Edgar F. Kaiser stands up for deaf workers at Kaiser shipyard

posted on October 23, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


New Oregonship workers in training session, circa 1943

In August, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Gersbach, retiring senior hospital communications consultant for Kaiser Permanente’s Northwest region. Jim was the unofficial historian for that part of the Kaiser Permanente world, and as such, had developed a keen sense of the value that our deep roots had for expressing our mission.

Here is one of his stories:

As a communicator I have to communicate to large audiences, I have to be persuasive, I have to say things that are based on facts. I can’t just say “I believe this so, therefore it is.” I work for an organization that has a long, and deep, and rich history. I’m interested in the history, so I’ve made a study of it, I’ve known a lot of people that lived a lot of that history and frankly, having worked a quarter century, I strangely enough find that I have personal memories about what has now become historical periods of time.

Over and over again I come back to that history because it’s so helpful for me as a communicator to be able to say to people, well it’s not just today that we’re been interested in this. We’ve been doing this for 20, 30, 40 years, even back in the 1940s. It’s really about saying, “What are the consistent values at Kaiser Permanente that don’t change over time?”

I remember at the 60th anniversary of World War II in Vancouver, (Washington) in 2005 we’d invited anyone who’d worked at the shipyards to come to the Kaiser Permanente booth up in the Fort Vancouver Reserve. We had a big display about Henry Kaiser’s life, and the Kaiser Permanente program, and how it came out of World War II and it came out of the shipyards near there. A lot of ex-shipyard workers were there, and there was a gentleman who was deaf and someone was sign-language interpreting for him.

He had worked as a young teenager at the shipyards, and told a story about how the school for the deaf was in Vancouver. The deaf teenagers mowed the lawn for [shipyard manager] Edgar Kaiser’s home, which was near their boarding school. They had tried to apply at the shipyards. There was a demand for workers, and they’d read it in the papers, and said, well maybe we should go down and apply. They were basically shooed out – “A bunch of deaf people, you’re not going to be able to work in a shipyard, you’ll hurt yourselves.”

Jim Gersbach, KPNW, 2013, photo by Lincoln Cushing

Jim Gersbach, 2013

Edgar Kaiser got wind of it when somebody said “Oh, I can’t work at your shipyard.” They weren’t complaining though, they were just resigned to going back to mowing lawns. But when Edgar found out that they had not been allowed to get work, he called his chauffeur – I guess he didn’t drive – and he communicated to the deaf teens, “We’re going down to the shipyards and you’re coming with me.”

They went down to the shipyard office where the teens had tried to apply, and Edgar asked “Who is the hiring manager?” through an interpreter. They said “This guy.” Edgar walked in and said, “You will find appropriate work for these people.”

That’s what I pull from the history of Kaiser Permanente. When someone says, “What’s Kaiser Permanente doing to help people with disabilities?” that’s our history of doing the right thing.


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Franklin D. Roosevelt’s passing mourned at Kaiser shipyard

posted on October 14, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a stroke and died while on a vacation in

Franklin D. Roosevelt's horse-drawn casket proceeds down Pennsylvania Avenue during his funeral procession, 4/14/1945. Photo courtesy Library of Congress. Click on arrow to play audio.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s horse-drawn casket proceeds down Pennsylvania Avenue during his funeral procession, 4/14/1945. Photo courtesy Library of Congress. Click on arrow to play audio.

Warm Springs, Georgia.

Two days later, the S.S. Bradford Island, a tanker, was launched from the Kaiser Swan Island (Portland, Ore.) shipyard before a somber audience.

A bugler mournfully played taps. The master of ceremonies asked the shipyard flag be lowered to half-staff, then he delivered a brief elegy to the popular fallen president.

Roosevelt had visited the Vancouver (Wash.) Kaiser shipyard on September 23, 1942 on a secret trip to review Home Front production, and was a strong supporter of the Kaiser shipyards and workers.

This audio clip comes to us from an archival set of master recordings on glass disks, capturing the gravity and loss of a community that had suffered much in the past years:

“By the proclamation of Harry S. Truman, president of the United States, this is a day of national mourning for the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt…

“We have lost a great leader and a true friend. We mourn with the other people of the world who have also sustained this loss…

“There is perhaps a no more fitting way to commemorate his passing from us as a mortal being than the launching of this ship. For although death has come to Mr. Roosevelt, it came near the hour of victory towards which he led us, and the sturdiness of his dauntless spirit and faith is with us.”


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Breast cancer isn’t just a woman’s issue

posted on October 8, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Kaiser Permanente physician Monte Gregg Steadman (1921-2010) enjoyed a prestigious career as an outstanding head and neck surgeon and teacher. Throughout this conventional career, he also struggled against conformity, militarism, and prejudice in many ways, and made his mark as a committed humanitarian as well.


“Breast cancer isn’t just a woman’s issue” poster, 2005

For a former military physician and athletic male who had played football at UCLA, perhaps being tackled by a potentially fatal disease revealed his bravery best. In 1966, Steadman was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy, which he wryly noted “Ended his chance to be a world-class handball champion.”

This 2005 poster featuring Dr. Steadman was a stunning public education message about the disease few men think will affect them; that warning still rings true.

Confronting and overcoming obstacles

In 1954, when he was appointed chief of Head and Neck Surgery at the new Kaiser Permanente hospital on Geary Street in San Francisco, he was denied membership in the SF County Medical Society because he worked at KP. “It was felt at the time that we were a threat to private practice,” he later said.

In 1969, he met and mentored a young plastic surgery resident at Stanford Medical Center, Dr. Robert Pearl, now the executive director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group. TPMG’s 8,000 physicians serve KP in all of Northern California. Steadman retired from Kaiser in 1982.

An item in the December, 1959 staff newsletter KP Reporter described another way in which he defied conventional norms:

Drs. Monte Steadman and John E. Hodgekiss came down from San Francisco to help us out in ENT clinic. Dr. Steadman’s method of transportation fascinated us to no end as he arrived on his dashing motorcycle equipped with crash helmet and suede jacket. Behind him rode his briefcase and necessary charts, neatly tied to the seat with nylon cord. Ah, how wonderful it is to be young!

Dr. Steadman was equally outspoken about social injustice. In 1962 his strong anti-war beliefs drew him and two other men to sail into an atomic test zone off Johnson Island in the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to stop the test and draw international attention to nuclear disarmament.

The following year a KP Reporter article described further his commitment to social change:

Dr. Monte Steadman at KP SF, KP Reporter May 1963.

Dr. Monte Steadman at KP SF, KP Reporter, 1963.

Dr. Monte Steadman, of ENT at Geary, appeared on TV station KQED recently. As a speaker on the program “Dissent,” he urged society to reject force and violence whose use we freely condemn in our enemies. He praised the Negroes of the South who, with their Northern supporters, are resisting injustice without retaliating in kind for the mindless violence done to them.

We salute the fearless physicians like Dr. Steadman who have contributed to the mission of Kaiser Permanente, which exists to “provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve.”

Kaiser Permanente continues to be a leader in tackling breast cancer, especially early detection. In 2012 the National Committee for Quality Assurance reported that KP breast cancer screening rates for women were the best among health care providers in all the regions KP served.


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Kaiser Permanente Medical Pioneer Morris F. Collen, MD, Passes at Age 100

posted on September 29, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer



Dr. Morris Collen enjoying the Pacific Ocean aboard the “Flying Sorceress” 1957.

Dr. Morris Collen passed away Saturday night at the age of 100; the official Kaiser Permanente obituary is posted here.

Dr. Collen – Morrie, to us - was a treasure in Kaiser Permanente’s mission-driven history. He was our last living link to the origins of our health plan, from the days before it even opened to the public in 1945.

Dr. Sidney Garfield recruited Morrie to be chief of medicine for the industrial health care program he was directing for workers in the Kaiser Richmond (Calif.) shipyards in July 1942. It was a trial by fire. Dr. Collen recalled: “It was all trauma. At those shipyards, they all had accidents. People were getting run over by trucks. They were falling off the ships. Everybody we saw had injuries.”


Dr. Morris Collen with Surgeon General William Stewart, M.D., at multiphasic lab visit, October 1966.

Dr. Collen just rolled up his sleeves and began to save lives. He saved lives by pioneering the treatment of pneumonia with penicillin, he saved lives by applying efficient medical diagnostic processes to hard-working longshoremen, he saved lives by using then-new mainframe computers to automate the analysis of those “multiphasic examinations.”

The man created entire departments within Kaiser Permanente and pioneered whole fields of medicine. Yet he was always accessible when we had a visiting delegation who wanted to meet him. He’d hold court, nursing a beer and telling long stories about being Henry J. Kaiser’s personal physician or running a hospital during the tough years the American Medical Association shunned us, enchanting a roomful of young physicians.

When Dr. Collen moved on from his position as physician-in-chief at KP San Francisco hospital, the doctors and staff put together a goodbye scrapbook for him. One item was a poem, “On Top of Old Geary” to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey.” It included the following lines:

With gentle persuasion
He bindeth our heart
And keeps our institution
From falling apart…

So listen dear Morrie
It’s you we sing of
With great admiration
And enduring love.

We couldn’t have said it better. He was dedicated, kind, and gracious. We will miss him very much.

An excellent resource for learning more about Dr. Collen’s history with Kaiser Permanente is his 1986 U.C. Berkeley Regional Oral History Office interview, as well as this interview on establishing the Division of Research and Collen’s own research into medical informatics.

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