Withers, leader in the medical community, dies

Former Maui Memorial Hospital general surgeon and plantation doctor John Withers was a man who sought out answers on his own, “made great medical decisions” and had a love of the ocean, friends and colleagues recalled Thursday.

Withers, 79, died Sunday after he was found unresponsive in waters off Charley Young Beach in Kihei, police said. Private services will be held for the part-time Colorado and Kihei resident, who was on Maui for the winter, his family said.

In 1995, Withers returned to Colorado, where he went to college, after a more than 25-year medical career on Maui, where he touched the lives of many residents, the community and colleagues.

Longtime Maui pediatrician William Kepler recalled Withers greeting him and his wife when they arrived on Maui in 1970. They were doctors for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. back in the days when medical records were kept on index cards.

“He made great medical decisions and worked quickly and very accurately and got excellent results as a surgeon. His patients did well,” said Kepler, who is retired from pediatrics but serves as one of Maui County’s sexual assault forensic examiners. “He wasn’t afraid to make good clear decisions. His judgment was really, really good.”

Withers was “very outgoing” and was a leader in the medical community, he added, noting that at one time they both owned offices and practiced in the Maui Clinic building in Kahului.

Dr. Bobby Baker, founder and president of the Pacific Cancer Institute of Maui, said that whenever Withers’ name is mentioned among patients and friends, “you hear positive things.”

Baker said that Withers supported him when he needed it most.

While trying to establish the cancer center on Maui, Baker said that Withers reached out to him to learn about the “Kentucky doctor” when others may have been skeptical about him and his plans.

“He wanted me to come in and explain to him my background, and he wanted me to explain what my intentions were here on Maui,” Baker recalled.

At the end of their conversation, Baker said that Withers told him that he trusted him and would do what he could to help him get support for the center. Withers spoke about Baker’s plans at medical staff meetings, wrote letters to the newspaper and even testified before state officials to get the center built.

“He clearly made up his own mind,” said Baker. “He felt he could trust me and decided he could support me when it wasn’t popular at that time. I always had great respect for John. He was one of the people responsible for me coming.”

Baker added that Withers “always made up his own mind about things, and that’s a great thing.”

Withers was doing a lot of breast cancer surgeries when the two met, Baker said. Some of the support shown to Baker was for the benefit of Maui patients, like those recovering from breast cancer who often had to spend time on Oahu

for radiation treatments. Baker’s center remedied that situation.

“What he was doing, at the end of the day, he was supporting the community by supporting me,” Baker said.

Away from his practice, Withers windsurfed and enjoyed the outdoors, Baker said.

“He was always a healthy man,” Baker said. “He liked the water. He always enjoyed what Maui had to offer him here.”

Both Baker and Kepler said that they saw Withers this month at a birthday party at his son’s home in Kihei. Both said Withers looked great.

Withers was born in Gary, Ind., on Feb. 6, 1934. As a young boy, his family lived in a railroad car and grew pinto beans during World War II.

Withers later moved to Denver and graduated from University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1959. He enlisted in the Army, where he did his surgical residency at Tripler Army Hospital on Oahu and went on to serve in Vietnam as a surgeon and commanding officer of the 17th Field Hospital in Saigon. In 1967, he received the Army’s Legion of Merit for services in Vietnam.

He came to Maui in 1968 and eventually moved to Haiku. While on the island, he married his wife, Carole.

Withers initially joined Maui Clinic and practiced as an HC&S plantation community doctor and later started the Kihei Physicians Clinic. He was general surgeon at what was then Maui Memorial Hospital, where he served as chief of surgery and chief of staff, his family said.

From 1968 to 1978, he was a physician for the Maui High School football team and could be seen standing on the sidelines during Maui Interscholastic League football games. In 1983, he was named Hawaii’s Outstanding Physician of the Year.

Withers was a longtime columnist for The Maui News, penning a weekly column called “Two Aspirin,” which has been complied into books.

After returning to Colorado in 1995, Withers lived in Durango and continued to practice medicine and later joined the Indian Health Service, where he spent years on reservations serving Native American populations in Arizona, Oklahoma and Montana.

Upon his departure from the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, Withers received a ceremonial robe, a high honor from their tribe, his family said.

Withers retired from medicine in 2011.

He is survived by Carole and children Nathan and Noel Withers, Jenny Greenwood, Debra Johnson, hanai daughter Sara Moore and grandchildren Jake Greenwood and Lauren and Emma Glass.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at