t agree, whatever the issues were.
“And he was a brilliant English teacher,” she continued. “He loved the spoken word and loved reading and what it could open up for people and he convinced a lot of kids to love it too. ... And he respected all staff, from custodians to people with Ph.D.s. People would smile when they saw him coming down the hall.”
Former longtime Hillsdale High School principal Don Leydig called John Christgau a legend in San Mateo and recalled “a real favor” he did for the school in 1993. John Christgau arrived at Hillsdale as a substitute for the assistant principal, who was on disability at the time, and that year he put together an “extensive” application that resulted in Blue Ribbon accreditation.
“[The application] read more like a novel about a school. He gave life to what are typically dry educational applications,” Leydig said, adding that John Christgau also assembled a successful Blue Ribbon application for San Mateo High School.
John and Peggy Christgau have been Belmont residents for 50 years. They bought their home in the Belmont Heights neighborhood at a time when it was surrounded by empty fields, and he did much of his writing there in an office with a view extending to the East Bay.
John lost his leg four years ago because of an infection and used a prosthetic, but that never slowed him down and he never complained, Jennifer Christgau said.
He could be seen around town at Lunardi’s, buying ingredients for dishes he was inspired to prepare after watching cooking programs featuring celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri. He was also a regular at Vivace Ristorante in Belmont, a variety of bookstores and the Belmont library, which hosted book signings every time he published. He donated all proceeds from those events to the library.
“Whenever he did something at the library, it was standing room only because he had such a following,” said Pat Barkett, president of the Friends of the Belmont Library.
There will be no services, but the Christgau family is raising money for a memorial in John’s honor at the Belmont Library. Visit gofundme.com/john-f-christgau-memorial-fund to donate.
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