Posted by Carrie Condran LaBriola
Past President Dr. James Emerson, one of the oldest members of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, says, “If your mind is good, then you still can contribute; when your mind goes, then forget it!”

Over the past nine decades, Jim’s mind has taken him from the Stanford campus, where he grew up because his father was on the faculty, to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity, then to the University of Chicago, where he was awarded a doctorate in clinical psychology. In 1950, he spent four months in the Holy Land, visiting Mount Sinai (now Mount Moses) and parts of the Mediterranean, following in the footsteps of St. Paul, which he calls “an important part of my training.”
As a student at Stanford, Jim planned to go into government service, but he took a course from Elton Trueblood, the Quaker campus pastor, who influenced him to go into the ministry. Originally, a member of the Congregational Church, he became a Presbyterian, “for a very highly theological reason, because I wanted to date a Presbyterian girl.” Jim served churches in Philadelphia, Forest Hills in suburban New York City, Indianapolis, and a 1,400-member church in Larchmont, NY, a wealthy New York City suburb, where his congregation included 10 CEOs and he jokes that “during the week, I was pastor to the Vassar Alumnae Association.” 

In 1952, Jim married Margaret Bonnell, whose father, Dr. John S. Bonnell, was pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. She became a clinical psychologist with a Freudian background, while Jim was a follower of Carl Rogers. The couple had three children: John, former ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration, who is now an attorney in Los Angeles; Lynn, a junior high school teacher in Marin County, and Jed, an investment advisor in San Francisco who specializes in socially conscious investments. His granddaughter Jackie had a leading role in The Hunger Games.

Jim says he was one of the first two people in this country to put pastoral counseling on a professional level, specializing in patient-centered therapy focused on people going into second marriages. At that time, Jim says, pastors couldn’t officiate at weddings of divorced people unless they were “the innocent party,” but he believed that “there’s no such thing as an innocent party in divorce.” His first book was called Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage.

It was in Larchmont that Jim says he “lost my faith in God.” He talked to one of the church elders and volunteered to resign, but the man advised him to “talk to us about what you believe, not what you don’t believe,” which Jim says “saved me for the ministry.” As a result of that experience, he wrote a book called Forgiveness. Based on his clinical pastoral counseling experience, he was invited to leave the ministry and become head of the Community Service Society of New York City, a professional association for social workers.

Then Jim was called to serve Central Presbyterian Church in Denver. It was while he was there that he fell from a horse on his 49th birthday and suffered a concussion and broken ribs and was in the hospital for a week. It was also while he was in Denver that Jim was nominated by the General Assembly to be Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, although he lost by 10 votes out of a field of six. That was what brought him to the attention of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, which called him as pastor.

Jim first joined Rotary in Denver in 1950 for the same reason he joined the ministry, because it offered “a life of leadership in society.” He joined our Club in 1979, and served as President of the Club in 1990-91, when it was the only Club in San Francisco and had more than 500 members. He finds “most meaningful” that the Club is the second oldest in the world and attracts visitors from around the globe. In his younger days, he was a hiker and world traveler, preaching all over the world, calling himself “an internationalist,” and became an avid sailor, racing his 30-foot schooner on the East Coast.

Jim lives at the Sequoias, where his wife lived with him until she died 12 years ago. He says he’s been having “wonderful dreams” of her lately, “so vivid that I felt I’d been with her.” On the night his mother died, Jim says he dreamed that she called him to say goodbye. It sounds like his mind is as lively as ever.