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Tahoe WWII veteran chosen to be honored at D-Day ceremony died days before, leaves behind legacy laundry business

WWII veteran who owned popular South Lake Tahoe dry-cleaning business died at 98
WWII veteran who owned popular South Lake Tahoe dry-cleaning business died at 98 03:47

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- There is a daily hum at John's Cleaners in South Lake Tahoe—a song of steaming and pressing, a tune true to John Cristando and his bustling family dry cleaning business of 55 years.

John, 98, always wore his hat proudly displaying that he was a WWII Army veteran. He became a well-known and deeply loved member of the Tahoe community.

John Cristando Credit: Cristando Family

He died on June 3, just three days before the anniversary of D-Day. John had been chosen as one of the few still-living WWII veterans to receive international honor at the 80th commemoration of the event that changed world history in 1944.

"He wasn't well enough to make the trip," Robert said. "He was very disappointed, as you can imagine."

Robert and three of his sisters Stephanie, Johnna and Loretta told CBS13 he didn't talk much about his service but that he started opening up more in recent years.

When he was selected to have his trip sponsored to go to Normandy he was all in.

"He said, 'Just get me there. Once I've done that then I can let go. I can let go, but get me there,' " Stephanie said.

Declining health, both heart and kidney failure, meant John would have to cancel his trip. He had even coordinated with his doctors and did physical therapy hoping it would ready him for the travel, but his body simply wouldn't allow it.

"Then we saw a decline because he was so looking forward to it," Stephanie said.

Going back to the early years, John's parents immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in the 1900s from Italy.

John graduated high school in New York and lied that he was 18 so he could join the Army.

"He was stationed in Germany. He went in after D-Day. They had cleared the way in," Robert said.

His main job was to run supply chains for military equipment and mail for the American forces in Nazi-occupied Germany.

"Because he wasn't actually infantry and shot at, he didn't feel he deserved the recognition of WWII veterans," Robert said.

John was honorably discharged after two years of service.

The Cristandos moved to Fresno, California after WWII in search of a new start, saying they chose the Central Valley because it reminded them of their hometown in Sicily.

Alongside his father, John opened his first dry cleaning business in Fresno where he learned the way of the family trade. John moved his family to South Lake Tahoe and opened John's Cleaners there in 1969.

A father to six children, John's family keeps his legacy in laundering alive. His son Robert has been running the business since the 1980s.

"But he was here on a daily basis whether he was needed or not," Robert said. "It was more about people than it was the work."

Every time they step into the cleaners, John's children say they see and hear their father in every steam, press and fold.

"We still hear his sayings, one of them was, he says, 'Never lose your sense of humor.' He said that all the time," Loretta said.

"He would say, 'Here we go like a herd of turtles,' " Robert remembered.

Whether it was a celebrity or a Tahoe community member he was serving, John never treated anyone differently.

"He was a specialty cleaner. He cleaned Liberace's clothes, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Alice Cooper, Frank Sinatra. They all came through Tahoe in the 1970s," Robert said.

John taught his children to focus on the stain second, but the customer first.

"That's my dad's business motto. He was a very kind person," Robert said.

John's closest friend of 30 years, Tom Davis, said he sat with him at the cleaners daily, sipping coffee in the quiet corner dubbed "John's Cafe" by the two friends.

"He was the most gracious person you'll ever meet. I'm going to miss him," Davis said. "I asked him one time a few years ago, 'What do you want me to say at your funeral?' You know what he said? 'I did it my way.' And he loved Frank Sinatra."

For a man who "lived a life that's full," he leaves behind a legacy of service, business and family that is forever stamped into South Lake Tahoe history.

"It hasn't made us millionaires but it's made us happy," Robert said.

The Cristando family will hold his funeral with military honors and open to the public on June 28 at St. Theresa Catholic Church in South Lake Tahoe.

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