John Soo-Hyun Chai, born Chai Soo-Hyun, passed into the arms of his loving dogs and God on Thursday, September 9, 2021, having won the battle of gastric cancer in a dignified death near loving family. Though the end was difficult, he had time and energy days before to pray with his family and enjoy his magnificent backyard on a glorious day – and even eat a morsel of his much-beloved broiled salmon belly, even though cancer had taken his ability to eat by mouth for months.
A first generation American, he was born in Korea months before the Korean War and was moved during its hostilities to Japan then Okinawa by his mother, who died (also to cancer) when he was a child. Coming to this country for college in San Francisco, he came with almost nothing, and through his university education and then medical school worked incredibly hard - a fact that, far from making him proud, gave him a great love of and kinship with the struggling, the underdog, those who persevered.
This led him to a career as a pediatrician, first as a neonatal intensive care physician then eventually in behavioral pediatrics - a move which his children try not to take personally. The first of four doctors Chai (so far), he loved knowledge, wisdom, and perseverance, and tried hard to instill this love in his children, his patients, and all he met.
He met his loving wife Kathleen during medical school, who was an RN in the same hospital. Together they raised four kids, who were at one point all under the age of 4. He loved teaching his children anything – memorizing American states and their capitols, learning new 5-syllable words, perfect running or throwing form, words from other languages – and sought always to provide for them in body, mind, and soul. While faking sick was out of the question, and unmarked immunizations or gory medical stories could show up at any dinner table, Kathy and John’s fierce care for others and each other (and food) gave the family shape and direction and a deep love of each other.
He was a runner for sport, for mental and physical health, and for recreation. His last half marathon was not long pre-diagnosis, and he took many several-mile runs during his chemotherapy. He instilled this love of running in many, joined his daughters andconnected with his children, his friends, and especially himself through this discipline.
His love of dogs came later in life, but shaped much of his last two decades. He was attacked by a dog in his childhood and still bears a scar. His first dog, Rikou, led to a continuing line of Labrador retrievers in the last 15 years or so, at one time having a pack of 4. We are confident that, in the new heaven and new earth, his dogs Rikou, Mimi, Kakee, Holly, Moose, and Benji join him in his runs and eagerly await the other family dogs and us. His dedication to his dogs brought his years joy and heartache, as did his children, and his challenging and rewarding professional life.
He was relentlessly curious. Growing up with food as a resource but somehow raising foodie children, he searched out new culinary experiences all over the world in his retirement - and thankfully made a trip to beloved wineries and the French Laundry in the year before his diagnosis. Although a true introvert who found difficulty in groups, he deeply treasured his time with close friends and confidants, and nobody more so than his wife. Together, their mutual care of plants, dogs, their home, and their children created the family he held central to his heart until the end.
He leaves behind a thankful family, grateful patients, and a legacy of hard work and kindness until the end, for which he is remembered and through which his legacy lives. He is survived by a loving wife, four thankful children, two daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, one grandson, one dog, three grand-dogs, and all who loved his kindness.
Those looking to honor John’s memory are encouraged to donate to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) or Habitat for Humanity OC, to honor his commitment to those who struggle.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of John Chai, please visit our floral store.