Arrow-right Camera
News >  Spokane

Spokane, World Loses `One Of The Great Ones’

It’s as if some Hollywood script writer concocted the life and times of John Anthony Masterson.

He was truly one of Spokane’s brightest lights, an overachiever who soared far and away from his working-class roots and struck gold in nearly everything he touched.

Born into a family of seven children, Masterson was a natural leader even as a kid.

He was boy news announcer for KGA radio. At 22, he masterminded Ralph Buckley’s campaign for sheriff. The Hillyard hardware store owner won and returned the favor by making Masterson a deputy.

Though he was president of Gonzaga University’s student body, Masterson needed the job to pay tuition. As a cop he was credited with catching an Alcatraz escapee.

Masterson later left Spokane for a job promoting the city of San Francisco. That’s when things really took off.

Teaming with two of his college chums, he created and produced a string of hit radio and television shows that made millions in the 1940s and 1950s.

But Masterson’s most lucrative deal came in the early 1980s, when he gave the world a cantankerous, gray-haired judge named Wapner who presided over “The People’s Court.”

The program aired 13 years, produced 2,500 episodes and is still syndicated on cable channels everywhere.

The only thing out of kilter in this true-life fairy tale is the violent, sad way it ends.

On Feb. 4, Masterson and his wife, Mary, were killed in a tragic car wreck on the Pacific Coast Highway, not far from their Malibu home.

“They are basically minding their own business when a car crosses the center divider and smashes into them sideways,” explains a traffic investigator for the Malibu sheriff’s office.

John was 83; Mary, 72. A woman riding in the other car also died. The other driver, a man, was injured and faces prosecution.

Masterson’s friends and relatives remember him most as a guy who never let all the wealth and fame go to his head.

“He was one of the great ones,” says Sam Grashio, one of Masterson’s lifelong Spokane friends. “He always kept things moving on a big scale. John’s mere presence could always bring out the best in people.”

Grashio’s favorite Masterson story involves a 1935 football rivalry between Gonzaga and WSU.

To fire up his team, Masterson convinced Gonzaga’s trainer, Doc Mauro, to publicly pick the Cougars as the sure favorites.

Gonzaga won, and Mauro, as he promised, walked 76 miles from Pullman to Spokane. The journey home took three days and was covered by media from around the world.

“That was all John’s doing,” says Grashio, laughing. “He had so many ideas.”

The brainstorming began at Gonzaga, when Masterson became known as one of the “Three Johns” - a zany trio that included John Reddy, editor of the student newspaper, and John Nelson, head of student dramatics.

The Johns performed plays, pulled pranks and were the talk of the school. After graduation, the three stayed together to take on the entertainment industry.

Newsweek magazine in 1949 devoted a page to the Three Johns, proclaiming them the masters of the “gimmick” programs. One of their shows, “Bride and Groom,” married real people. Another, “Queen for a Day,” granted wishes to hard-luck women.

But throughout his amazing life, Masterson stayed in touch with Spokane.

In 1985, he returned to accept a Distinguished Alumni Merit Award from Gonzaga. Masterson told a Spokesman-Review reporter he had discovered as a child that he was gifted at coming up with innovative ways of looking at the world around him.

“Ever since then,” said Masterson, “I’ve been sort of a student of human creativity.”