Dr. John Griswold
Dr. John Griswold (HANDOUT)

Dr. John Griswold, a general practitioner who enjoyed playing jokes on his children and was on a first-name basis with some of his patients, died Aug. 22 from prostate cancer in his home in White Hall.

He was 64.


John Griswold was born Oct. 2, 1952, in La Crosse, Wis., to Gail, a registered nurse, and Don Griswold, a photojournalist who owned his own newspaper. The couple had four sons. Gail Griswold now lives in West Salem, Wis.

As a student at West Salem High School in Wisconsin, John Griswold was an offensive lineman on the varsity football team and acted in plays. He was the lead in "Oklahoma!" He left acting, but retained his flair for entertaining others.


After graduating, he joined the Marines, enrolling before his 18th birthday. After his service, he studied biology at Creighton University, and then enrolled in the University of Minnesota Medical School. A fan of wordplay and mnemonic devices, he used elaborate memory games to help study for his exams. Later, he would use them to remember state capitals for fun.

He married Colleen Fitzpatrick in 1977, and they had three children.

In 1981 he moved to Maryland, working at the Medical Center in Dundalk and then doing his residency at Johns Hopkins in emergency medicine. Afterward, he worked in an occupational medicine clinic and then began a private practice. He served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1988 to 1992 and was the emergency physician at Fort Meade.

A tall and imposing figure, he'd leave for work in a nice suit, always fresh from the dry cleaners. Dr. Griswold often made house calls to patients, sometimes bringing his childrenwith him.


"He was very popular with his patients" – who, in turn, sometimes simply called him "John," recalled Dr. Shirley Thompson-Richards, who worked with Dr. Griswold at times. "He practiced medicine according to the standard of care, yet was very compassionate," she said. "He really cared about everything he did with his patients."

At home, he was conscientious about his children's medical care. Should a child have a wart, he would break out the liquid nitrogen and gleefully freeze it off. "He had a great love for his family," said Dr. Thompson-Richards.

After moving around the Baltimore area, the family settled in Timonium, in a house on Hunters Ridge Road covered in forsythia. They kept chickens, including a hen named Attila, or Attila the Hen.

He had a deadpan sense of humor of the Bill Murray variety, his children said. A favorite film was "Dumb and Dumber," and he and his children watched it repeatedly, reciting lines to one another.

Dr. Griswold loved movies, and frequently took his daughter Bailey and her friends to the video store to pick one out. Despite his goofy sense of humor, Dr. Griswold was not above watching the latest Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen film with his daughter and her friends, said Bailey Griswold, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.. He was an easy crier, too, and Ms. Griswold remembers him weeping during "My Dog Skip."

(In later years he came up goading with nicknames for his daughter's suitors, referring to one as "Marlon Blando.")

According to Ms. Griswold, her father was also devoted to the family's unusual pet: a caiman named Calvin. When guests came to the house, Dr. Griswold fed him raw steak through a tube in his tank. Calvin eventually grew to be quite large from the regular feedings, and got loose in the living room. The authorities had to be called. Dr. Griswold later adopted an alligator, named Pablo, which had been reportedly seized by police from a wealthy drug dealer. But it was always difficult for the kids to tell whether their father was spinning another tall tale.

A joker, Dr. Griswold laughed even in the face of his own aggressive prostate cancer, first diagnosed in 2006. He referred to one of his doctors as "Garth Sonoma," a play on "carcinoma." For years, his adult children thought it was the doctor's real name. "He was so serious about the jokes that they were kind of like only funny to him," said Ms. Griswold.

Still, "a lot of things changed for him when he was diagnosed with his cancer," said Dr. Thompson-Richards.

Unable to keep up the long hours of a doctor while undergoing treatments, Dr. Griswold left his medical practice in 2006. That year, he separated from his wife; they divorced in 2008. Dr. Griswold moved into a house on a former Christmas tree farm in Maryland. He took great pride in the house, built from the timber of a centuries-old cabin. "He really, really loved his farm," said Ms. Griswold. "He knew all the history."

He married Terry Gessner in 2011.

Despite his diagnosis, Dr. Griswold remained active in the community, teaching a course on health sciences at Towson University. He worked with emotionally disturbed youth at Villa Maria. He was a "big brother" to a young man named Christian. Even when he was very sick, and he went once a week to sit with a man in hospice care while his wife ran errands, said Ms. Griswold.

When he was feeling well enough, Dr. Griswold liked to walk the trails through the old trees near his house with a friend. He collected odds and ends he found on the land – wagon parts and rusted buckets, deer antlers and skulls. He kept chickens, too, and a garden with big sunflowers and bright yellow forsythia.

A celebration of life will be held in the Brooklandwood Mansion of St. Paul's School on Falls Road on Sept. 10 from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m.

In addition to his wife, daughter and mother, he is survived by his sons Ben, of Baltimore, and Alex, of Charlotte, N.C., stepchildren Darcey Peck of Baltimore and Michael Wessel; brothers Harry Griswold of West Salem, wis., and Dan Griswold of Vienna, Va.; and one stepgrandchild.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun