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Epilogue: James Christison left corporate life to attack hunger and discrimination

James Christison left his accounting job at Price Waterhouse (now PwC) for a career with the American Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches USA).

family photo
James Christison left his accounting job at Price Waterhouse (now PwC) for a career with the American Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches USA). family photo
Published Apr. 20, 2015

TAMPA — James Christison, who left an accounting firm to champion the rights of minorities and the poor, was no pacifist.

He was a boxer. He had served in Nagasaki after World War II and returned to service during the Korean War. When he ran for Congress in 1978, his words for incumbent C.W. Bill Young were among the toughest Young had faced.

At the same time, Mr. Christison's weapons were not those of war.

As chief executive officer of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Mr. Christison fought for American Indians, farmworkers and the elderly. He tried to create affordable housing but wanted government to do more.

He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and other cities.

Mr. Christison, a peaceful warrior for the downtrodden, died April 5 at his Tampa home in University Village. He was 87.

He wielded influence in virtually every position he held, most of them tied to his beliefs about social justice. In the 1970s, Mr. Christison served as vice president of the National Council of Churches, a post which allowed him to lead interfaith missions to impoverished parts of the globe.

"He had very strong opinions about issues," said Joyce Parr Christison, his wife since 1984. "He felt very strongly about the gun (control) issue, for women, for gay and lesbian persons, for the farmworkers."

In an October 1978 guest column for the Evening Independent, Mr. Christison, a Democrat, lamented political officeholders who are "excellent politicians but poor statesmen."

"They are often likable, pleasant folk but they do not have the training, experience or ability to conduct the affairs of our nation," he wrote.

Of Bill Young, then an eight-year congressman in District 6, Mr. Christison said, "He's not competent, he doesn't know the issues, he blunders all the time. I think he's very vulnerable."

The message did not take, despite the position papers he handed out door to door along with his pamphlets. Young won with 79 percent of the vote to Mr. Christison's 21 percent.

"He was probably too wonky," said City Council member Karl Nurse, who managed Mr. Christison's campaign. "And the challenge with wonky types is, it takes time to warm up to them."

In the early 1980s, Mr. Christison, who had already developed the Oak Cove and Oak Bluffs retirement communities in Clearwater, followed up with the 291-unit College Harbor on the Eckerd College campus. From 1989 to 1997, he served as vice president of finance for Eckerd College.

James Anderson Christison was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1927, the son of Scottish immigrants. He grew up in Hartford, Conn., where his father, a milkman, taught him to box.

Drafted into the Army in the immediate aftermath of World War II, he was stationed in Nagasaki, which the U.S. had partially destroyed with an atomic bomb. The U.S. Army Reserve called him back to active duty during the Korean War. Mr. Christison worked in a hospital in Germany, leaving as a master sergeant.

He completed his studies, in finance, at the University of Connecticut and become a certified public accountant. He married, had children and worked at the accounting firm then named Price Waterhouse (now PwC). The marriage, to Eleanor, lasted about 20 years before ending in divorce.

Four or five years into the job, the American Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches USA) asked Mr. Christison to become treasurer of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. He saw the job offer as a calling.

"He was on a career track, he was responsible for audits of major companies," his wife said. "But he was tapped."

The church later promoted Mr. Christison to chief executive officer of its Home Mission Society and associate executive of American Baptist Churches USA. In the 1960s, he negotiated an end to slant drilling by an oil company on land owned by the church and Indian tribes in Oklahoma and Arizona. As a result of those efforts, Mr. Christison was inducted into the Cheyenne tribe. A 2-foot-long feathered peace pipe from his induction ceremony hangs on the wall of his home.

He also befriended Russell Means after the American Indian activist led a 71-day armed takeover in 1973 of sacred grounds in Wounded Knee, S.D.

A huge photography buff, Mr. Christison took pictures wherever he went. They line the walls of his home. He captured farmworker families, lines of police officers during civil rights marches, and reefs explored while scuba diving with his wife in the Philippines, Hawaii and the Red Sea.

Mr. Christison sustained a head injury in a fall two months ago. He died on Easter Sunday.

At his service Saturday at First United Church of Tampa, one of Mr. Christison's most striking photos stood on the altar. Taken from the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, just behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it shows a crowd of some 250,000 stretching to the Washington Monument.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.