John Edward Atkinson

John Edward Atkinson

May 22, 1947 – September 6, 2019

John Edward Atkinson was known for his quiet intellect; his remarkable scientific and engineering proclivities; his witty sense of humor; and his passion for flying, travel, classical music, good food, and English beer.

John was born in Grappenhall, Cheshire, and grew up in nearby High Legh, a rural community between Manchester and Liverpool.  As a youngster, he was fascinated by the sight of airplanes taking off and landing at nearby Stretton Airfield, which he described as an English version of Moffett Field.  

He and his older sister lived with their parents in the same house in which their father and grandfather had lived, surrounded by orchards, vegetable gardens, and beehives, all carefully tended by their dad.  Young John was captivated by any and all objects with mechanical parts, and one of his fondest childhood memories was of finding a bag of old radios that he proceeded to take apart and reassemble. Later he graduated to dissecting TVs, motorcycles, and eventually cars.  In the 1970s he built a computer.

Music played a strong role in John’s growing-up years since his father was a piano teacher, church organist, and choir leader.  John fondly recalled the sound of classical pieces coming from the family’s living room – though he admitted that the harmony between his dad and himself wasn’t always perfect when it came to his own piano lessons!

John’s scholastic aptitudes led to his skipping a grade and joining a physics track in early adolescence.  Later, after completing his formal education at Leicester University, he moved to London and began working at Thorn Electrical Industries, which later merged with EMI to become Thorn EMI, a leader in Britain’s electronics and music industries.  During those years he enjoyed exploring old Cornish mines with his mates, sailing a dinghy, hiking in Wales, and even tried to grow grapes to make wine (not terribly successful given the English climate).  

John first visited the US in the early 1980s at the invitation of long-time friend Mike Green, a fellow engineer who had immigrated to Palo Alto with his wife Anne.  John rented what to him seemed an immense American car and proceeded to drive through several western states, marveling at the beauty of every national park he could squeeze into a whirlwind tour.  

In 1983, John immigrated to Silicon Valley and continued his engineering career in electronics, first at Elcon and then at Varian Associates.  In 1995, Varian’s Electronic Device Business became Communication and Power Industries (CPI). During his tenure at Varian and later at CPI, John became a Senior Engineer and coauthored many papers.  He designed intricate components for advanced microwave amplifiers used in a range of applications, from cancer radiation therapy to high-frequency defense sensors. Most recently, he was the go-to expert for a key component of a Varian system for cancer radiotherapy, and the Varian equipment systems to which he contributed are now used to treat over 100,000 cancer patients daily at clinics, universities, and hospitals worldwide.

In 1985, John achieved his lifetime goal of becoming a private pilot.  He joined a flying club and flew primarily out of Palo Alto Airport, first in gliders and later in Cessna 152s and 172 RGs.  He obtained both an instrument rating and a commercial rating. He especially came to enjoy flying his friend Bob Claypool’s Cessna 182, and made many flights with Bob, with Gina as a passenger, and on his own.  

John also taught himself to ski, another pastime he loved, and made many trips to Lake Tahoe over ensuing decades.

Yet another avocation of John’s was international folk dancing.  In a recreational folk dance class held at Stanford, he met his future wife Gina in 1989.  The following year, they began living together in Los Altos and were married on the island of Kauai in 1993.  They continued folk dancing classes for many years and enjoyed New Year’s Eve folk dance parties. John and Gina also loved travel and took rewarding trips to the British Isles and elsewhere.  

Never one to shrink from challenges, John took up the violin in 2011, studying privately and playing in TACO, a local amateur orchestra.  An avid fan of classical music, he enjoyed playing duets with Gina on flute, a favorite being “Papageno’s Aria” from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

In early 2017, encouraged by close friends and neighbors Bob and Sue Hiller, John obtained a ham radio license and joined the Los Altos “Monday Night Net” volunteer emergency preparedness group.  His childhood love of radios had come full circle, aided by his considerable expertise in microwave power tubes and radio frequency waves gained over decades of work experience and training. 

Tragically, John was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma in August 2017.  From then on, he displayed phenomenal courage and strength in battling this rare but aggressive cancer, participating in two clinical trials and three chemotherapies – always ready to bravely try another treatment that might hold the promise of improvement, no matter how grueling.

On September 6, 2019, John passed away at home holding Gina’s hand, having witnessed Laurel’s marriage in a private ceremony just days before.  He is survived by Gina, Laurel, and his son-in-law Andrew.  

A celebration of John’s life will be held on Saturday, September 28, 2:00 pm, at Spangler Mortuary, 399 South San Antonio Road, Los Altos.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests a donation to the charity of your choice.  

We are grateful that John is well at last, and we like to picture him enjoying what he loved most – “See you in the clouds, John.”