John Matthew Emery III, M.D., 23 August 1957–7 December 2008: Eulogy

Jake was born in New York, New York. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University, a family tradition that spans four generations. He took pre-medical courses at Bryn Mawr College then went to medical school at Columbia University. He was an intern and resident at New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center and began medical practice at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York. Before his residency, he was a volunteer health care worker in Africa.

Jake was a board-certified neurosurgeon, licensed in New York and California. He taught clinical classes at the University of California, San Francisco, medical school. He was a pioneer in surgical treatment for hypertension. He served on the Board of Directors of the New York Regional Transplant Program and of the California Transplant Donor Network. He practiced neurosurgery in Modesto, CA.

Jake rarely performed elective surgery. He operated only when he was sure it would improve quality of life by enough and for long enough to justify the risks. At a memorial for Jake in Modesto, a physician's assistant said, "when you went into surgery with Jake, one look at the X-rays and you knew exactly why he was operating." I consider that high praise indeed; I think Jake would too.

Jake was my best friend for over 31 years. In the last 17 years, we spent 13 Christmases and 15 Thanksgivings together. He was the best man at my wedding. He was brother to me and uncle to my daughters—his goddaughters. He saved my life two years ago when I had a spinal infection. Neither of us said it aloud, but I love him and he knew it, and he loved me and I know it.

We met as undergraduates. We spent many afternoons—drifting into evenings—in Holder courtyard, playing guitar and backgammon, sipping Laphroaig, telling stories, affecting accents, and making each other chuckle. Later in life, we spent many afternoons—drifting into evenings—in his kitchen, cooking and solving crossword puzzles, sipping (he, wine; I, still whisky), telling stories, affecting accents, and making each other chuckle.

Through the decades—medical school, graduate school, loves, losses, kids, deaths of close friends—our circumstances, hairlines and waistlines changed, but our friendship did not.

Jake had a particular gift for language. He read Latin and spoke French, German and Spanish with native accents. Solving the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in pen every week was a particular source of pride. His ability to reproduce domestic and foreign regional dialects and use them to good effect in anecdotes and jokes equalled that of the best professional actors and comics. Think Robin Williams, but without the mania.

Jake was hilarious, as anybody who knew him will attest. His colleagues report being so captivated by his jokes and stories in the doctors' lounge that they couldn't bring themselves to leave, despite appointments, and that their ribs would ache the next day from laughter.

Multi-lingual puns told in mixed accents were the acme of our shared humor. We called butter du beurre, which in Modesto was pronounced "doober." Peanut butter, naturally, was goober doober. Calling each other "dude" and saying "howdy" led to "howdy dudie." And since hello was "howdy," goodbye became "ciao-dy."

Jake's words and actions were incongruous, as they are for many people. But while most people's talk is holier than their walk, Jake's walk was holier than his talk. He said the most outrageous, politically incorrect things—about gender, race, religion, handicaps, social class, ethnicity, and physical appearance. He was a non-denominational wrangler of sacred cows.

Jake's humor was provocative but never cruel. He had a crystal-clear vision of right and wrong, and he consistently did right. He acted generously, chivalrously, honestly, scrupulously, compassionately, with the best intentions, and without desire for recognition.

Jake stood up for himself and others against institutions, championing battles for principle, typically alone. He was a vocal critic of managed care and withdrew from the Medicare system, but never turned patients away. He did not accept payment from combat veterans, and his house was full of gifts from people whose lives he had improved—or saved. Jake took incredibly good care of the people around him: made them feel welcome, fed and entertained them, gave them generous gifts, employed them or found them work—out of sincere caring, not noblesse oblige. He even paid for cancer treatment for someone he appreciated who could not afford it herself.

Jake's attitudes inside and outside the operating room were as much at odds as his speech and actions. Inside, he was meticulous and painstaking. Outside, the words "tidy" and "Jake" rarely occurred in the same sentence. The contrast between his frugality and his generosity and appreciation for the finer things was also somewhere between endearing and disconcerting. He collected rare, beautiful, and functional things, and rubbish.

After careful research, he would buy art, esoteric kitchen gadgets, copper cookware, fine china, and so on: special things, things that made life a little nicer, things that could last for generations. He would not part with anything that still functioned … or used to function … or the box it had come in. In about 1995, I fixed his ice dispenser by fabricating a part from a paperclip. It still works for me. But in the last 5 years, only one other person (Pharibe) could get ice from it. He kept clothes until they fell apart: not the seams—seams can be repaired—but the fabric itself. He wore things out. Completely. It was important to him.

Jake was downright smug that for over 15 years he drove a used car his parents had given him while he was in college, and that he drove his second car for over 15 years as well—literally until a wheel fell off, along with the axle, while he was on the highway. At age 51, he was on his third car, purchased used. He "was sure [his] Scots ancestors would disapprove if [he] bought a new car when the old one still worked fine."

Little that entered Jake's house left without the intervention of a second party. Asked why he hadn't thrown out a 9-month old carton of milk, Jake would shrug, "dude, there's nothing in nonfat milk to go bad." Dr. Seuss wrote "Green Eggs and Ham." Dr. Emery kept expired eggs and green bacon.

Jake never married or had children, though he always wanted to. My biggest sadness for him is that he didn't meet a woman who made him forget the prenuptual agreement he had crafted so carefully. I am almost as sad that he never moved back to New York, which I think he planned to do eventually: he had even maintained his membership in the Rockaway Hunting Club. I would have missed him, but he would have been happier.

Jake's life was full of people who adored him. He was the nucleus, center of gravity, and center of levity of a remarkably diverse circle that included medical professionals, professors, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, teachers, lawyers, building contractors, investment bankers, marketing executives, government researchers, artists, venture capitalists, software developers, philanthropists, musicians, and salespeople. Everybody was welcome in his home and at his table, and everybody left having had one of the better times and one of the better meals of their lives.

Jake's generosity, wit, culture, and cooking irrigated what most New Yorkers—starting with Jake—would consider a cultural and social desert. Jake harvested laughter and friendship, and shared both. Indeed, he transformed "beautiful exclusive Modesto," as he liked to call it, into a vacation destination for out-of-town friends.

And visits from friends lit his life. Jake encouraged me to use his house as a second home. He gave me the key, the garage door opener, and the alarm code. I was always welcome, without notice, with or without kids, girlfriend, dog, or groceries. Spending time with Jake was consistently one of life's simple and nourishing pleasures: comfort food for the soul. Farewells were always a bit wistful, with the inevitable exhortation "safe home."

Ciao-dy dudie. Safe home.

P.B. Stark, 17 January 2009.