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MAESTRO AT THE WORKBENCH
THE FULFILLING, CREATIVE AND FORGIVING RETIREMENT OF A WYOMING COUNTY WOODSMITH

The answers to John Christopher's senior citizen happiness are in the miracle of the wood.

Retired since 1976, Christopher has turned a hobby he used to neglect when he was younger into a remarkably prolific avocation. Christopher, 77, works with wood. He shapes, bends and manipulates it until it fits his artistic vision, whether it be his elegantly shaped vases and humidors, or his intricate jewelry boxes and miniature wooden pianos.

"Working with wood is so gratifying," says Christopher, who was music director of the Warsaw Central Schools for 25 years. "The physical feel of it, the smell of it, the warmth of it. It's a comfortable feeling, as opposed to working with steel or stone."

That's only part of it. Christopher's father was the real master, his son says. A sculptor who carved tombstones by trade, Chester Christopher took his young son into his Rochester workshop and taught him to appreciate the material and craft at their fingertips.

Wood is forgiving. A skilled craftsman can patch many errors without anyone knowing. Wood has romance. There is something intriguing about a substance that is alive and growing, and at the same time solid and strong. And for Christopher, wood has an especially deep meaning.

"There isn't a day that goes by when I'm not reminded of an experience I had with my dad," he says. "I can almost feel his presence. I feel connected with my father that way because I learned so much from his teaching."

People seem to be demanding Christopher's wood creations faster than he can make them. They are on sale at Excentriciti Jewelers, down the pleasant, well-tended street from Christopher's house and wood shop in the Village of Wyoming, about 20 miles south of Batavia. Premier Gourmet in Kenmore also carries Christopher's work. Premier President Janet Ostrow saw Christopher's work at Excentriciti while vacationing in the Vermont-like village. Excentriciti owner Cathy Schuetze called Christopher, who came down to the shop. Mrs. Ostrow ended up visiting with Christopher at his house for several hours that same day.

"His work is very, very special," says Mrs. Ostrow. "It's a unique Western New York product. That's a good match for us because it's the kind of thing our customers care about."

Christopher's connections to the wood don't stop with his father's over-the-shoulder presence. Christopher fought Hodgkin's disease a few years ago, and his wood craft was a big motivation to overcome the painful treatment.

"The doctors told us he was in the final stages," says Chris Titus, one Christopher's four daughters. "This was something to bring him back, to make him want to get back. He'd tell us, 'If I can just get better, there are so many things I want to do.' "

Almost all the wood Christopher uses grows on his son-in-law's father's farm in Wyoming. Family members cut it themselves. Without the Titus farm, the cost of materials would be far too high for Christopher to afford his craft, he says.

Christopher's niece in Texas sells some of his work in her florist shop. Another Wyoming visitor saw his work and now sells it in the chic St. Armand's Woodery in Sarasota, Fla.

"We don't make any money, but we have a helluva lot of fun," Christopher says. "Because the whole family is involved."

Christopher's family is used to being around wood. His wife, Mary Frances, remembers when they first got married. The couple had a small house in Texas, where her husband was starting his career as a music teacher. His wood shop was part of the bedroom.

"I would always go to sleep with shavings in my bed," she says.

Christopher, as any family member could tell you, was never known as an idle man.

In the foyer of the house Christopher and his wife share with Chris Titus and her family hangs a large photo-realistic painting of Wyoming's Main Street. Folding cherry-wood deck chairs Christopher made are in the back yard. A Christopher wooden vase and candle holder make an elegant centerpiece for the family's grand piano. Though he might appear a little frail, Christopher plays that piano with a youthfulness and strength reminiscent of a high school auditorium. He sits down for several songs without having to be asked twice, changing easily from "Talk of the Town" for any journalists in the audience to a boogie-woogie.

"I have knocked out a lot of stuff," he admits after he finishes, looking around a house filled with his creations.

Don't expect it to stop soon. Christopher used to get to his wood shop at 5:30 a.m. Now he sleeps in and waits until at least 8 to get started. His wood shop in the back of his house still shows evidence of an artist at the height of activity.

"I certainly don't want to become sedentary," he says. "If I have to die doing this, c'est la vie."

Richard Schroeder's Senior Finance column will return next month.