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Among the most successful coaches in East Carolina history, John Christenbury was born on February 13, 1907, in Charlotte, North Carolina, as one of three children, all boys. A standout athlete, “Honest John” attended Davison College, graduating in 1930 with a degree in education. He continued his education in New York City, earning a master’s degree in education from the Teachers College at Columbia University in 1934. During his studies, he simultaneously served as a coach and instructor at the Altamont Consolidated High School in Avery County, North Carolina.
Upon completion of his studies, he moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he served as physical education instructor, football coach, and basketball coach for the Bolles Prepatory School from 1934-1937. He returned to his home state in 1937, accepting a position as a teacher and the athletic director at Lee Edwards High School in Asheville for that school year. In 1938, Christenbury accepted an offer to serve as the athletic director and health instructor for Brevard College, a position he held until 1940.
In 1939, East Carolina’s football team experienced one of the worst seasons in school history. Coach O.A. Hanker endured an injury-plagued campaign, finishing the season with a record of 0-8. School President, Leon R. Meadows, recruited Christenbury as a replacement. Brevard College President, Eugene J. Coltrane, expressed regret over losing Christenbury to a better funded program. Many of the men on the Brevard squad transferred to East Carolina, following their beloved coach.
Chirstenbury arrived on campus during the summer of 1940, settling into a house on Harding Street with his wife, Marianna. The 1940 football team opened their new coach’s tenure with four straight wins, before losing consecutive games to in-state rivals Western Carolina and North Carolina State. They finished the season with a record of 5-3. Those five wins established a new record for victories in a single season.
The 1941 season began with four straight wins, as East Carolina outscored their opponents by a combined 119 points to 6. East Carolina won the following two games by single digit margins, before a season ending 13-0 victory over Belmont Abbey on the 13th of November. The jubilation on campus was short-lived, however. On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on the United States Navy facility located at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii resulted in the United States’ official entry into World War II. Many male students enlisted which, combined with rationing and travel restrictions, forced the cancellation of the 1942 football season. East Carolina would not field another squad until 1946.
Christenbury continued to serve as an instructor during 1942, teaching health and physical education. He also organized a successful intramural program on campus. In August, he and Marianna welcomed their only child, also named Marianna (Anna), into their lives. Christenbury followed news from the fronts, concerned that many of those he coached faced grave danger in both theaters of war.
Feeling the call of duty, Christenbury enlisted in the United States Navy and was called into active duty on February 26, 1943. He was granted his leave of absence from East Carolina the following month and reported to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Upon completion of training, he was sent to Port Chicago, California to supervise the loading of cargo and munitions onto ships headed for the front.
On July 17, 1944 the largest domestic wartime disaster in American history occurred. An explosion ripped through the Port Chicago area, killing more than 300 and injuring another 350 workers. Two ships, the S.S. Quinault Victory and the S.S. E.A. Bryan were shredded. Windows as far as fifty miles away were shattered while one ship’s anchor was tossed nearly one-half mile. Eyewitnesses reported a “shining white flash” and a “great doughnut of flame.” The former gold rush town was decimated. Across the bay in San Francisco, many feared a major earthquake had just occurred. Lieutenant (j.g.) John Christenbury was among those missing. Reports stated that many of those present at the time of the explosion simply just “ceased to be.”
After the war, a student scholarship fund was established in Christenbury’s honor at both East Carolina and Brevard. In 1952, East Carolina opened its first exclusive use gymnasium, the Memorial Health and Physical Education Building. The next year, it was renamed the Christenbury Memorial Gymnasium, and retitled the John B. Christenbury Memorial Gymnasium in 1989. Today, Christenbury Memorial Gymnasium serves as the campus headquarters of the United States Army ROTC program’s Pirate Battalion.