Olympian, surgeon John Emery remembers giving back
John Emery, a longtime Sonoma-based reconstructive surgeon, philanthropist and Olympic gold medalist, died Feb. 21 after a long battle with melanoma. He was 90 years old.
Emery was remembered this week by those closest to him as a devoted friend, husband and father who lived his life to the fullest.
Or, as close friend Michael Crain put it, “The guy packed more into one life than most could in multiple lives.”
John Edward Emery was born on January 4, 1932 in Montreal, Canada. The son of a Canadian Navy general, his family moved frequently to the Great White North, returning every summer on vacation to Thunder Bay, Ont., where his family lived an “On Golden Pond” type of existence, the report said. Emery’s wife of 40 years. , Deborah.
“He loved nature,” Deborah said. “It was his catnip.”
It was a love that would last a lifetime – from the peaceful climes of Thunder Bay to the snow-capped hills of Innsbruck, Austria, where John competed with the Canadian bobsled team in the 1964 Winter Olympics. John was the “pilot” of the four-man team, which included his brother Victor, who won the gold medal. (The event would land the brothers in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.)
But hurtling down icy tracks at 90 mph was just the tip of the iceberg for John’s adventurous spirit. He was also an accomplished skier, rider, swimmer, cross-country runner, world traveler who spoke five languages and a pilot, according to Deborah, who recalls several “hair shirt experiences” with John in command. “But he had the nerves of steel to get us through.”
It was this “never give up” attitude that made him “the brilliant surgeon he was,” she added.
John studied medicine at Queens University in Ontario and the University of Oxford in England, and continued his studies in reconstructive surgery in Glasgow, Scotland. He moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1960s, opening his reconstructive surgery practice in San Francisco in 1967.
“He was passionate about taking care of people,” Deborah said. “(Using his) extensive surgical skills to mend and put people back together.”
Deborah met John the year he opened his practice. She was working as a model in the city when her agent told her, “You have bags under your eyes, go see John Emery.
“I was amazed,” she recalls meeting him. “Gorgeous, intelligent, charming and more.”
But also a “simple, loving, caring and just beautiful human being through and through.”
John and Deborah were married on October 17, 1981.
During that time, John’s plastic surgery practice flourished, serving hundreds of clients throughout the Bay Area and beyond.
Inspired by the happiness he brought to patients, his granddaughter McKenzie Mock studies to become a nurse. She remembers being impressed when she visited his practice as a young girl.
“I remember seeing people coming out of surgery with a smile on their face because they felt better about their bodies,” McKenzie, 23, said. “He had healing hands. He had this magic touch.
In 1985, John and Deborah purchased an estate overlooking Sonoma on Gehricke Road, where they planted vines, opened a winery and bred Arabian horses. Crain, a realtor specializing in vineyards, met John in 2008 and helped the couple sell their 300+ acre ranch. The two became fast friends.
“We were kindred spirits,” Crain said, describing it as a “deep, personal friendship.”
“But I have a feeling that in the case of John Emery, (the type of friendship) is not unique,” Crain said. “He had many friends, from all walks of life – from the lords and ladies of England to ordinary people like me.”
Several of his 907 Facebook friends agreed.
“I’m forever a better person for knowing you, John Emery,” Linda Pascual Kranzke posted.
His friend Dorrie Newton put it succinctly: “What a man and what a life.”
Lou Ann Hardister, a friend of 40, described John as “a friend to everyone who knew him”.
“John lived and worked with a mountaintop view as he soared with the eagles and broke with the common people,” Hardister said.
Despite having an “elegant and proper upbringing”, Deborah said, John loved the simple things the most – camping, kindness, humility, “never being a peacock”.
Looking back on their 46 years together, Deborah said they “have been blessed to live fully and completely for each other, as well as lift each other up to our higher selves.”
John was diagnosed with melanoma in the early 80s, Deborah said. He held it off for a good decade, before the cancer finally spread. Towards the end of 2021, his prognosis was poor.
“He was gallant and such a positive person, he never let that slip away the last days of his life,” she said. He spent the last weeks of his life reaching out to friends and loved ones and putting the finishing touches on a memoir he was writing.
Deborah shared her last entry, written the day before she died:
“It’s the life of a man who isn’t much different from anyone else who might read this book, but who kind of had a spirit of adventure that took him to many parts of the world, learned many languages and experienced many cultures and disciplines during his lifetime.
“If it can inspire someone to go on with an adventurous spirit and go all out in life, I will have achieved my goal of carrying that message.”
John Emery is survived by his wife Deborah Emery; brother Victor Emery; children John Edward Emery II, Allison Emery, Forest Meadow Spring and Tamera Mock; as well as four grandchildren.
A celebration of John Emery’s life is tentatively scheduled for May 21. The family will provide more details closer to the event.
Email Jason Walsh at [email protected]