My 43-year friendship with John Kolbisen was shadowed these last five years by the knowledge that the disease he had was untreatable. The disease took him on Feb. 16, but he never let illness cast a long shadow; nor did he ever take his foot off the gas.

John stayed with his very successful business as CEO, then CFO, of La Petite Baleen Swim Schools, of which there are four. He kept pressing for new ideas, opportunities and connections, was president of the National Swim School Association and founding member of the International Swim School Association. He helped the members of both weather the devastation to that industry wrought by COVID-19. Just last October, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the national group.

He also put serious time, effort and money into local projects like the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside, city Parks and Recreation, Mavericks Swim, efforts toward a new pool at the school, bike paths and many local issues and groups. He made the time because it mattered to him. His ambition was not driven by celebrity. He was not a politician. He wanted quite simply for the world to be a better place, and he developed the habit of hoping for it and working toward it.

To me, that is his legacy in this community.

There is a certain irony in the fact that John has died of amyloidosis, a rare and incurable disease that came from nowhere and landed in him. He was always an active, outdoors guy with lots of interests and energy. He was the rare one who found time throughout his life to take care of himself, be on the gym treadmill every day, swim laps at 6 a.m. He did this even as the rest of us were also starting businesses, raising young families, getting the house, and making excuses for not finding that exercise time.

But if there is any single message I could pass along about what I learned from John Kolbisen it is that friendships require nurture.

John saw the risk of reaching an age where we have lots of acquaintances, co-workers and friends with whom we stay in contact largely by exposure, by chance, all of which can slip away when one retires. The fade isn’t intentional; it just happens.

To prevent this, and to provide a lot of fun, John kept inviting friends on various trips to his mountain house above Arnold, summer and winter, with preplanned activities and all the gear to make them happen. The property is called Kamp Zen, a play on his name, and the group grew to be labeled the Zen Men. Those extended weekends involved, for example, hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, skiing and racing snowmobiles on closed state highways. He organized scuba trips to the Caribbean and Pacific Islands for those in the crew who were divers. We drank wine, enjoyed fine food and solved all the problems of the world.

John saw the absolute need in each of us, and by extension all of us, to maintain contact, to continue with the idea of lifelong friendship, to discuss and argue the points of the day, to be there for each other. There is no better way than to get out there with your group, keep the ideas flowing and the friendships intertwined, insist on the importance of not allowing retirement to become a couch-potato exercise in loneliness.

The Zen Men are still around and will be making trips together (John saw to that as well), but it certainly won’t be the same. At this time of figuring out for each of us what it means to let go, but to also hold on to some of him, I ask myself fewer of the questions about the Immortal Soul and perhaps focus more on what he showed us, and on carrying that forward. John has delivered on his essential commitment to the idea that friendships are among the most important realities of our lives. We seldom know what echo our actions will find, but in John’s case, we can hear it clearly.

I am just one on a long list of people who will miss John deeply; he will not be forgotten.

Chad Hooker lives in Half Moon Bay.

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(1) comment


Thanks for sharing. I have many memories of John when I was young., not as a friend but as the young boy just coming and going as he and my dad hung out. I can definitely see how he would have formed the Zen Men later on in life. We can only hope that as we hang out with our friends and go about our day-to-day routine, we set the same kind of example John did for me.

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