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John Canakaris, Father of Flagler County Medicine and Humanitarian, Is Dead at 90

| December 4, 2012

Dr. John Canakaris in Bunnell. (Flagler County Historical Society)

Dr. John Canakaris. (Flagler County Historical Society)

John M. Canakaris, for more than half a century identified with family medicine, Flagler County’s first hospital and, more recently, a free and busy health clinic for the poor, died Monday night at his home in Bunnell. He was 90. He had chaired the free clinic’s board meeting as recently as October, almost 10 years after discovering that retirement—at 77—was not for him: he re-opened his family practice in 2003, after a four-year hiatus.

“I enjoyed my retirement, but I have so many old friends and patients asking me to return,” the man everyone knew as either Dr. John or Dr. Canakaris said at the time.

His death, while neither a surprise nor a shock, was nevertheless an immense loss to those who knew him because his impact on Bunnell and beyond had never waned: he had delivered more than 3,000 babies and performed thousands of surgeries in his prime, and continued caring for thousands of patients long past his prime, many of them at no charge, to this day. Humanitarianism was an old habit for Canakaris, who as a young doctor in a rural and often poor county was willing to accept from his patients alternative forms of payment, if any, for his services.

The first clinic, in 1953. Click on the image for larger view. (Flagler County Historical Society)

“Like potatoes or work in the house, the yard, that kind of stuff, because they didn’t have any money” remembers  Claudia Deen Malo, whose mother worked for Canakaris for some 20 years, and who herself handled the switchboard in summers as a teen at Bunnell General, the hospital that succeeded the small county clinic Canakaris established in 1953. The bartering seemed odd to some, though they took to it just as they did to Canakaris himself, after the effects of his alien sounding name had worn off. “He was Greek and they didn’t understand that kind of person,” Malo said of local the farmers, “they were just kind of reluctant to deal with him.” South Asian and Middle Eastern doctors sometimes experience some of the same resistance these days.

Canakaris left his fingerprints, albeit in the most sterile ways of medicine, on two generations of Flagler County residents: he took Malo’s appendix, for example, and set Elbert Tucker’s hand when he broke it playing football during a Friday night high school game. Tucker, the Bunnell city commissioner, owns Tucker Insurance. “He’s helped a lot of people over the years. Sorry to hear he passed, but he was an icon in Flagler County, no doubt about it,” Tucker said.


The day he broke his hand, Canakaris was on the sidelines. There wouldn’t be an X-ray until Monday, but Canakaris knew it was broken (and it was). “He was a confident character. He always had an air of confidence about him, he was a likable person. I liked him, but I like most everybody,” Tucker said.

And he mended people in other ways, as he would Sisco Deen, another man whose name is synonymous with the county’s history (he is the archive curator for the Flagler County Historical Society, though he is a generation younger than Canakaris), and whose mother worked for the doctor. “Boys being boys,” Deen said, “and me being a young teen without a male adult in the house, I was sometimes hauled off to Bunnell for Dr. John to discuss with me the errors of my ways.”

”He was the only doctor in town for a lot of years,” Barbara Revels, the county commissioner and owner of Coquina Real Estate and Construction in Flagler Beach, said. “He treated my mother in the early years, and of course my first job in high school was working in the hospital for him and one of the doctors. He provided free care for many years, and then he carried on in that tradition with Dr. Carter,” and the free clinic. That’s Morris Carter, who is also still practicing (he puts in two days a week at the Flagler County Health Department in Bunnell, on a street named for him. Canakaris, too, has a street named after him in Bunnell).

“I came here in ‘04, very quickly he came by to meet me and was very engaging,” says Patrick Johnson, the health department’s administrator. “I thought it was interesting that he came by to meet me. Soon after that he came by with Faith to talk about their free clinic concept. Since then  my dealings with him have been related primarily to the free clinic.”

Bunnell Hospital in 1975. Click on the image for larger view. (Flagler County Historical Society)

Faith Coleman, a nurse practitioner at Palm Coast’s Ardent Family Care and a cancer survivor, is the co-founder of the free clinic, with Canakaris. She was once named a CNN hero for her work. She could not be reached today.

“What was interesting about Dr. Canakaris ,” Johnson said, “is obviously how he was still engaged in everything. Over the years it amazed me, he was in his shirt and tie and showing up at the free clinic and showing up at meetings,” down to his last in October. “In terms of longevity, maybe the ideal way is to have a healthy and productive life for as long as possible, and then have a short debilitation at the end. He did fall and fracture a hip this year but he recovered very well. However he died very naturally last night. I tell you what. That’s how I’d like it to happen with me.”

John Michael Canakaris was born on Jan. 23, 1922, in Waterloo, Iowa, northeast of Des Moines, the son of Michael John and Gilmina Canakaris. With his bride Elaine, he had one son, Ronald Emanuel “Ronnie” Canakaris, born May 22, 1944. His second marriage was to Georgia King. Their son, John Michael Canakaris Jr, was born around 1978. Dr. Canakaris got his medical training at Kansas City University and interned for a year in Chicago and another year at Brewster hospital in Jacksonville, where he specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. He arrived in Bunnell in 1950. His small Bunnell General Hospital turned into Community Hospital of Bunnell, which was then acquired by Hospital Corporation of America before becoming Memorial Hospital Flagler. In 2002, the hospital moved to its current location on State Road 100, as Florida Hospital Flagler.

FlaglerLive is grateful for the assistance of Sisco Deen, FlaglerLive’s historical consultant, in the preparation of this article and its illustrations.

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18 Responses for “John Canakaris, Father of Flagler County Medicine and Humanitarian, Is Dead at 90”

  1. Kathy Arnold Bucek says:

    RIP Dr Canakaris

  2. Shane Wood says:

    How sad :( Prayers to his family, RIP Dr. John…

  3. Susan Gorski says:

    RIP

  4. GoodFella says:

    Dr Canakaris was a true gentleman. He was a family friend for many years. It is sad to see him go!!! R.I.P.

  5. Broccoli Rob says:

    That’s what I call “leaving a legacy.” Well done Good Doctor… A life spent helping people!
    Bravo to Dr. Canakaris. Not soon to be forgotten.

  6. Sue Dickinson says:

    So many memories and stories You served Flager County for so many years. You gave me the opportunity to many nursing opportunities that otherwise would not have been available. You will certainly be missed. RIP.

  7. Profiler says:

    RIP Dr. John…..there are so many memories…

  8. confidential says:

    We just lost our icon and outstanding friend of our community. The Almighty keep you by his side Dr. Canarakis.

  9. Perry Mitrano says:

    Just a local story to share:

    I met the Doctor for the first time just the other day in our Bunnell city offices. I drive the street named after him about 10 times a day but never met him before and often wondered and wanted to know more about him as I pass the old hospital. (nice article Flagler Live)

    When you consider this pioneer’s work in our community and the number of babies he delivered anyone can realize now that history was being born each and everytime.

    Well as I was saying,

    I met him for the first time, he stuck out his had to shake mine first, imagine that. What a gentleman. He had that warming personality that makes you feel good (always the good doctor I suppose) and I’m honored to have met him for the first and last time those few days ago.

    Rest in peace Dr. Canakaris and thank you for your help in shaping Bunnell and Flagler County.

  10. Charles Gardner says:

    He was a gentleman and a scholar. My office was adjacent to his for several years. He was one of my best clients.

  11. Deep South says:

    Dr. John was my first doctor. R.I.P. Dr. John

  12. Suzie Peterson says:

    My Mother, Etta Peterson worked side by side with Dr. John as a nurse when he only had a 4 bed hospital, and for 20+ years thereafter. I worked at the “first old” hospital in the x-ray dept. He, his employees and patients were all like family. He was ALWAYS there anytime we needed him for anything. He was one of those people that you thought would be around forever. He was a leader of so many things, not just medicine. Heartfelt prayers and condolences to his family and every one that will miss him.

  13. Linda says:

    I never met him, but appreciate this apparently well-deserved tribute to him. We could use more people on this planet that are like him.

  14. April says:

    I worked with Dr. John in the original Bunnell General Hospital and we shared many “great” times. RIP Dr. John and thank you for saving so many lives while you were here.

  15. Christina Pinto says:

    I remember Dr. John delivered my baby sister at his hospital in 1976. Thank you for your commitment and caring for all of his community. Thank you so much for everything. RIP. You will be greatly missed. Our prayers are with your prayer family during this difficult time.

  16. Michelle Cavanaugh says:

    Dr. John Canakaris had a heart of gold. We were blessed to work with him for several years when he re-opened his private practice after retiring. He always put his patients first. He shared many stories of how Flagler county and more importantly, Bunnell, had evolved to the community it is today. He took great pride in that and was humble of his role with it. He definitely left his mark on this world. Our thoughts and prayers are with Georgia at this time.

    Michelle Cavanaugh, Owner of Proclaims Medical Billing.

  17. Donnie Riddle says:

    Dr.John will be greatly missed by the people in flagler county. He made so many contributions to our community during his many years with us. I have been lucky most of my life health wise but Dr. John sure patched me up plenty when i was younger. He was always a class act. Our prayers are with his family. R.I.P. Doc you will never be forgotten.

  18. Deb says:

    I worked with Dr John for many years in surgery as a scrub tech. It was was my first job as a tech and he gave me a chance – he was not so sure he wanted to hire me because he thought I was too young. It was the first time he hired a surgical tech, actually the first surgical tech ever hired in Flagler County. I learned so much from him and I loved working with him. I would see him off and on throughout the years and always reminded him he taught m everyhting I know and he would just beam with pride. He is truly a rare jewel in the crown of Flagler history. RIP you wonderful man.

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