Dr. George L. Smith Jr., a leading cardiologist who helped make heart surgery available in Santa Rosa, was a man of many talents and passions, whether it was politics, history, fine food and wine, or opera.
In addition to being pivotal in obtaining certification for heart surgery at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, he also helped put Sonoma County on the culinary map as one of the co-owners and founders of the acclaimed John Ash and Co. restaurant.
Smith, 71, died Tuesday at his home in Oakmont, from apparent heart complications.
"He was very instrumental in recruiting heart surgeons to come to Santa Rosa and getting them established," fellow cardiologist Greg Hopkins said Sunday.
Smith was a founding member of Cardiology Associates in Santa Rosa and Northern California Medical Associates, an approximate 60-member physicians group.
About two years ago, he retired from full-time clinical work but remained involved in medical administration, teaching residents and system reorganization at Sutter Hospital.
He also was a member of the Board of Directors of the California Chapter of the American College of Cardiology and chair of the political action committee.
"He was a very unusual man. Besides being a marvelous doctor and a well known cardiologist, he was a very cultivated man with many, many interests," said Barry Sterling, the owner of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol.
Sterling's Democratic party views were at odds with Smith's political leanings, but "it didn't change our friendship " Sterling said.
Among other things, he and Smith shared an appreciation of Armagnacs and other French brandies.
Smith was a member of the Board of Overseers at the conservative Hoover Institution, a Stanford think tank that he joined after befriending Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.
As program director for the Commonwealth Club, Smith also helped bring speakers from the Hoover Institution to Sonoma County.
"He was interested in everything. He was a voracious reader - history, political science, cardiology. He was tremendously interested in fine food and wine and living life to the fullest," said Santa Rosa resident Bob Andrews, a friend of almost 40 years who provided business services to Smith and his medical group. "He was a modern version of a Renaissance man."
Smith also was one of six founding members and investors in Viking River Cruises along with company owner Tor Hagen. The two met in college in Tennessee.
Born in 1942 in Winchester, Tenn., Smith came from a family of physicians, including his grandfather, father and uncle. Smith's brother, Tom, is also a doctor.
He was a precocious child, who learned to play bridge when he was four years old and was said to have read the epic "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" as a youth.
Smith was valedictorian at Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. After graduating from University of Tennessee Medical School, he completed his internal medicine residency in Denver.
In 1971, he was a major in the U.S. Army medical corps in Vietnam, serving as chief of medicine in a Danang hospital.
He then worked at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco before obtaining a cardiology fellowship at Presbyterian Hospital in the city.
Smith came to Santa Rosa in 1975, when heart patients had to travel to San Francisco for surgery.
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