Chris Walterskirchen died Monday evening at age 60.
That was May 8. Interestingly enough, it was on that date in 1970 that Willis Reed hobbled onto the court at Madison Square Garden and inspired the New York Knicks to their first NBA championships.
Those of us left behind would be hard put to make a connection. Walterskirchen could — and no doubt would have.
Since he came to Missoula in 1985 after graduating with a master's in education from, yes, Montana State University, “Sparky” was as much a part of the local sports scene as any one person. Be it Little League, American Legion baseball, or Grizzly, college and professional sports he was interested, curious, involved, mischievous, passionate, compassionate and, as more than one Facebook poster has noted, a “walking encyclopedia.”
On Aug. 31, 1988, Missoulian sports editor Vince Devlin introduced a daily trivia feature by “Kalispell native, Missoula resident and sports buff Chris Walterskirchen.” The subject for the day was the three Missoula Class AA high school football coaches — Bob Eustance at Big Sky, Van Troxel at Hellgate and Tim Kerr at Sentinel — and the fact that all three played for the Montana Grizzlies in the 1970s.
In the next 21½ years Walterskirchen's byline appeared nearly 7,000 times in the Missoulian, most under those sports trivia columns but also atop weekly offerings with more general historic scopes: “It Happened This Week” and later “Flashback.”
Walterskirchen's offerings seemed to spring in equal parts from his keen memory and the newspaper’s aging microfilm reader. He worked at fine-tuning the former, as his sister Lindsay Addington was reminded in the weeks before his death.
“He told me he sometimes does a little exercise to be sure his mind is up to speed,” she said Thursday. “He thinks back to be sure he can still name all the Academy Award-winning movies from 1929 on.”
Those who endure it regularly will tell you there are few more tedious exercises than scanning through reels of microfilm, even with the best of eyes. Walterskirchen’s weren’t.
He spent hours on the reader, even though he was legally blind with glaucoma and underwent 23 eye surgeries in his lifetime. He had partial vision in one. The other was artificial, and Walterskirchen was known to remove it to the delight and shock of selected audiences including, as one former classmate noted, substitute teachers. He often told how it won a number of bets and dares for his older brother at recess.
Beyond the incomparable memory, Walterskirchen was known for his humor and playfulness.
"He was a blast to be with,” longtime friend John Neilson said.
He didn’t talk about it much, but Walterskirchen suffered from Crohn’s Disease and battled other internal disorders that required frequent hospitalizations. The latter was exacerbated in recent months, and Addington said her brother suffered a fateful setback in January when he tripped in his apartment while attempting to hook up radios to listen to Grizzly and Lady Griz basketball games at the same time.
“He’d gone through a lot in the last six months. He kind of never caught a break,” said Addington.
When the latest conditions proved inoperable, Walterskirchen asked Neilson to relay the bad news to his Facebook friends that he wouldn’t be coming home this time. Neilson did that last Friday afternoon and asked that memories of Chris be sent to him.
It unleashed a torrent of tributes from people from all walks of life, revealing perhaps for the first time in one place the wide swath Walterskirchen cut during his 60 years. Many in the sports world, for instance, didn't know he volunteered in classrooms and for 10 years in child care at the Missoula Area YMCA, which in 2008 named him its volunteer of the year.
Former classmates from the 1960s and '70s weighed in. One said she tried never to be drinking water when Walterskirchen was around “because I knew I'd spit it out when you made me laugh.”
Jon Kasper, a former Missoulian colleague, recalled the uproarious story Walterskirchen told of his driver’s education experience in the parking lot at Flathead High School. Kasper, now an assistant commissioner for the Big Sky Conference, also thought he remembered that Walterskirchen was once “Champ,” the Bobcat mascot, when he was a student at MSU.
“During the 1976 season, including at the championship game in Wichita Falls, (Texas),” affirmed Bill Lamberty, MSU director of media relations. “The stories Sparky told...”
“He had a heart of gold, brightened everyone he came in contact with!” posted Wayne Tinkle, former UM and current Oregon State men’s basketball coach.
There were stories from Walterskirchen’s many years as public address announcer at Missoula Mavericks baseball games, and of his station in the front corner of the press box at Grizzly football games, making calls and answering the phone to update scores from other games.
“Yep, this is Chris,” he’d say over the phone to newsrooms every night during Little League season. Teams throughout Missoula relied on him to distribute their scores, and he’d do so with a delighted commentary that often pushed deadlines.
Few who entered Walterskirchen’s sphere left without a tidbit of personal or family history, obscure or otherwise. He remembered birthdays of children and grandchildren and usually had a historic event to go along with each.
“The week before he died his nurse came in, and I had not heard her last name,” Addington said. “Chris asked her out of the blue, ‘Is your brother Shay?’ She was blown away. Her brother is Shay Smithwick-Hann, the (former Grizzly) quarterback. And then he said, ‘Your parents sang at my cousin’s wedding in Kalispell.’
"That was over 20 years ago.”
It wasn’t until his broken hip in January and subsequent convalescence at Hillside Manor and Grizzly Peak that Walterskirchen was forced to move from his cluttered second-floor apartment with a steep and narrow stairway after more than 25 years.
His ailments limited his dexterity, prompting his teachers at an early grade to fit him out with a typewriter because handwriting was so challenging. It challenged his mobility throughout his life, which made all those tromps across town in all seasons — to work, school, university, bus station, bank and grocery store — in all seasons all the more admirable.
“He is the meaning of service because he gave so much — to the Mavs, to (the Missoulian), to kids with disabilities and without,” Neilson said. “He just gave and gave and gave. I can’t even imagine what daily life was for him.”
"He never complained and he was always positive," Addington said. "I asked him, 'How have you stayed positive through everything?' He said there really isn't any other way to be."