Lawyer is blind, but doesn't miss much

Published April 25, 2005 12:38 am
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BEAVER - After a career that spanned 47 years as Beaver County attorney and later as the southwestern Utah county's public defender, John Christiansen has seen it all.

Not literally; Christiansen is blind.

Nowadays, he spends retirement like any other 80-year-old - daily trips to the post office and grocery store, working around home and helping out neighbors. He does so without a cane, a guide dog or a personal assistant.

"I don't really miss being an attorney," he says. "It was time" - especially after 36 years (nine terms) as county attorney and 11 as a public defender.

"I never found his lack of sight to be a hindrance," says 5th District Judge J. Phillip Eves, who as a defense attorney used to go up against Christiansen. "I can recall a specific case that involved an individual who was charged with assault with a golf club. John set the bag of golf clubs on the floor and, during my presentation, I picked up the bag and moved it far off to the side. When John got up for his turn to address the court, he walked immediately to where I had set the clubs, picked them up and replaced them to their original place."

Christiansen has spent his life getting around his disability. Born in Beaver in 1924, the fifth of six children, he was only 20 months old when doctors discovered he had glioma, a tumor behind his eye. He had the eye removed. At age 4, glioma struck again, forcing doctors to remove his remaining eye.

"I remember a little about colors, but not much," Christiansen says. "As for getting around town and doing other things, I've had 76 years to practice, I really never think about it."

His parents, determined to see their son lead a normal life, sent him to the Ogden School for the Blind at age 7. After eight years there, Christiansen returned to his hometown and graduated from Beaver High as salutatorian - no easy feat at a school with no programs for the blind.

"I never really thought about what I wanted to do with my life," Christiansen recalls. "Our high school principal, Horace Rose, suggested it. Next thing I knew he was telling my mother to consider letting me pursue a possible career in law."

Christiansen went to Provo, where he spent two years at Brigham Young University, then four more at the University of Utah, earning bachelor's and law degrees.

"I had people who would read the textbooks to me, and I would take notes on my Braille machine," Christiansen says. "It was frustrating at times. I would have liked to have read those books myself, but I got by all right."

In 1950, Christiansen was elected to the first of nine terms as Beaver County attorney, a position he held for 36 years.

"I guess I kept getting elected because nobody else ran," he says.

That and the fact that he was tremendously respected by both the public and officials.

"John taught me more about the law than anyone else," says Lt. Raymond Goodwin, a 32-year veteran of the Beaver County Sheriff's Office. "He was an outstanding prosecutor and he always stressed to me to ask his advice before I did anything."

Christiansen became known as a tenacious prosecutor with a razor-sharp memory. He also was a stickler for punctuality.

"I can remember asking John to type up a warrant for me," Goodwin said. "Knowing that John had to walk to the courthouse, I drove to the courthouse and waited outside to meet him. After waiting for several minutes, I went inside to call him. There was John in his office typing up the warrant."

In 1986, Christiansen lost his bid for county attorney to Leo Kanell.

"It did sting a little losing the election," Christiansen concedes. "I never lost an election in 36 years."

In 2002, Kanell fell short in his bid for another term to Christiansen's son. So why did Von Christiansen decide to follow in his father's footsteps.

"It's obvious isn't it?" Von jokes. "My father told me not to. It was my act of defiance. Besides, I loved debate in high school."

Not ready to retire, the elder Christiansen spent 11 years as the public defender for Beaver County.

"I had the opportunity to work both sides of the table with John," recalls Kanell, now the assistant Beaver County attorney. "We have always had a great relationship."

Christiansen married Laurel Washburn in 1962. Besides Von, the couple have three other sons: Richard, a business owner in Spanish Fork; Brett, an emergency room doctor in St. George; and Daryl, who works for a design company in Salt Lake City.

Laurel died in 1998. In 1999, Christiansen married Marie Hyatt.

"John is in amazingly good health," Marie says. "He expects to live to be 120."



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