Joseph "Jay" James Westwater Jr. was always eager to learn something new and had a knack for navigating chaotic situations.
It's that quality that pushed him from law school to medical school to specialize in the emerging field of emergency medicine. And it was that quality that also got him out of some of the scrapes he created for himself — including the time he accidentally set the basement on fire. While his wife watched from a neighbor's house, Westwater grabbed a hose and put out the flames.
"He was so suited for emergencies," remembered his wife, Ginny Kraus.
Westwater died of pancreatic cancer Jan. 29 at his home in St. Paul. He was 65.
Born in 1955 in Massachusetts, Westwater was raised in Falls Church, Va., and Louisville, Ky. After attending Boston University, he went to law school at Georgetown University. But after working as a lobbyist and tax lawyer, Westwater decided he wanted to go into medicine.
He attended medical school at the University of Virginia and came to Minnesota through a residency in emergency medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center. He then practiced at United Hospital in St. Paul, where he was chief of staff and directed the emergency department until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019.
The year before, Westwater had been named the CEO of the medical-marijuana company Minnesota Medical Solutions. He had been looking to shift away from his practice and believed in medical cannabis, particularly for treating cancer.
A couple of months after Westwater's diagnosis, his son, Nathan, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle in Los Angeles. Westwater and Kraus relocated to California and stayed there from September to June of 2019 while Nathan completed rehab.
"That was one of our last big adventures," Kraus said.
Westwater was always seeking adventure and travel. He was an avid road cyclist and hiker who loved teaching his children about the outdoors. He canoed, camped, sailed and surfed, and even took blacksmithing and stonesetting classes. In the summer between law school and medical school, he set out to become a river rafting guide.
"He was a big presence with a lot of energy," Kraus said. "He was the kind of guy who could figure out how to do anything."
But Westwater was also an introvert and a quiet man. He was able to "float above" chaos, his wife said.
"He complained about it, but I think he secretly liked those situations," she said.
Westwater had a dry sense of humor, something that Kraus noticed right away when a mutual friend introduced the couple. That friend reintroduced them six months later, determined they'd be a match. Six years later, they married. "We had a lot of fun together," Kraus said.
At his request, Westwater's ashes will be spread in some of the places he loved, including in the mountains, as well as Fenwick Island, Del., and Spruce Pine, N.C.
"He was our hero," Kraus said. "He would want to be, and will be, remembered as a good teacher, a competent physician, a dedicated father, and a fun, challenging and loving husband."
In addition to Kraus, Westwater is survived by his son, Nathan, of St. Paul, his daughter, Charlotte, of Long Beach, Calif.; his mother, Lou Westwater of McLean, Va.; sisters Joann Westwater of Hillsboro, Wis.; Kathryn Westwater of New York City; Patricia Westwater of Washington, D.C.; and Jennifer Bellwoar of Chester Springs, Pa.
Once gatherings are safe, the family plans to host a celebration of life.
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440