The first thing to know about is that the phrase “larger than life” isn’t a trite platitude.
Everything about the man was big—his sheer size, his intellect, his opinions, his book collection. And, of course, his love for animals—German shepherds in particular.
If you doubt that, keep in mind that in a few months, when you’re taking your dog to run, jump and play at the John and Anna Karras Memorial Dog Park in Banchoff Park.
The park was paid for with $100,000 that Karras left in his will to Ewing Township on behalf of pets when the long-time Ewing resident died at age 84 in 2016.
It doesn’t strike Karras’ longtime best friend (and executor to his estate), Tony Chiarello, strange at all that Karras would leave that kind of gesture in his will.
“He was fixated on saving animals,” said Chiarello, who is also a Ewing resident and the owner of Trains & Things in the Glen Roc Shopping Center. “He contributed to almost anything, from donkeys to elephants.”
By the end of his life, Chiarello said, Karras was sending $1,100 a month to various charitable causes. Not all of them were for animals. He also gave to disabled veterans and, well, pretty much anything that moved him. True to form, a lot moved him, so he spent lots of money trying to help.
But nothing moved him quite as much as dogs, Chiarello said. Karras and his wife, who died some years before he did, always had German shepherds who were, by all accounts, the true loves of their lives.
Chiarello said that Karras intended on volunteering at the Ewing Animal Shelter when he retired, but he never got around to it because he never really got around to retiring.
For more than a half-century, Karras was a history professor at The College of New Jersey, and was chair of the history department.
Chiarello said Karras loved teaching so much, he just never got to the point where he thought it was time to fully retire. So in lieu of volunteer work, Karras allotted $100,000 in his will to the animal shelter, without any directions on what to do with it.
He might have been a staggering intellect, Chiarello said, but Karras did not seem to get that dropping a heap of money onto a worthy cause was not enough in itself to make everything perfect.
The scale of Karras’ estate was already intimidating. “I had to throw away 6,000 books,” Chiarello said.
Oh, he tried selling them. One bookseller paid for the lot and still left a literal three tons of them behind. He tried giving them to libraries, but they didn’t want them. So Chiarello just threw them out.
“All he did was read,” Chiarello said. And Karras was a speed reader who could get through War and Peace in the time it takes most people to get through a TV show episode. Karras was happiest among his books, ensconced in one of his two libraries.
Add to the books the charities and other financial deals Karras had going, and the thought of dropping $100,000 on the animal shelter seemed temptingly easy. But Chiarello knew he needed some help with the Karras estate, so he hired a lawyer, who promptly told him to, in no uncertain terms, not just hand over a check. The attorney’s advice: We need to do something permanent.
With Karras’ endowment, Ewing will transform a 100-by-225-foot area of Banchoff Park into the John and Anna Karras Memorial Dog Park.
It’s not that Chiarello though the shelter would just take the money and run. It was the fact that money without direction has a way of not getting used how the donor wants. And Karras wanted to leave the money so animals would be taken care of; be happy and live a fun life. A dog park turned out to be just the ticket.
Jim McManimon, township business administrator, said Ewing learned about the donation and the dog park idea last fall, when Karras’ estate attorney contacted the township. At first, the obvious choice for a location was to build a park outside the animal shelter, behind the municipal building. It made perfect sense, Chiarello said, because Karras’ dream of volunteering at the shelter was as the guy who walks all the dogs.
Everyone figured building a park there, with lots of walk-around room, would be good for people looking to adopt a pet to get the feel of the leash.
But there wasn’t enough space, McManimon said. A lot of that area had already been dedicated as veterans’ memorial park space. Option two was another plot of open land not far from the shelter, but it’s right near where police and emergency service dogs get trained. They can’t have the scents of other dogs so close when they’re training.
Option three was Banchoff Park, named after a longtime township teacher, Ann Banchoff, who also was Ewing’s first elected female official. The park already has a section for dogs. The problem is, it’s not really much of a dog park proper. Mainly, “you couldn’t separate the big dogs from the small dogs,” McManimon said.
So with Karras’ endowment, Ewing will transform a 100-by-225-foot area of Banchoff Park into the John and Anna Karras Memorial Dog Park.
There will be sections for big and small dogs, surrounded by fences high enough to keep jumpers from jumping over, and deep enough into the ground to keep diggers from tunneling their way out.
McManimon said the township has ordered the fencing (the most expensive part of the whole operation) and the various equipment and toys and play spaces for the dogs to use.
There will be tunnels to run through, tires to climb over, and a gazebo for shade. Dog waste stations will be set up with plastic bags and a joint human/canine water fountain will be installed so dogs can get a drink at the same time as their humans.
Karras Park will be a passive park, modeled after similar dog areas in Hamilton and Hopewell, McManimon said. The township’s Public Works Department will maintain the park, making sure it’s cleaned and stocked. Things should be up and running in about two months.
Officially, the township is thrilled to have the park in the queue. In statement, Mayor Bert Steinmann said he’s “very grateful to John for his thoughtful donation. This will allow many dogs the freedom to run and enjoy the outdoors. John and his wife enjoyed many years of love from their dogs and the hope is that this Dog Park will be enjoyed by all dog owners for many years to come. The Karras family loved Ewing Township and their dogs passionately.”
Chiarello said his old friend would love the idea, and that’s good enough for him.
Chiarello and Karras became friends about 50 years ago, through their wives. Chiarello’s wife worked as a bookkeeper for Anna Karras. The men eventually became friends at the level of family.
“Once his wife passed, he was over our house every Sunday for breakfast,” Chiarello said. They spent a lot of time together. Much of it arguing, which, Chiarello said, is something Karras loved doing more than almost anything.
The history professor with the Jeopardy champion knowledge of all things was a consummate button pusher, he said. Someone with story after story, who never didn’t have something to say when Chiarello was around.
Though, to be fair, Karras didn’t need Chiarello around to have a reason to talk. And when he did, it seems people everywhere paid attention. Mostly because he was impossible to not be aware of.
In an obit by Karras’ longtime colleague and friend, Daniel Crofts, a professor (history) emeritus at TCNJ, introduced his friendship with Karras this way: “He was a formidable presence—tall, bald, and heavy-set, loud and opinionated, full of humor, a born raconteur. The son of Greek immigrants, he blazed his own trail and disdained conventional gentility. He did not defer to anyone.”
Much to Chiarello’s delight, Anna was the exception to that last part. When she spoke, John quieted, he said. She was the only person who could render him silent.
The couple traveled frequently, and often to Greece. When he made it back from traveling, Karras would break out his slides and projector and proceed to give a treatise on the trip, which Chiarello swore was genuinely enthralling.
The slide shows would last hours. They sometimes stopped when Mrs. Karras said it was time. And then Karras, with “paws the size of a bear’s” would pack up his photos and, of course, start discussing something else, he said.
As a teacher, Karras was someone students feared or loved, and nothing in between, Chiarello said.
Occasionally, Chiarello runs into former students of Karras’. To a person they tell of a teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Byzantines and soft spot for learning about ancient periods of history, but no soft spots for students who didn’t care about his subject.
Karras broke through for hundreds of students—so many, in fact, that his funeral needed police to direct the flow of traffic—but every one of them had to prove they were worthy of taking his class, Chiarello said.
And yet, this giant man made of fiery passions and bearlike appendages had a near-baby talk softness for animals.
If you doubt that, remember, you can visit the park named for him and his wife. Or you could ask Chiarello how many organizations he had to tell would no longer be receiving donations from John Karras.
“You can’t believe how much mail he would get for donations,” Chiarello said. “If it appealed to him, he gave them money.”
Apparently, the township and its dogs appealed to him very much.