Archive for May, 2014

World War II Home Front national park welcomes crowd to new galleries

posted on May 27, 2014

Kaiser Permanente’s birthplace in Richmond
wartime shipyards noted in historical exhibit

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Photos by Ginny McPartland

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San Francisco Bay Trail turns walking/bicycling into cultural experiences

posted on May 23, 2014

After 25 years, 500-mile project
boasts 355 miles of trekking track;
celebrates milestone Saturday

By Ginny McPartland
Heritage writer

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San Francisco Bay Trail, Richmond

Walking is good for just about everything that ails you, whether you’re young, old, or in between. Tomorrow (May 24) the San Francisco Bay Trail celebrates 25 years of encouraging residents and visitors to get out and use their feet to see the bay and all its natural treasures up close.

The Bay Trail celebration coincides with the unveiling of new exhibits at the Rosie the Riveter National Park’s Visitor Education Center. The joint party will be on the waterfront in Richmond, Calif., beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Fittingly, the Bay Trail organization is releasing its new smartphone application, Point, simultaneously, The mobile app will allow visitors to log in and get a narrated tour of 17 points of interest along the 2.5 miles of the trail adjacent to the Rosie park.

The Richmond Bay Trail smartphone audio tour, first in a series to be released for Point this summer, starts at the Visitor Education Center at 1414 South Harbour Way, Richmond, and ends at the Shimada Friendship Park.

Mobile interpretive tours will be released for trails along the Napa River near American Canyon and for Alviso and Novato sites.

The San Francisco Bay Trail Project, begun in 1989, is a planned 500-mile walking and bicycling trail. When completed, the trail will encircle the entire San Francisco Bay and will link the shorelines of all nine Bay Area counties, 47 cities and all seven major toll bridges in the region.

So far, 355 miles have been completed and provide access to points of historic, natural and cultural interest, as well as 130 parks and wildlife preserves totaling 57,000 acres of open space.

One of the new exhibits in the Rosie the Riveter visitors center: Rosie takes a break for lunch. Photo by Ginny McPartland

One of the new exhibits in the Rosie the Riveter visitors center: Rosie takes a break for lunch. Photo by Ginny McPartland

After the ceremonies, beginning at 11 a.m., visitors can enjoy a tour of the new Visitor Center exhibits, and participate in a scavenger hunt with great prizes and a WWII-era costume contest. Food will be available for sale and there will be live music.

For directions to the event, see this link: www.nps.gov/rori/planyourvisit/directions.htm

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Shipyard life portrayed in creative installations at Home Front park

posted on May 21, 2014

National Park Service to open historical
exhibits following 10 a.m. ceremony
Saturday, May 24, on waterfront in Richmond, Calif.

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Photos by Ginny McPartland

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Young Brazilian patients enjoy show under the big top

posted on May 16, 2014

Lori Shearn and KP physician daughter Wendy
recall taking hospitalized kids to circus

Editors note: Kaiser Permanente physician and educator Martin Shearn and his wife Lori traveled to Brazil in 1973 where Dr. Shearn served as chief of staff for the SS Hope hospital ship docked in Maceio, a poor coastal community in Northeast Brazil. Their daughter Wendy joined the mission for the summer.

By Lori Shearn
Heritage writer

Wendy Shearn with the kids in her hospital play program, 1973. Wendy is a physician at Kaiser Permanente San Rafael. Project Hope photo

Wendy Shearn (at right wearing glasses) with the kids in her volunteer hospital play program, 1973. Today, Wendy is a physician at Kaiser Permanente. Project Hope photo

Sixth in a series
It’s always exciting when the circus comes to town – whether you’re a child in the United States or Brazil.

In Maceio, the circus takes place in a hastily erected tent of particularly poor quality. The canvas is ripped on the sides, and there are many holes in the top, displaying lots of daylight and – in evening performances – moonlight.  The costumes are discouragingly frayed. Chairs are placed directly in the dirt. But the expected fabulous antics were all there: Spirits were high. There was a live band and a complicated lighting system that created wonderful bright spots.

There were many talented performers from all around the world, although sitting so very close removed a little of the magic of their make-up. Aerialists performed breathtaking feats on ladders and ropes, hanging by their fingers and toes. The equipment looked so precarious we worried for the performers’ safety.

There were jugglers and clowns and daring motorcycle riders who sped up and around inside a huge cage. So thrilling!

The audience, unexpectedly seemed unresponsive, not cheering or enthusiastic, and there were hardly any children present!

My daughter, Wendy, a volunteer who had joined us in Brazil, suddenly had a brilliant idea: she would bring the children in her hospital play program to the circus!

Making the impossible possible

Wendy established the play program in the small hospital ward and enlisted the help of community volunteers. The sorely needed program gave them the opportunity to participate in the care of these children from the arid, poverty-stricken Northeastern part of the country.  The children often stayed in the hospital for months and months, alone and far from family.

Wendy (Shearn, now a physician at Kaiser Permanente) and her fellow volunteers mustered their resourcefulness to make a trip to the circus a reality for the young, sick patients who rarely saw the out of doors aside from the chickens in the hospital courtyard.

First, Wendy had to persuade the circus operators that they would be better off having an enthusiastic group of children in the audience. With that in mind, Wendy thought they might be willing to offer free passes.

Second, the volunteers had to overcome the fact that the kids had no clothes to wear. The nuns at the hospital had the “Sunday” clothes locked away for religious occasions, so they had to be persuaded that the circus qualified as a special event.

Arranging all this took some doing. After all, the children were in the hospital for a reason.  They were sick and many were unable to walk or were disabled in other ways.

Big day, big trip to big top

Wendy Shearn's school portrait.

Wendy Shearn’s school portrait.

In her own Maceio memoir, Wendy remembers the anticipation and preparation for the trip to the circus:

“The hospital administrators agreed to allow the kids to go, even the eight-year-old boy who couldn’t walk. His excited friends were happy to push him in a baby stroller in the parade to the big top.

“I arrive before lunch to make sure everyone is ready for the trip of the afternoon, and to see what spirits are like. I find that spirits are definitely very high today in the pediatric ward of Santa Casa de Misericordia in Maceio, Brazil.

“The fact that these children are being deprived of so many daily thrills of childhood due to their illness compounds their anticipation. A great event!!

“It has been a week since Maria (a 12-year-old patient with deadly Chagas Disease) pulled me aside and showed me the flag at the very top of the big tent. It was visible from the hospital balcony. Soon she will get to go.

“When I return in the afternoon to pick up the children, a strange mood is settled over the ward. The boys are all in new clean clothes, with hair combed.

“They sit uncomfortably, and hide any excitement in silence. Perhaps they are scared? The girls all look pretty in crinkly dresses that the Irma (Sister Maria) saves for ‘special occasions’.

“Their hair is also nicely combed, excess powder has been sprinkled all over their arms and shoulders, and the girls wear uncomfortable shoes made of wood, with artificial fruits on top. They all smell heavily of baby powder.

“Soon everyone is ready to go, seeming strangely nonchalant about the entire excursion. There are 10 very sick children, and almost as many nurses and assistants, many of whom have brought their own healthy children along. We make a bright spectacle walking along the street on our way to the circus.”

Sights of the outside world of cars and trains and the beach were exciting for the child patients. The gas station attendant noticed the extraordinary procession and gave each child a popsicle to enjoy on the way. They were beaming and when they arrived in the tent the audience – aware of the magnitude of the event – cheered them wildly.

It was probably the most wonderful thing that ever happened to these children.

Wendy concluded in her memoir:

“The circus itself was all any child had hoped for. They laughed at the clowns, especially the deformed little tiny one.  They held their breaths at the acrobatics.

“ . . . As we returned the children to the hospital, I felt mixed emotions. The circus had been grand – the children loved it and talked about it with warm smiles the next day. But how sad that the happy times are so rare for these special brave dignified children.”

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Henry J. Kaiser sticks up for union labor at Brewster Aeronautical

posted on May 13, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer 

On Jan. 29, 1954, Henry J. Kaiser delivered the keynote address at the Seminar on Human Relations in San Bernardino, Calif.

This conference, sponsored by the University of California and the United Steelworkers of America, brought together labor leaders, anthropologists, educators, and other intellectuals to explore productive and creative ways to work.

Kaiser’s speech was titled “Human Relations: The Key to Abundant Happiness,” and one of the lessons he drew upon was his wartime management of Brewster Aeronautical Corporation, which had plants in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

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Brewster F3A-1 Corsair landing on a WWII aircraft carrier.

Brewster was manufacturing F3A-1 Corsair fighters but had been ineptly managed and inefficiently run.  In 1943, as a favor to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Kaiser agreed to try and turn the company around.

Kaiser displayed a remarkable sensitivity to the role of organized labor and to the practical mechanisms of management’s role:

“The blame for the atrocious situation was heaped by the government and the press upon the union leader, Tom DeLorenzo, who was called a liar, a criminal, and worse.

“I shall never forget my first meeting with De Lorenzo, the accused troublemaker. His attitude was that all managements were dishonest, unreliable and untruthful, and only outright battle would handle management.

“I said to De Lorenzo, ‘Can’t you and I work on the basis of being truthful with each other?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘it won’t work. I’ve tried it too many times and always get double-crossed.’

“Quietly I said, ‘Well, Tom, do you think this would work? Suppose when you come in to see me from day to day and you are going to lie, you say, ‘I’m going to lie to you today.’ But on the other hand, when you are telling me the truth you say, ‘Now I’m telling you the truth today.’

“Much to my surprise, he said, ‘That might work. I’m willing to try it.’ Many times when he came in amid the nightmare of problems, he would say, ‘I’m going to lie like hell to you today! But this is my position!’

“As time went on, more often he’d come into conferences and say, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth today.’ Tom DeLorenzo had left in him some of the spark of decency that is in every human being and when appealed to, is released.

“The thrilling sequel is that Tom DeLorenzo pitched in shoulder to shoulder with management to do the patriotic job of cleaning up the Brewster mess. Man-hours per plane were slashed to one-third; the padded work force was cut in half; yet the production of planes was multiplied nearly 30 times.”

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HJK speaking at Fontana, Calif., blast furnace dedication, 1942

Despite Kaiser’s success, this productive relationship was ridiculed by anti-labor forces in the U.S. Government. House Resolution 30, “Authorizing and Directing and Investigation of the Progress of the War Effort,” had begun in 1941 and resulted in a series of hearings.

Congressman Melvin J. Maas (Minnesota) was the principal interrogator during a heated hearing Nov. 30, 1943. Maas was a tough Marine, a veteran of both WWI and WWII, and had little tolerance for anything that smacked of war profiteering. He lit into Kaiser, but Kaiser gave as well as he got[i]:

Mr. Maas: “Mr. Kaiser, [you wrote that] ‘the responsible union leaders at the Brewster plant assure management of their desire that we should continue, and give assurance that we will receive the support and cooperation of labor in order to achieve an increase in plane production for the maintenance of the war effort.’

“They have opposed every other manager, but they do endorse your management. Why? What makes you think that they endorse your management while they opposed every other management at Brewster?”

Mr. Kaiser: “I guess I have confidence and faith and trust.”

Mr. Maas: “Of course, if you give (him) all the candy he wants, he’s (on your side), isn’t he?

Mr. Kaiser: “That isn’t what I said. You are making a statement that I am giving them the candy; I am not . . .  I told [DeLorenzo], if you are [interested in the well-being of your union members], it is necessary to make them so efficient that . . . when we are going into the postwar era, they can exist and live, produce and create in a competitive market and make a living for themselves and their families. Tom, the sooner you start moving in that direction the greater will be your service to your members.’ ”

Truly, Henry J. Kaiser believed in his motto, “Together we build.”


Short link to this story: http://ow.ly/wO4NJ

[i] Henry J. Kaiser – Western Colossus,  Heiner, 1991, pp162-164

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Ceremony to unveil permanent exhibits at California WWII Home Front park on May 24

posted on May 10, 2014

SS Red Oak Victory pancake brunch cool option
for Mother’s Day: SF Bay Trail celebrates 25 years

Visitors Education Center preview in 2012. Temporary exhibits have been replaced with new interactive displays.

Rosie the Riveter national park Visitor Education Center preview in 2012. Temporary exhibits have been replaced with new interactive displays to be unveiled to the public May 24. Photo by Joe Paolazzi

By Ginny McPartland
Heritage writer

Rosie the Riveter’s dance card is full for the next two weeks at her namesake national historical park in Richmond, Calif.

The signature event is the Memorial Weekend unveiling of the park’s permanent, interactive historical exhibits on Saturday, May 24, at the Visitor Education Center. Park staff will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m.

Visitors are invited to participate in various programs offered throughout the day. For more information and directions, you may call: 510-232-5050 Ext. 0, or go to the park Web site.

After the ribbon-cutting, San Francisco Bay Trail officials will stage a 25th anniversary celebration of the 500-mile walking, biking and hiking trail.

Park officials advise arriving early because seating is limited for both events. They also urge visitors to dress warm for the cool and windy weather usual on the waterfront in the morning.

Mother’s Day can be a breeze

SS Red Oak Victory is the site of a Mother's Day pancake brunch Sunday.

SS Red Oak Victory is the site of a Mother’s Day pancake brunch Sunday.

Enjoy Mother’s Day pancake brunch this Sunday (May 11) sitting on the deck of the SS Red Oak Victory docked on the Richmond waterfront. The ship, built in Henry Kaiser’s World War II shipyards, is on the site of the former Shipyard No. 3.

A full breakfast will be served from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for $7 per person.  Children under 5 eat for free.

Red Oak volunteers will give tours of the ship for an additional fee of $5 per person. The SS Red Oak Victory is berthed at 1337 Canal Blvd, Berth 6A, in Richmond.

The Richmond Museum of History operates a museum and gift shop within the Red Oak’s hold.  For more information, call 510-237-2933.

Film festival features “Swing Shift” on May 15

Also coming up is a showing of “Swing Shift,” a World War II movie starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell as California aircraft production workers who find romance on the Home Front.

This is the last in a series of historical films shown on the Red Oak Victory this spring.  The 1984 movie will be screened at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 15. Admission is $5.

More to see at historical park

The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park offers a full schedule of ongoing programs. For example, films are shown in the visitors center theater every day.

Rosie the Riveter park visitor center on opening day in 2012. Permanent exhibits will be unveiled May 24.

Rosie the Riveter park visitor center on opening day in 2012. The center’s historical exhibits have been refreshed this spring.

Visitor center docents present programs covering many World War II themes, including the Japanese American internment, food rationing, the African American war experience, toys of the 1940s, dogs for defense and more.

On Fridays, visitors have the opportunity to meet real-life Rosies and hear their stories. “Rosie Meet and Greet” is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 2 p.m. in the visitors center.

The park visitor center, located behind the historic Ford Assembly Building, is open daily, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. at 1414 Harbour Way South, Richmond.

For more information: (510) 232-5050 x0, or visit the park Web site.

Home Front quilt show at Richmond museum

The Richmond Museum of History in downtown Richmond is exhibiting the Quilts of the World War II Home Front through June 6. Admission is $5.

Quilting expert Mary Mashuta will present “A Conversation about Story Quilts” from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 18, at the museum, 400 Nevin Ave., Richmond. The program is included with the admission fee.

For more information, call 510-235-7387 or visit the museum’s Web site.

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National Hospital Day began in 1921 to honor pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale

posted on May 9, 2014

Special day meant to educate public
about medical trends and treatments

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

In 1921, U.S. President Warren G. Harding declared the first National Hospital Day. He picked May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday, to honor the famed nurse who set initial standards for hospital quality during the Crimean War of 1854.

"Complete prenatal and post-natal care is part of Permanente's family coverage," photo from Fore 'n' Aft, May 25, 1945.

“Complete prenatal and post-natal care is part of Permanente’s family coverage,” photo from Fore ‘n’ Aft, May 25, 1945.

President Harding declared the special day as an occasion to open hospitals across the United States and Canada to allow staff to educate visitors about medical examination and treatment and to distribute health care literature and information about nursing schools.

This publicity campaign was conceived by Matthew O. Foley, managing editor of the Chicago-based trade publication Hospital Management, in the wake of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

The devastating epidemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including more than 675,000 Americans.  Foley sought to rebuild trust in the city’s hospitals as well as to draw attention to broader crises facing health care. A May 1921 Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial outlined those problems:

“The time is past when support for the care of the sick poor can be obtained through funds raised from private philanthropy.

“Modern hospital methods are expensive beyond anything formerly conceived of . . . [while at the same time] the increase of poverty and unemployment and the influx of a new and inexperienced immigrant population as yet unestablished in homes create a greatly increased number of indigent sick demanding care.”

War influenced day’s focus

National Hospital Day 1945 addressed a different set of challenges – a country still reeling from the Great Depression and still at war with Japan; victory in Europe was declared May 8, 1945.

Infographic, "Average length of patient's stay," Fore 'n' Aft, May 25, 1945

Infographic, “Average length of patient’s stay,” Fore ‘n’ Aft, May 25, 1945

San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham proclaimed National Hospital Day as a date to honor volunteer and professional workers for what the mayor called “the splendid record for health in San Francisco during our fourth year of war”.

Among those health care providers honored were those serving workers and their families in the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, Calif. The shipyard magazine Fore ‘n’ Aft published this editorial:

“Hospital Day has never been one of this nation’s major anniversaries, but – indisputably – health is, and will remain, one of this nation’s major problems for a long time to come.

“For most citizens as well, medical and hospital bills have been one of the major problems in their family budget. That neither of these problems need loom so large and insoluble has been proved at the Richmond shipyards.

“Richmond workers can count themselves among the select – and unfortunately, small – group of American citizens who needn’t worry about running up doctors’ bills, yet they have by their side every protection modern medicine can offer.

“To the service that makes this possible – the Permanente Health Plan – we dedicate this issue of Fore ‘n’ Aft.”

Hospital Day becomes Hospital Week

In 1953, National Hospital Day was expanded to National Hospital Week to give hospitals more time for public education about medical care.

Currently sponsored by the American Hospital Association, this year’s National Hospital Week is Sunday, May 11, through Saturday, May 17.

The week is a time to celebrate hospitals and the men and women who, day in and day out, support the health of their communities through compassionate care, constant innovation and unwavering dedication.

Writing at a time when nursing was generally a woman’s profession, a Canadian editorial writer touted the occupation:

“[On] National Hospital Day efforts will be made to bring the value of a modern hospital before every member of the community, and also to impress young women standing on life’s threshold with idealism still dominant, and aspiring to a vocation as well as seeking a means of livelihood with the view that nursing is a profession and not a business, and that in its honour sacrifices must be rendered as well as privileges won.”

 

Short link to this article: http://ow.ly/wKF1m

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Black nurses get together to forge their own future

posted on May 5, 2014

California African American nurses organize
in early 1970s to address health disparities

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Kaiser Black Student Nurses' Association, 1972 Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing yearbook.Top row: Gwendolyn Davis, Bonnie Buford, Kathy Tysinger; Bottom row: Sharmel Dunn, Pam Brown, Carolyn Dorsey.

Kaiser Black Student Nurses’ Association, 1972 Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing yearbook.Top row: Gwendolyn Davis, Bonnie Buford (Casher), Kathy Tysinger; Bottom row: Sharmel Dunn (Thompson), Pam Brown (Jenkins), Carolyn Dorsey.

By the late 1960s, African Americans technically had equal rights under the law, yet young blacks were still butting up against slammed doors when it came to professional employment.

Black women who sought education to enter the field of nursing didn’t get the encouragement and support they needed from school advisers, and in many cases they were turned away from employment simply because they weren’t white.

Kaiser Permanente black nurses Jessie Cunningham, the first black nursing supervisor at Oakland Medical Center, and Dorothy Williams, a nurse anesthetist in Oakland for many years, were among the first to rise to the call for a national association to represent the interests of black nurses.

In 1968, black women who had achieved some success as nursing professionals decided to take action to help would-be nurses coming up behind them and to break down barriers to good health in black communities across the nation.

Bay Area black nurses form group

Led by Betty Smith Williams and Barbara Johnson, the Council of Black Nurses was founded in Los Angeles in 1968.  A year later, black nurses in the San Francisco Bay Area were organized under the leadership of nurses Florence Stroud (who later became the first black director of Public Health for the city of Berkeley, Calif.)¹ and Carlessia Hussein, a public health nurse, in San Francisco.

In 1970, the Los Angeles and San Francisco groups of black nurses combined their efforts to stage the first California statewide conference of black nurses. The meeting attracted nurses from Miami, Fla., New York City and many other places.

Also in 1970, black nurses attending the 47th convention of the American Nurses Association in Miami gathered to discuss issues unique to black association members and to the serious health needs of African Americans.

The caucus produced a steering committee headed by Dr. Lauranne Sams, who was an instructor at the Indiana School of Nursing at the time. (In 1974, Sams became dean and professor of nursing at the Tuskegee University School of Nursing in Tuskegee, Ala.)  Sams’ committee’s charge was to develop a method to reach out to black nurses across the country to compare notes and take coordinated action.

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Kaiser black student nurses offer foot screening clinic in Oakland, 1972. Kaiser Permanente photo

In 1971, a group of 18 black nurses met in the home of Dr. Mary Harper² of Cleveland, and laid the foundation for the National Black Nurses Association. The association became a non-profit organization incorporated in 1972 in Ohio, and in 2012, members celebrated the association’s 40th anniversary.

Since its inception, the association has included in its goals a focus on eliminating African American health disparities.

The Bay Area Black Nurses Association became a chapter of the National Black Nurses Association soon after its founding. In 1977, nurses in San Jose, Calif., started the South Bay Black Nurses Association.

Cunningham and Williams were active in the Bay Area association’s community health initiatives for more than two decades, and they often represented the local association at the national conferences. Cunningham served twice both as vice president and treasurer of the Bay Area association.

Kaiser student nurses form group

Six student nurses at Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing in Oakland, Calif., formed their own black nurses association in 1972, joining in the enthusiasm for recognition of the professionalism of black nurses.

Students Gwendolyn Davis, Bonnie Buford (Casher), Kathy Tysinger, Sharmel Dunn (Thompson), Pam Brown (Jenkins), and Carolyn Dorsey were pictured in the 1972 KFSN yearbook.  The group participated in black community outreach projects, including a foot clinic in 1972.

Today, the BABNA meets regularly, alternating locations between San Francisco and Kaiser Permanente Oakland.

The Kaiser Permanente School of Anesthesia (through the California State University at Fullerton) began offering a scholarship for African American students through the National Black Nurses Association in 1996 and since 2001 has continued to do so directly.

This educational scholarship is intended to increase the number of African American students who become Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists.

School of Anesthesia director Dr. John Nagelhout explains: “We feel strongly that increasing the diversity within our profession will benefit our overall community and strengthen patient care. This also allows many deserving applicants a chance to further their nursing education.”

Heritage writer Ginny McPartland contributed to this story.

 

 Short link to this article: bit.ly/Su20S8

¹ The Bay Area Black Nurses Association and Samuel Merritt University have sponsored a Florence B. Stroud Conference each year since 2011 during February, Black History Month.

² The career of Mary Harper, PhD, included taking care of scientist George Washington Carver late in his life and advising four U.S. presidents (Carter, Reagan, G. H. Bush, and Clinton) on health and mental health issues.

Beloved nurse Jessie Cunningham earned honored place in Kaiser Permanente history

posted on May 1, 2014

First black nursing supervisor at Oakland Medical Center:
mentor, pioneer and friend to anyone in need

By Ginny McPartland
Heritage writer

Jessie Head Cunningham as a student at Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing, 1954

Jessie Head Cunningham as a student at Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing, 1954

In an era when registered nurses wore starched white frocks, stylized caps indicating their alma mater, white stockings and nun-like white shoes, young Jessie Head (later Cunningham) dreamed of joining the ranks of those she so admired.

Born in 1930 in Ruston, Louisiana, Jessie moved with her African-American family to Oakland, California, when she was four. By the age of seven, she had set her mind to pursue a career as a professional nurse.

Against all odds, in 1951 she succeeded in her quest to enter the then mostly white world of nursing and to forge a highly successful 40-year career as a Kaiser Permanente nurse and nursing supervisor and a tireless community health advocate with the Bay Area Black Nurses Association.

Friends of Jessie Head Cunningham, also known as Mrs. C, Mrs. Ham and Jessie Bea, gathered recently to celebrate her rich life. She died on New Year’s Eve 2013 at the age of 83.

Career delayed by racial discrimination

As Jessie prepared to graduate from Oakland Technical High School in 1948 (famed actor-director Clint Eastwood was in her class), her career counselor told her she should pick another occupation because “coloreds” didn’t go in to nursing.

Undaunted, Jessie set out to get her nursing education. She applied to several schools that rejected her, but she didn’t give up.  Biding her time, she enrolled in classes at San Francisco City College and UC Berkeley and continued to apply to nursing schools.

In 1951, Jessie was accepted to the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing and became one of the first three African-American women to graduate from the school started by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and his wife Bess in 1947.

A model student and mentor

Jessie Head married Robert Cunningham in ceremonies on May 9, 1954. Photo courtesy of Cunningham family.

Jessie Head married Robert Cunningham in ceremonies on May 9, 1954. Photo courtesy of the Cunningham family.

Jessie was a model student, says Clair Lisker, retired Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center director of nursing and long-time member of the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing faculty and management staff.

“In those days we would have meetings at my house to discuss patient care and patient education and all kinds of issues,” Clair recalled recently. “Jessie was a part of that. I remember her asking questions and being totally engaged . . . She would always take new students under her wing; she wanted to be sure they got the help they needed.”

Jessie started her in-hospital training at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center in surgery; her friends say she was always proud when the physicians requested her to assist in the operating room.

One Sunday morning, she was surprised to find her picture in the Oakland Tribune along with her colleagues in surgery. She was wearing a mask, but everyone could recognize her by the distinctive mole on her forehead.

Jessie Cunningham specialized in OB-GYN nursing in her almost 40-year career with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. Photo courtesy of the Cunningham family

Jessie Cunningham specialized in OB-GYN nursing in her almost 40-year career with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. Photo courtesy of the Cunningham family.

She graduated in 1954 and Sidney Garfield, MD, founding Kaiser Permanente physician, personally handed Jessie her registered nursing degree during ceremonies in Oakland.

After graduation, Jessie decided to focus on OB-GYN nursing and she continued in that field for the rest of her career.  In the 1960s, she was the first black nurse to be named supervisor at Oakland Medical Center. She served in that role for 22 years until she retired in 1989.

Also in 1954, Jesse married Robert Cunningham. Son Jeffrey was born in 1955 on the couple’s first anniversary; daughter Robbyn was born in 1957. Sadly, Robert died at a young age in 1979.

Making connections with black colleagues

Dorothy Williams, a nurse anesthetist who started at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco in 1960, met Jessie Cunningham in 1962 when they were both juggling career and family. Coincidentally, Jessie was the nurse assisting when Dorothy gave birth to her second child in Oakland.

Dorothy, originally from Detroit, transferred to Oakland Kaiser Permanente in 1962, and although the two women didn’t work together directly they cemented their friendship. Both earned their bachelor’s degrees in health and nursing administration from Golden Gate University in the early 1980s.

Both were Kaiser Permanente nurses who had found a place where they were valued as professionals despite their race. At the time, opportunities for black nurses were still limited.

Jessie Cunningham, first black nursing supervisor at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center and early member of the Bay Area Black Nurses Association. Photo courtesy of Cunningham family

Jessie Cunningham, first black nursing supervisor at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center and early member of the Bay Area Black Nurses Association. Photo courtesy of the Cunningham family.

So when they heard about the Bay Area Black Nurses Association forming in San Francisco in the late 1960s, they saw an opportunity to help other black women make their way in the profession and ultimately to improve the health condition of the black community.

Jessie and Dorothy dove into the black nurses association’s activities and traveled to many cities across the country attending national conferences after the National Black Nurses Association was founded in 1971. Jessie served two terms each as vice president and treasurer for the Bay Area chapter.

In the local community, they set up health fairs and screening clinics that targeted health problems that especially affected African Americans. Over the years, they were instrumental in conducting community events screening for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and to help people quit smoking.

Black nurses association community programs also took aim against social problems such as domestic violence, child physical and sexual abuse and illiteracy.

‘Do it right’

Jessie was a stickler for professionalism. “She always said: ‘If you going to do it, do it right,’ ” Dorothy Williams recalled. “She believed nurses should be up on their medical knowledge and follow proper procedures.”

Jessie was adamant about the use of the English language. “She detested it when someone spoke (improper) English . . . She would correct people when they mispronounced a word or used incorrect grammar,” Dorothy said.

Friends and colleagues teased Jessie about her strictness with the language. They said she missed her calling and should have been an English teacher.

Williams says Jessie was someone who would always be available to anyone in need. “If you went to Jessie for help, she wouldn’t let you go until your need was taken care of,” she said in a recent interview.

“Jessie was a good person to know. If she was a friend, she was always a friend. She was outspoken . . . she would tell you what she thought, and she would give you advice – in a loving way.  But she never deserted her friends, no matter what.”

 

 

 

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Deloras Jones – proud graduate of Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing

posted on May 1, 2014
Deloras Jones, KFSN class of 1963.

Deloras Jones, KFSN class of 1963

Article on Deloras Jones as nursing student, Kaiser Steel’s October 1962 issue of Westward magazine.

Deloras Jones (née Plake) is a 1963 graduate of the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing in Oakland, Calif. She was featured in an article on the school in Kaiser Steel’s October 1962 issue of Westward magazine, where she was quoted as saying, “This is the most satisfying thing I have ever done in my life.” She adds today that her decision to enter nursing was “by far the most important decision that I ever made. It set me on the right path to a full and satisfying professional career.”

Deloras (RN, MS, retired Kaiser Permanente nursing leader) currently serves as a member of the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing Alumni Association Board and is the association’s Heritage Project director.

The alumni association has launched a $100,000 fundraising campaign to commission a sculpture honoring the nursing profession to be displayed at the brand-new Kaiser Oakland Medical Center. Staff, friends, and colleagues are invited to contribute.

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