John Merchant didn't always plan to go into real estate.
Before he became the owner of Calistoga's well-known Indian Springs Resort and Spa and several other local properties, Merchant joined the Jesuits, served in Vietnam and studied to be a doctor. His family described him as fearless -- both in his work and his everyday life.
"He wasn't somebody who worried a lot -- he just kind of did things," said his wife, Pat Merchant. "He was a risk- taker in every way."
While on his way home from a family holiday in Australia, Merchant died Tuesday of a health issue. He was 75.
The local developer, who with his wife split time living in Calistoga and Kentfield, was a prominent figure in Napa County.
"In the community of Calistoga, he contributed a lot to its vibrancy," his wife said. "He loved the town and wanted it to thrive."
Merchant was born March 10, 1944, in Sacramento, but grew up in Yakima, Washington, said his son, Danny Merchant. He joined the Jesuits after high school, but later decided to enlist in the military.
He was deployed to Vietnam, but came back to California after being injured by shrapnel, his son said. Hoping to become a doctor, he studied biology at the University of San Francisco. He even worked as a paramedic in the city after he graduated.
Then, at a friend's suggestion, Merchant bought a house to fix up in the city -- a move that sparked his interest in real estate.
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He met his future wife in San Francisco about 40 years ago. The couple later moved to the Napa Valley, where they discovered the property that would become the Indian Springs Resort and Spa. They fell in love with the project and decided to buy and renovate it.
"That really is his baby," Danny Merchant, 35, said. "He loved being on that property. Up until he left for Australia on vacation, he was up there five days a week."
Merchant was a creative visionary who "loved making things beautiful," his wife said. He wanted to create a resort that was a beautiful place for families to relax together, said his 39-year-old son, Ryan Merchant.
"That's actually one thing I really admire about him -- he was a very creative person," said Ryan Merchant, who is a musician in Los Angeles. "I think I have infused that into my own life -- this idea of just kind of trying to delight people in whatever it is you create in the world, and trying to bring joy to people in some way."
The resort is truly a family business, Danny Merchant said. He and his 48-year-old sister, Erin Furtney, both work there, and frequently bring their children to play on the property. The resort's family feel stemmed from their father being a family man, he said.
Ryan Merchant recalled how his father was "always very present" while he was growing up. Even though he was busy running a business, John Merchant would still take his son to the park every day after school to play.
"Really, the family was front and center for him," Danny Merchant said. "He cherished time with his grandkids and children."
Merchant was a voracious reader and a talented painter, Ryan Merchant said. He loved to travel, visiting places as far as Sri Lanka and Japan. He and his wife even lived in Paris and Spain for a couple of years. But his favorite place to visit was India, which he'd been to at least five times, his wife said.
In addition to his wife, two sons and daughter, Merchant is survived by his sister, Judy Nied, and five grandchildren.
Pat Merchant said she was moved by the number of people who called her Wednesday to express their condolences and share stories about her husband. Even those who didn't always agree with him admired his personality and generosity, she said.
"He was a great guy -- not perfect, but great," his wife said. "He touched a lot of lives."
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