Posts Tagged ‘Harold Willson’

Tunnels, Trains, and Tubes: Kaiser’s Role in Building an Accessible Transit System

posted on July 14, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

BART trans-bay tube built by Kaiser Steel being barged down Napa river, 1968.

Kaiser Steel was the backbone of San Francisco’s mighty Transamerica Pyramid in 1972. And, Kaiser Steel, and Kaiser Permanente, were both also involved in another major Bay Area construction project that opened the same year – the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART.

Henry J. Kaiser built the first West Coast integrated steel mill in Fontana in 1942 to supply plate for his seven shipyards, and by the 1960s he had fabrication facilities all over the world. The closest to San Francisco was located south of the town of Napa on the Napa River. Today it’s the Napa Pipe Corporation.

Kaiser Steel won the contract to build the transbay tubes, the tunnel through which the trains scoot back and forth between Oakland and San Francisco. The tubes were prefabricated sections 330 feet long, 48 feet wide, and 24 feet high. They were much more complex than a simple drain culvert, having to endure deep water pressure and earthquakes. Special Teflon-coated seismic joints allowed up to a foot of motion without damage.

BART also required tunnel liner rings – 27,000 of them. These were 36-foot-diameter behemoths weighing 6,500 pounds. Each one was composed of six giant fitted parts, and they reinforced 13 miles of tunnel.

A 2002 article in the Napa Valley Register burst with local pride in this accomplishment. Harold Halterman, Vice President of Kaiser Steel’s Fabricating Operations in Napa and Fontana, was quoted as saying “We kept a couple hundred people busy for five years. It was a fascinating time. People came from (all over the world) to see what we had done.”

And when Kaiser Steel was finished, a Kaiser Permanente employee took on a leading role in making BART accessible to all people

Harold Willson on new BART car with Easter Seal poster boy Eric Staley, 1972.

Harold Willson was coal miner with a crushed spine who arrived at the Oakland Permanente Foundation Hospital from West Virginia in 1948. At the Kabat-Kaiser Institute of Neuromuscular Rehabilitation in Vallejo, Calif., he regained mobility and went on to work for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. In the mid-1960s Willson, as a volunteer with the Easter Seal Society, became a staunch advocate for making the then-new BART more accessible. This included services we now take for granted, such as station elevators, ramps, chair-high water fountains and telephones, accessible bathrooms, lowered hand railings, and “kneeling” buses.

While BART was under construction, in 1968 California Governor Ronald Reagan signed Assembly Bill 7, into law, requiring public utilities constructed with state funds to be usable by the physically disabled. This added to BART’s projected costs – just adding elevators (originally, only escalators had been planned) at 28 to 33 stations was projected at $7 million. The city of Berkeley stepped up and offered to pay for the elevator in its Ashby station as a trial.

And it was worth it.

By 1972, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle boasted that “BART Leads Way in Transit System Aid to Handicapped.”

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, it can claim one admirable distinction- BART is the first rapid transit system in the world to offer 100 per cent usability, at almost every station, for the handicapped. This claim was made proudly today by Harold L. Willson of Alamo, himself handicapped, partly responsible for the installation of special facilities for the handicapped and elderly along BART’s 75-mile system.

According to Willson, “Accessible transportation is often the deciding factor between being dependent on society, friends or family and being independent within society. I’ll never forget that sense of freedom I experienced boarding a BART test train for the first time.”

Henry J. Kaiser was a doer, and once told his long-time attorney Paul Marrin “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.  Figure out a way to do it.” Although Kaiser had already passed away in 1967, surely he would have been proud of Halterman’s and Willson’s accomplishments.

 

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Mending Bodies and Minds – Kabat-Kaiser Vallejo

posted on July 7, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

Physical therapy at Kabat-Kaiser Vallejo

Mark Wellman fell from a cliff and broke his spine in 1982 at the age of 22. A well-known mountain climber, Wellman went on to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan seven years later despite his injuries, and was the first person to climb the 3,000-foot cliff using only his arms. Two years later, he summited Half Dome, and later became the first person with paraplegia to sit-ski across the Sierra Nevada.

Wellman received physical therapy and rehabilitation treatment at the Kaiser-Kabat Institute in Vallejo, Calif. (also called the Kabat-Kaiser Institute of Neuromuscular Rehabilitation), now the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center and Hospital which is still in operation. The work in Vallejo built upon the distinctive and important physical rehabilitation work done under the direction of Herman Kabat, MD, at the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Santa Monica, which operated from 1947 to 1962.

Henry J. Kaiser had purchased the Vallejo Community Hospital in March 1947 from the

Permanente Hospital, Vallejo, circa 1948

Federal Works Agency to serve the growing Permanente health plan membership in that corner of the San Francisco Bay Area. The innovative facility had been designed by noted architect Douglas Dacre Stone (1897-1969), who’d also designed Children’s Hospital Oakland and Peralta Hospital. The facility was larger than needed, and in June part of the campus was allocated to the new Kabat-Kaiser rehabilitation program. There was also a Kabat-Kaiser clinic at the Permanente Foundation Hospital in Oakland, but after living quarters were built in Vallejo in late 1947 the Oakland clinic only served outpatients.

Kabat-Kaiser Vallejo, from Collier’s article, 1950

A key impetus behind Kaiser’s involvement in physical rehabilitation was in response to his youngest son Henry Junior (1917-1961) contracting multiple sclerosis in 1944 and being successfully cared for by program director Dr. Kabat. The first Kabat-Kaiser Vallejo administrator was Felix Day, and the medical director of the physical therapy school was physiatrist Ora Leonard Huddleston, MD.

The center in Santa Monica primarily treated patients with polio and multiple sclerosis, but Vallejo handled a much wider population of patients with disabling conditions including stroke and spinal cord injury. A 1954 brochure for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan specifically noted “Members are entitled to rehabilitation and treatment for polio after the acute and contagious state, provided they have had continuous membership since the condition arose, and it originated after April 1, 1954.”

UMWA patients arriving by Pullman train for Kaiser physical therapy, 1948

Interestingly, this last group included coal miners from rural mining communities in the Midwest and East. In 1947 legendary United Mine Workers of America leader John L. Lewis and the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund partnered with Henry J. Kaiser and the Kabat-Kaiser Institute to provide top-quality medical care and rehabilitation for injured miners. They came across the country on the Southern Pacific’s elegant “Gold Coast Limited,” and when they arrived some had to be handed out through windows because they could not be lifted from their berths onto gurneys.

One of the mine workers to benefit from rehabilitation at Vallejo was Harold Willson, who arrived in 1948 with a crushed spine. There he met his nurse and future wife, regained mobility, and went on to work for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. Willson became a staunch advocate for making the then-new Bay Area Rapid Transit more accessible with elevators, ramps, chair-high water fountains, accessible bathrooms, lowered hand railings, and “kneeling” buses.

Maggie Knott and Dr. Kabat, Kabat-Kaiser Vallejo, from Collier’s article

It was in these early years that great strides were being made in the use of physical therapies to treat neuromuscular disabilities. Dr. Kabat received national publicity in the early 1950s for his work at the Vallejo facility, including a major spread in the popular magazine Collier’s Weekly. The institutes, under the direction of Dr. Kabat and physical therapist Margaret “Maggie” Knott, pioneered the therapy called “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.” Maggie Knott and another physical therapist, Dorothy Voss, published the first textbook on PNF in 1956. PNF has become internationally recognized as one of the most widely used and effective treatments for certain injuries and illnesses.

Wheelchair square dance, from Kabat-Kaiser article in Collier’s

It was also during these years that some in the medical establishment attacked the Permanente Health Plan as “socialized medicine.” Left-sympathetic Dr. Kabat became a casualty, and he resigned from KKI in 1954 to pursue private practice and engage in research. (Also targeted but never harmed was Rene Cailliet, MD, certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and chief of Kabat-Kaiser Santa Monica). Sedgwick Mead, MD, from Harvard University, was appointed medical director of the Vallejo KKI facility and it was renamed the California Rehabilitation Center.

KKI programs included a range of occupational training such as shoe and watch repair. One of their more popular recreational programs was wheelchair square dancing. And a local sports page on March 16, 1950, noted that the Fifth Annual Hayward Area Open Basketball Tournament would host the “First civilian wheelchair basketball team in the world” the “Wheeling Warriors” from KKI, where they would tangle with the National Guard 49ers.

Outdoor physical therapy at Kabat-Kaiser, Vallejo, circa 1960

Because the PNF method works so well, the program at the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center in Vallejo continues to draw graduate students from all over Europe, South America, and Asia. Just as in the early years, all productive approaches are welcome in physical and emotional therapy. A recent article highlighted several patients whose recovery was greatly enhanced by the healing power of visual art.

Kabat-Kaiser Vallejo – mending bodies and minds since 1947.

 

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Disabled KP financial analyst changed course of public transportation

posted on October 24, 2012

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Harold Willson, KP employee from 1957 to 1977, getting off a wheelchair-accessible BART train. Willson convinced officials to alter the system design to accommodate disabled passengers. Photo from Accent on Living magazine.

Next month, Kaiser Permanente leaders and staff will gather for the 35th year to celebrate the diversity of its work force, its selected vendors and its membership. “Diversity Excellence: A 21st Century Game Changer” will be in Long Beach on November 1 and 2.

KP’s embracing of diversity goes back to its beginnings in the World War II shipyards, and its ranks have included many disabled individuals who made significant contributions despite their handicaps. Harold T. Willson, a wheelchair-bound KP financial analyst, was one such person.

Willson, disabled in a 1948 mining accident, successfully lobbied leaders of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) to make the high-speed train system accessible to the disabled.

BART, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was under construction in the early 1960s when Willson learned that the plans did not call for disabled access. He raised his objections and insisted on alterations.

Willson’s quiet persistence made BART leaders stop and listen. This relentlessness was characteristic of Willson’s approach to life. His story is one of triumph over tragedy.

Slate slide crushed young miner

Willson was 21 years old when his entire life changed. The son of a mining engineer, he turned to mine work for income, as many young men do in West Virginia. His father had died two years earlier, and he was supporting the family and saving for college.

BART public phones were mounted lower to be convenient for passengers in wheelchairs. Photo from Accent on Living magazine.

He describes his last day of going down 500 feet to work at the mine owned by the New River Coal Company in Summerlee:

“On Friday, the 13th day of February, 1948, I went to work the ‘hoot owl’ shift, and early the next morning just after my lunchtime, at 3:30 a.m., I was caught in a slate fall. I was badly crushed, ribs and back were broken with severe spinal damage.”

Willson was fortunate to be a member of Local 6048 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Soon after his accident he was sent to the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Oakland, California, for rehabilitation (the facility was later located in Vallejo).

Kaiser rehabilitation center opened to miners

Just a few months earlier, legendary UMWA leader John L. Lewis and the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund had partnered with Henry J. Kaiser and the Kabat-Kaiser Institute to provide top-quality medical care and rehabilitation for injured miners.

United Mine Workers of America patients arriving by Pullman train for Kaiser physical therapy, 1948. Kaiser Permanente Heritage Archives photo

Vocational institutions in the rural mining communities in the East were badly underfunded, and the California facilities offered a perfect venue for the union’s commitment to social welfare.

Willson was among the first group of miners to take the long trip west in three railroad cars, eventually followed by hundreds more. In an early instance of KP’s community benefit practices, the Permanente Health Plan continued to provide care even when the miners’ fund ran out of money.i

At Kabat-Kaiser Willson participated in physical therapy, played wheelchair basketball, and fell in love with his nurse and future wife. He got a job at the Bank of America, earned a bachelor of science in business administration, and then took a position as a senior financial analyst with the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, retiring in 1977.

Willson put his persuasive powers to work

While employed by KP, Willson was a powerful advocate for urban design and construction that would accommodate disabled people. As volunteer consultant to BART, he put in long hours over a 10-year period to ensure its accessibility for the disabled and elderly. He insisted that adequate transportation was often the deciding factor for disabled independence.

Special ticket gates were designed to allow wheelchairs to pass through. Photo from Accent on Living magazine.

A feature article on his work in the 1973 issue of Accent on Living described it this way: “The original concept [of BART] in 1962 did not include the provisions for people with severely restricted mobility.

“At that time, Willson initiated a campaign to secure the present facilities, starting with endorsements from the elderly, the handicapped and the general public. The project was not “sold” with fanfare and publicity but by person- to-person contact.”

A.E. Wolf, General Superintendent of Transportation for BART, was won over by Willson’s approach. He noted: “His suggestion was novel for rapid transit, no one had tried it; it posed all kinds of problems; cost was significant. Our staff, including myself, was hardly enthusiastic.

“But, he did not threaten, nor picket, nor sulk, nor lose patience. Instead he was professional, pleasant, firm and persistent. As a result, he won support of each of our board members while maintaining a friendly relationship with our staff. This helped his cause immensely.”

KP backed Willson’s advocacy

In keeping with its policy to support efforts to improve opportunities for the disabled, as well as other minority groups, Kaiser Permanente gave Willson the freedom to pursue his accessibility campaign.

“It is appropriate here to commend Kaiser [Permanente leaders] . . . because of their interest, encouragement and public service philosophy,” Wolf also noted. “The willingness to arrange time for an employee to participate in this community project was necessary for its success.” ii

Willson agreed: “. . . Since our Medical Care Program is one of the largest providers of health services . . . we should assume the leadership role in promoting and participating in activities and programs that will create a barrier-free environment for the handicapped and elderly.”

Willson’s specific recommendations included large elevators at every stop, accessible restrooms, wide parking spaces, narrow gaps between trains and platforms, and loudspeaker announcements.

His broader vision was perhaps best articulated in a statement he made before the American Public Transportation Association in 1976: “We must exert every effort to . . . create a barrier-free transportation environment for those that are handicapped and for the non-handicapped destined to become disabled such as yourselves.”

 

i The charitable nature of this relationship is described in A Model for National Health Care by Rickey Hendricks: “When the union fund suffered a financial setback in late 1949, the Permanente Hospital Foundation continued to transport and care for miners at Permanente expense. Kabat-Kaiser continued through 1952 to run on a deficit of almost $100,000.”

ii Comments by A.E.Wolf, General Superintendent of Transportation, Bay Area Rapid Transit District, to Workshop number 3, Transportation Environment, 1972 National Easter Seal Convention, Chicago, Illinois, November 9, 1972.

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