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Ex-S.F. Mayor Christopher Dies

California and the West

Politics: Republican helped bring the baseball Giants to the city.

September 15, 2000|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Christopher, the Greek-born former mayor of San Francisco who won national recognition for persuading the New York Giants baseball team to move west, died Friday of a stroke. He was 92.

The roughhewn son of a vendor who grew up in the tough South of Market area, Christopher served as San Francisco's mayor from 1956 to 1964.

With characteristic bluntness, San Francisco's last Republican mayor said goodbye to a life of politics in 1966 after Ronald Reagan defeated him for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

In a prepared statement, Mayor Willie Brown said San Francisco "has suffered a monumental loss. . . . George was a dear friend, and he will be deeply missed."

Brown ordered flags to fly at half-staff throughout the city.

Christopher was elected mayor on Nov. 8, 1955, by a surprising 2-to-1 margin that included Democrats and Republicans and with the support of four leading Bay Area newspapers.

He expanded the city's international airport and revitalized its financial district.

He also was the political force behind construction of Candlestick Park near the chilly, wind-swept shores of San Francisco Bay. In an interview in 1957, he said he persuaded Giants' President Horace Stoneham that "San Francisco's climate and love of competition would nourish major league baseball; that we would build a $10-million stadium with the $5 million we had from a bond issue; and that the potential was greater in San Francisco than in Minneapolis, where the Giants already owned a 24,000-capacity stadium."

About the same time, the New York Giants' legendary rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, were being courted by Los Angeles. Moving that team west as well, many prophesied, would be a historic move.

Fortune magazine called San Francisco "one of the best administered cities in the United States" during Christopher's two mayoral terms.

The big man with dark, piercing eyes and a dazzling smile had been active in San Francisco politics since 1945, when he was elected to the Board of Supervisors. After his terms as mayor, he served in a variety of national and international positions including delegate to the United Nations.

In 1971, Christopher, who had developed a friendship with former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, expressed deep regrets for not attending the leader's funeral.

Christopher first met Khrushchev in 1959 when the Communist leader emerged from a train during his first tour of the United States. Khrushchev was gruff and irritable after having been rebuffed in an earlier attempt to visit Disneyland.

Christopher said he joshed the Communist leader out of his black mood by insisting he wanted to meet the real "boss" of the Soviet Union: Khrushchev's wife, Nina. While men rule the world, Christopher explained, women rule men.

Christopher was born in Arcadia, Greece, on Dec. 8, 1907. Three years later, his parents, James and Mary, immigrated to the United States.

He received a bachelor's degree from Golden Gate College after eight years of night classes, and later opened an accounting office specializing in analyzing the weaknesses in small business firms.

An $8,000 personal investment in a client's dairy in 1935 evolved into the profitable Christopher Dairy Farms, of which he remained president when he became mayor.

His wife of 55 years, Tula Christopher, died in 1990 of complications from a stroke she suffered at their Nob Hill home. She was 77.

Ron Vinson, a spokesman for Brown, said Christopher's body will be on view in City Hall during a commemoration of his life Monday.

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