Archive for November, 2009

Henry Kaiser’s Legacy Woven into Rich California Tapestry

posted on November 26, 2009
Kaiser on horseback at site of his first California road project

Kaiser on horseback at site of his first California road project

What do Henry Kaiser, Carol Burnett, and George Lucas have in common? Not obvious? How about John Madden, romance novelist Danielle Steel, bodybuilder Joe Weider – and Henry Kaiser? Not intuitive? OK, what about Clint Eastwood, restaurateur Alice Waters, and Color Purple author Alice Walker? Still stumped?

Try this combination: Henry Kaiser, Earl Warren, Leland Stanford, architect Julia Morgan, Hiram Johnson, photographer Dorothea Lange, pilot Amelia Earhart, and polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk. Starting to see a pattern here? These famous historical figures are all recent inductees into the California Hall of Fame.

Henry Kaiser, 20th Century industrialist and co-founder of Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, will be officially inducted into the California Hall of Fame (launched in 2006) in December.  This will be Kaiser’s eighth inclusion in lists of hall-of-fame honorees, including the U.S. Labor Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., where he was honored in 1990.

California Gov. Arnold Swartzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver announced the 2009 list of honorees this fall. They are (alphabetically): entertainer Carol Burnett, former Intel CEO Andrew Grove, governor and U.S. senator Hiram Johnson (19th Century), decathlete and philanthropist Rafer Johnson, Henry Kaiser, philanthropist and peace activist Joan Kroc, filmmaker George Lucas, football commentator John Madden, gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, artist Fritz Scholder, author Danielle Steel, fitness and bodybuilding pioneer Joe Weider, and Air Force test pilot General Chuck Yeager.


To learn more about the 2009 inductees and the 38 from previous years, go to

Schwarzenegger said the intent of the hall of fame is to highlight the broad range of California interests by honoring trailblazers who have distinguished themselves in more than one field and “impacted the world with their overall courage, determination, and creativity.”

Henry Kaiser, it can’t be disputed, personifies the governor’s definition of California’s best and brightest. His amazing career began in 1913 when he bought a failing road-building company and turned it to success with innovation in paving techniques and branching into building levees and dams.

When Kaiser lost his bid to build the Shasta Dam, he started a cement company to provide the six million tons needed for the northern California project and quickly became the world’s largest cement producer.

Kaiser's Barge 21 on Bay Bridge construction

Kaiser's Barge 21 on Bay Bridge construction

He played a major role in the construction of such pre-War wonders as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State, and the 1933-built Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. He even built roads in Cuba and levees in Mississippi.

During World War II, Kaiser established West Coast shipyards whose workers built war ships at record-breaking speed. Kaiser employed a mix of skilled and unskilled workers that included the first women shipyard workers, as well as African-Americans, Chinese, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

Making of a health care program

Taking care of workers, many transplanted from the South and other parts of the country, entailed the creation of a health care program that placed emphasis on workers’ safety and a healthy lifestyle to avoid illness and injury. With 100,000 shipyard workers in the four Richmond, Calif. shipyards alone, the Kaiser Health Plan became the largest civilian medical care program on the Home Front of World War II.

Sidney Garfield, MD, developed and ran the medical care program, based on a prepaid, group practice model he had found successful on earlier Kaiser worker care programs. When the shipbuilding contracts evaporated at the end of the War, Kaiser and Garfield opened the health plan to the public. Eventually, union agreements kept the plan afloat and allowed it to grow to serve 8.5 million members today.

After the War, Kaiser turned to other industrial endeavors — manufacturing automobiles, homes, dishwashers, aluminum, steel, chemicals, electronics, and aeronautics.  But Kaiser always wished — and believed — that he would be best remembered for his work to provide better health care for all people.

In the decade before his death in 1967, Kaiser often said:

“Of all the things I’ve done, I expect only to be remembered for . . .  filling the people’s greatest need — good health.”

— Ginny McPartland

Kaiser Permanente Historian Tom Debley will be interviewed Tuesday, Dec. 1, on Capitol Public Radio (KXJZ 90.9 FM) about Henry Kaiser’s legacy and his induction into the California Hall of Fame. The interview will air on Insight with Jeffrey Callison from 10:05  to 11:18 a.m.  For more information:

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