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Looking Back: Laura Robertson, 97, Recalls Roots in Kaiser Shipyards

posted on January 18, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

"Rube" (Ruby) Bingham, worker at NW Kaiser shipyard, Portland, 1943-Fall (photo courtesy daughter Laura Robertson)

“Rube” (Ruby) Bingham, worker at Kaiser shipyard, Portland; Fall, 1943. (photo gift of daughter Laura Robertson)

Laura Robertson, 97, chuckles when her doctor in Kaiser Permanente’s Colorado Region stumbles on the tiny size of her pharmacy order. She takes so few medications that the doctor assumes something’s off – but Laura assures her she’s just in very good health.

Laura’s not just healthy, she’s been connected to the big Kaiser picture almost all her life. I had the chance to sit down with her last October, and she’s got quite a story to tell about roots in the Kaiser shipyards and experiences as Kaiser Permanente member.

 

Early Years: Portland before the War

I am the oldest survivor of my family. I have outlived all my original friends, including people I’ve worked with. There are too many people that live in the past, and I have no desire to do that. Day-to-day is much more interesting.

These younger people think you’re lying, that you’ve got a great imagination.

Map of three NW Kaiser shipyards, 1943; by Marguerite Gillespie, from Record Breakers publication, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation

Map of Portland-area Kaiser shipyards and Northern Permanente Hospital, 1943; by Marguerite Gillespie, from Record Breakers, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation.

I had to dig pretty deep for some of this stuff.

Portland. I went there with my mother, Rube (pronounced “Ruby”) Bingham, in 1938. I worked in a restaurant, and was a member of the Cooks and Bartenders Union. I made $20 a week.

I then left the restaurant business and went to a business school a half day and worked for the school a half day to pay for tuition. I worked nights and weekends in a restaurant. During the war years I worked for Industrial Claims, an insurance company that handled insurance for “high risk” industries.

I worked on the 13th floor of what I think was the Board of Trades building, right down on the waterfront.  You know the river splits the town in two – I lived on the West side, close enough that I could walk to work, or I could walk down to the corner and take the streetcar. When I got to work and took the elevator I could look down onto the decks of the foreign ships that were coming in and loading and unloading. And, of course, it took me a while to understand that they came in on the tides, and had to wait to go out on the tides. And when they went out, it was fresh water, and the decks were practically at the water level. But once they passed the bar, the sea water was more buoyant. There were all sorts of countries coming and going – German, Russian, Scandinavian.

I was married in 1941. My wedding ring was from a jewelry store in Portland. It cost $30, and we bought it on an installment plan of $5 a week. The girls in my office were envious because I actually had a diamond. It was just a chip!

 

Working in the Shipyards

My mother worked in the Kaiser shipyards. Here’s a photo of her in 1943, in her work clothes. She installed sheet metal ducting after it was insulated.

Migration chart map, Fortune magazine 1945-02. Infographics

Migration chart map, Fortune magazine, February, 1945. Design by Walt Disney studios.

I remember the change in Portland during the war years. Kaiser was advertising for help all over, and they were coming in from all areas. Before the war, Portland was a pretty typical city. The Chinese worked in restaurants and laundries, the Filipinos were in the food industry, the Japanese were vegetable farmers. I had never heard a foreign language until I went to Portland.

[Editor’s note: wartime workforce labor migration dramatically affected many West coast cities, including Portland. The largely white, urban, population experienced struggles with an influx of mostly poor rural people and immigrants of color. Before World War II, Black Americans made up only 1 percent of Oregon’s population; most of them lived in Portland. By war’s end, the black population had grown from 2,000 to 20,000. In a 1974 interview, Kaiser Permanente founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield remarked on the impact of this wartime immigration: “Portland people were rather unhappy with the influx of workmen into their area because Portland was sort of a staid, stuffy community…”]

I grew up in a town of 300 in Iowa, right next to Missouri, and I finished high school in 1936. We were very close to the Mason-Dixon Line. Just 25 or 30 miles south of us the schools were segregated; where we were, what few blacks were there went to school with the whites. We didn’t experience some of the extremes that people did in the south.

But in wartime Portland, if they weren’t speaking a foreign language they might have well have, if you were trying to understand what they were trying to tell you. They all had their own lingo. That, too, created quite an interesting atmosphere. Everybody trying to understand all these different people, and they were having trouble trying to understand us.

Aerial photo, Vanport City, 1942 [circa]; [C-10 - Oregonship albums Box 4 - M-343]

Aerial photo, Vanport City, circa 1943

I remember Vanport. I had friends who lived there. It was in a vegetable garden, in a flood plain, and it did eventually flood – but I’d moved to Denver by then.

[Editor’s note: Henry J. Kaiser built Vanport – Oregon’s second-largest city – to handle the enormous need for temporary wartime housing, including most of the immigrant black labor force. It was the largest public housing project in the nation and included facilities such as schools, movie theaters, and the first publicly funded daycare center built in the United States. On May 28, 1948, a dike failed during unseasonably high flooding on the Columbia River, resulting in at least 15 deaths and the total destruction of the city.]

 

Denver: Becoming a Kaiser Permanente Member

I came to Denver in October, 1947. Denver was that much behind the coast, on lots of things. Denver was a completely different region and atmosphere.

I took a loss in wages. Because of my union connections, I got a job with the Joint Council of Teamster locals. I started working for Local 17, the freight dock workers, where I worked for seven years before being fired when a new manager came in.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with message on back. Floors 3-5 are numbered by hand. Gift of Laura Robertson.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with message on back (below). Floors 3-5 are numbered by hand.

I got a job working for the Atomic Energy Commission in Grand Junction, so I moved there with my husband. The paperwork to get a clearance was incredible. It took me weeks to prepare it. An official came out to my house to talk about my application – which was very unusual – and he said that after contacting all of my references they didn’t get one negative comment. I got the job. I was on the procurement desk for the expiration division. That meant a worker brought the yellowcake samples to my desk and I took them to the lab. I contacted the warehouses to check on availability of equipment needed. If none was available I completed a nine-carbon form that I presented to the proper authority for his signature so that the equipment could be ordered.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with satirical message on back "My summer home."

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon; satirical message on back “My summer home.”

I worked about one year, and in 1962 returned to work for the Teamsters in their Grand Junction office. I walked in their office and organized their records, which were a mess. This was just about time the Teamsters came under federal investigation. I had to stall them for two days because my boss was out of town.

It was through my Teamster employment that I became a Kaiser Permanente member, and have been ever since.

My mother stayed in Portland. Here’s a Bess Kaiser Hospital postcard from my mother, on which she wrote “My Summer Home. Third floor, May 10, 1964 – Broken arm; fourth floor, September 3, 1964 – head-on collision. Fifth floor, August 1962 – gall bladder operation.”

 

-Special thanks to the Colorado Kaiser Permanente communications team for setting up this interview, and to member Laura Robertson for her patience and support in producing this story.

 

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