By Ginny McPartland
I had the pleasure one day this summer to take an early morning brisk walk with Jim Vohs, retired Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals CEO. Formerly a marathon runner of some note, Vohs enjoys the physical benefits of walking, as well as the time it affords him for reflection. He subscribes to KP CEO George Halvorson’s belief in the power of walking. “Every Body Walk!” is the mantra of Halvorson’s current campaign to get people moving.
I had heard through the grapevine that Vohs, who retired in 1991 and is in his 80s, was an avid walker. So I called to see if I could talk to him about his daily walking routine. He invited me to walk with him at 7 in the morning a few days later. On the phone, I asked: “What if I can’t keep up with you?” He said: “I can adjust to your pace.” OK! I was up to it.
I met him outside his Piedmont home at the appointed hour. The charming gentleman came out of the gate wearing beige casual pants, white walking shoes, a stylish sweatshirt – and a nice, welcoming smile. My first time to meet him was smooth and relaxed. We began to walk the gentle hills around his neighborhood at a clip talking as we went. He shared with me his thoughts on retirement, his time as leader at Kaiser Permanente, and his views on exercise.
He confided that he used to look down his nose at walkers, considering them “wimps” who weren’t serious about their fitness. He later showed me a cartoon from Harper’s magazine featuring a runner with the initials “J.V.” on his chest who recited Tom Wolfe’s “The Joggers’ Prayer”:
“Almighty God, as we sail with pure aerobic grace and striped orthotic feet past the blind portals of our fellow citizens, past their chuck roast lives and their necrotic cardiovascular systems . . . past their inability to achieve the White Moment (jogger’s high) or slipping through The Wall . . . help us . . . to be big about it.”
Today, however, Vohs has changed his mind and believes walking can be the best kind of exercise, indeed for everyone. “What are the benefits of walking for you? I ask him. “Everything that George (Halvorson) says in his missive on walking,” he replies, referring to Halvorson’s weekly letters to KP colleagues.
The number of benefits of walking 30 minutes a day is astounding. They include: lowering the risks of diabetes, stroke, hypertension, breast cancer and its recurrence, colon cancer, prostate cancer, hip fracture and gallstones. Such a regimen can also boost high density cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Walking helps people to lose weight and makes them feel better psychologically. The list goes on and on.
After our 30-minute walk, we returned to the Vohs home, and he invited me in for breakfast and to meet his wife, Eileen. The fare consisted of decaffeinated coffee, bananas, blackberries, yogurt and muesli. Basically, very healthy, it goes without saying.
Jim Vohs was the CEO of Kaiser Health Plan and Hospitals from 1975 to 1991. He is credited with many accomplishments at the helm of KP, including initiating an active Board of Directors Quality of Care Committee, expanding the Health Plan into new geographical regions, supporting a rigorous Affirmative Action policy, and defending the core values in times of change. The annual Vohs Award for Quality was established in his name when he retired in 1991.
In reflecting on his KP career, Vohs says he wishes he would have thought of the health plan’s current focus on healthy lifestyles as exemplified by the Thrive advertising campaign, started in 2004. He was opposed to advertising when it was first suggested in the 1980s because he did not want the not-for-profit Kaiser Permanente viewed as just another commercial organization and says he only agreed to it if the people featured in commercials were actual KP members or staff.
Keeping KP from becoming a commercial enterprise was a no-brainer for him. “We started out as a nonprofit organization providing care that people could afford. I fought against us becoming a profit-making business. That’s not who we were (are).”
While KP CEO, Vohs was heavily involved with local communities and charitable organizations and urged KP staff across the regions to participate in public events. In 1985 and 1986, he served as Alameda County chairperson for the March of Dimes’ TeamWalk and marshaled 900 KP walkers in 1985 and 1,000 in 1986.
With Vohs in the lead, the KP team raised $35,000 in 1985 and $60,000 in 1986. Vohs is quick to note that the March of Dimes walk – 32 kilometers for more energetic participants – wasn’t a promotion of walking. “That was different. We were walking to raise money, not for fitness.”
The KP walking team attracted staffers from all over Northern California. As the top team, KP won the traveling trophy, which was a bronzed shoe originally worn by baseball star Willie McCovey. “Once again we proved we’re number one.” Vohs said at the time.
Of his athletic pursuits, Vohs is most proud of his success as a marathon runner. He competed in the Avenue of the Giants 26-mile marathon, which only accepts 1,000 qualified runners, and two full-length Oakland Marathons when he was in his 50s. He stopped running a few years ago when he developed plantar fasciitis, a condition affecting his feet. He continues to play golf, walks the course and carries his own bag.
After retirement, Vohs maintained a KP office for about five years and continued his participation on a number of boards, including the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, the Oakland Coliseum, Holy Names College and the Oakland Port Commissioners. “My wife (Janice) said I failed retirement,” he offered, half joking. “She said it was like I was still working because I went into the office every day.”At a certain point, he vacated the office to spend more time at home.
Vohs has four daughters, among them a couple of runners who have entered the Bay to Breakers with him over the years. He also has nine grandchildren. Grandpa Vohs snapped a beautiful photo of two of his grandsons playing in the autumn leaves in a season that has long passed. The boys’ thick red hair blends with the leaf baskets’ contents to create an impressively artful photograph. Vohs has a large framed print of the scene hanging in his family room.
In his study, Vohs displays two special mementos from his KP days – a hand-crafted clock and a display case for his service pins, both made of Koa wood by a Hawaii Medical Group physician and friend. The case shows all his pins from his Kaiser Permanente career under glass. The last one marks his 40 years with the company.
Another prized object is a tennis shoe preserved with papier mache to remind him of a water excursion with friends that ended with a swamped boat. He and his fellow boaters have a running joke that involves sneaking the shoe back into each other’s possession.
Sadly, Vohs lost his wife of almost 50 years to cancer about 10 years ago. He remarried recently after renewing his acquaintance with Eileen Galloway, a college friend, at a UC Berkeley alumni reunion. Eileen sometimes walks with Jim, but mostly she likes to walk later in the day and a bit slower.
“I want to enjoy myself and appreciate my surroundings,” she said. “And I don’t want to get out of bed at dawn.”