Posts Tagged ‘Edgar F. Kaiser’

Movember in the wartime Kaiser shipyards – no launch, no shave

posted on October 27, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Bos'n's Whistle, OSC, 1942-11-26, OHS

Bos’n’s Whistle, 11/26/1942.

Movember (the “mo” is for moustache) is an international charity campaign to raise awareness about men’s health during the month of November. Started in 2003 by two Australians, it has been a huge success. But a hairy face has been a sign of healthy competition long before that.

An article in the Portland, Ore., Kaiser shipyard newspaper The Bos’n’s Whistle on November 5, 1942, was boldly titled “Toil and sweat, steel and whiskers.” The curious headline was not explained until the last sentence:

The launching of the Schenectady was given a pioneer days atmosphere through another idea of Swan Island workmen, who vowed that they wouldn’t shave until the second tanker is launched from their yard. Many a crop of facial foliage is blooming on the old island airport.

Bos'n's Whistle, OSC, 1942-12-10, OHS

Bos’n’s Whistle, 12/10/1942.

A follow up article November 26, 1942, was “Whiskers measure tanker progress.”

Some shipyards get the boys to make bigger and better records with pep talks. But at Swan Island they go native – no launch, no shave. You ought to see it! Thousands of Rip Van Winkles on their island, toiling into the night surrounded by whiskers. Brunettes with red beards, blondes with black beards, goatees, Van Dykes, sheriff’s mustaches, and stubble. The ban on shaving is ruthlessly enforced. In two different kangaroo court sessions fines were levied for failure to comply.

At [a] trial on November 9, Edgar Kaiser [shipyard manager and son of Henry J. Kaiser] was fined a total of $37.10 for failure to comply with the ordinance. His heavy fine included $10 for filing a motion in bad faith, 10c for contempt of court, $20 for failure to grow a beard, and $7 court costs.

Bos'n's Whistle, OSC, 1942-12-10, OHS

Bos’n’s Whistle, 12/10/1942.

The campaign’s end December 10, 1942 was headlined “Swan Island Shaves!”

At Swan Island they literally “work up a lather” over a tanker-launching. When work began on the Quebec the Islanders resolved not to shave until the ship was launched. The Quebec and her Swan Island sisters are the biggest ships ever built in these parts.

Wartime shipbuilding in the 1940s and men’s health today – noble causes that benefit from healthy (and furry) competition.


Bos'n's Whistle, OSC, 1942-11-26, OHS

Bos’n’s Whistle, 11/26/1942.

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Fathers and sons – 1945

posted on June 16, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Edgar Kaiser, Henry J. Kaiser, Henry Kaiser Jr. at New York City debut of Frazer-Manhattan convertible, 1951-10-15; R1-13

Edgar Kaiser, Henry J. Kaiser, Henry Kaiser Jr. at New York City debut of Frazer Manhattan convertible, 10/15/1951.

On a rainy and snowy night in November 1945, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Emory Land dropped his famously brusque manner to confess that he was “overwhelmed with sentiment.”

While sentiment is not an emotion often associated with World War II, Land was referring to some deep bonds that bubbled to the surface as he surveyed the shipyard and oversaw the last wartime contract ship to be launched, the S.S. Scott E. Land.  

She had been built in the Kaiser Vancouver, Wash., shipyards, which produced 20 of these C4 cargo carriers and troopships.

“I’m sentimental about my father for whom it [the ship] is named. I’m sentimental about this magnificent shipyard. I’m sentimental about this young industrialist (Edgar Kaiser). I’m sentimental about these thousands of workers who came here from all parts of the nation to make the shipbuilding records possible.”

The war had been over more than three months, and the massive Home Front campaign was switching gears to a peacetime economy. The mighty Kaiser shipyards were finishing up war contracts, and everyone was uncertain as to what the future would hold.

An account in the shipyard newspaper The Bos’n’s Whistle gives us this touching account of that last launch on November 24th:

Both Land and Kaiser spoke of the strong father-son ties that influenced them so greatly. Kaiser pointed out that both their fathers were imbued with the spirit of the west and its potentialities. Land’s father, Scott E. Land, was a pioneer in the field of developing the west, and he raised his family in the early days of the West in Colorado. He was instrumental in starting its development as a recreational and scenic center, and envisioned its later development a generation ahead of Henry Kaiser, who has so materially carried forward the dream of western development.


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Edgar F. Kaiser stands up for deaf workers at Kaiser shipyard

posted on October 23, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


New Oregonship workers in training session, circa 1943

In August, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Gersbach, retiring senior hospital communications consultant for Kaiser Permanente’s Northwest region. Jim was the unofficial historian for that part of the Kaiser Permanente world, and as such, had developed a keen sense of the value that our deep roots had for expressing our mission.

Here is one of his stories:

As a communicator I have to communicate to large audiences, I have to be persuasive, I have to say things that are based on facts. I can’t just say “I believe this so, therefore it is.” I work for an organization that has a long, and deep, and rich history. I’m interested in the history, so I’ve made a study of it, I’ve known a lot of people that lived a lot of that history and frankly, having worked a quarter century, I strangely enough find that I have personal memories about what has now become historical periods of time.

Over and over again I come back to that history because it’s so helpful for me as a communicator to be able to say to people, well it’s not just today that we’re been interested in this. We’ve been doing this for 20, 30, 40 years, even back in the 1940s. It’s really about saying, “What are the consistent values at Kaiser Permanente that don’t change over time?”

I remember at the 60th anniversary of World War II in Vancouver, (Washington) in 2005 we’d invited anyone who’d worked at the shipyards to come to the Kaiser Permanente booth up in the Fort Vancouver Reserve. We had a big display about Henry Kaiser’s life, and the Kaiser Permanente program, and how it came out of World War II and it came out of the shipyards near there. A lot of ex-shipyard workers were there, and there was a gentleman who was deaf and someone was sign-language interpreting for him.

He had worked as a young teenager at the shipyards, and told a story about how the school for the deaf was in Vancouver. The deaf teenagers mowed the lawn for [shipyard manager] Edgar Kaiser’s home, which was near their boarding school. They had tried to apply at the shipyards. There was a demand for workers, and they’d read it in the papers, and said, well maybe we should go down and apply. They were basically shooed out – “A bunch of deaf people, you’re not going to be able to work in a shipyard, you’ll hurt yourselves.”

Jim Gersbach, KPNW, 2013, photo by Lincoln Cushing

Jim Gersbach, 2013

Edgar Kaiser got wind of it when somebody said “Oh, I can’t work at your shipyard.” They weren’t complaining though, they were just resigned to going back to mowing lawns. But when Edgar found out that they had not been allowed to get work, he called his chauffeur – I guess he didn’t drive – and he communicated to the deaf teens, “We’re going down to the shipyards and you’re coming with me.”

They went down to the shipyard office where the teens had tried to apply, and Edgar asked “Who is the hiring manager?” through an interpreter. They said “This guy.” Edgar walked in and said, “You will find appropriate work for these people.”

That’s what I pull from the history of Kaiser Permanente. When someone says, “What’s Kaiser Permanente doing to help people with disabilities?” that’s our history of doing the right thing.


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Shhhh! Franklin D. Roosevelt visits Kaiser Shipyard

posted on September 23, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

In late summer of 1942 president Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a “stealth” coast-to-coast tour of wartime America. The trip was to

[l to r] Oregon Governor Charles Sprague, Henry J. Kaiser, Edgar F. Kaiser, Franklin D. Roosevelt; 9/23/1942

Watching the launch of the S.S. Joseph N. Teal – [l to r] Oregon Governor Charles Sprague, Henry J. Kaiser, Edgar F. Kaiser, Franklin D. Roosevelt; 9/23/1942

be entirely off the record, with no press coverage until he’d returned to Washington, D.C. He departed by train September 17, and along the way he inspected tank factories in Michigan and ammunition plants in Minnesota.

On September 23, 1942, he visited the Kaiser Oregon Shipbuilding shipyard in St. Johns, Oregon, near Portland. He proudly observed his daughter Anna (Mrs. John Boettiger) launch the Liberty-class S.S. Joseph N. Teal, a ship built in a remarkably short 10 days.

Pressed by the crowd of 14,000 eager workers, FDR said some words from his seat in the front of his convertible limousine. FDR’s last personal secretary, Grace Tully, captured his impromptu speech:

“I have been very much inspired by what I have seen and I wish that every man, woman and child in the United States could have been here today to see that launching and realize what it means in the winning of this war.

You know I am not supposed to be here today (laughter) (the crowd really went wild), so you are the possessors of a secret which even the newspapers of the United states don’t know, and I hope you will keep the secret because I am under military and naval orders, and like the ship that we have just seen go overboard, my motions and movements are supposed to be secret. I do not know whether they are or not.

You are doing a wonderful piece of work for your country and for our civilization, and with the help of God we are going to, see this thing through together.”

 And we did.


Also see related stories “Eleanor Roosevelt visits the Kaiser Shipyards and Hospital” and
Typist bounces with the Kaisers to New York, Northwest and back.”

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Permanente Oakland Hospital – pride in service

posted on June 30, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

August 21, 1942.

Edgar and Henry J. Kaiser, 1962

Edgar and Henry J. Kaiser, 1962

Edgar F. Kaiser, Henry J. Kaiser’s eldest son, was busy managing three Kaiser shipyards in the Pacific Northwest in a massive effort to win World War II. Part of that mobilization included providing health care for thousands of Home Front workers, many of whom were in poor health yet expected to function as productive industrial laborers.

Unable to attend the dedication of the first Permanente Foundation hospital in Oakland – the initial facility in the medical complex that would steadfastly serve the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan for more than 72 years – Edgar sent this telegram to his father. It’s a touching testament to the bond between son and father and a pledge to public service that both recognized in the nascent health plan.


Western Union
August 21, 1942 

Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Kaiser Sr.

Henry J. Kaiser Co.

We know that today’s dedication marks the realization of a long cherished dream. The rebuilding of this hospital, the birth of its organization, is stimulated as we boys know by one desire – the service that individual thought and care can give to individuals. This service is the life behind doing the job well. This is one of the many principles you have both taught us all. The dedication today of Permanente Foundation is tangible fulfillment of that principle. While today we cannot be with you and the organization that will make Permanente Foundation live, we are with you in spirit. Sue and the boys here up north join me in sending you our best.


Telegram sent by Edgar Kaiser to Henry J. Kaiser for the dedication of the Oakland Permanente Hospital, August 21, 1942

Telegram sent by Edgar Kaiser to Henry J. Kaiser for the dedication of the Oakland Permanente Hospital, August 21, 1942. Henry J. Kaiser papers, The Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley.



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Edgar Kaiser helps LBJ tackle urban challenges

posted on March 18, 2014

Edgar Kaiser, Chairman of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, greets President Johnson, 1968

Edgar F. Kaiser, left, then chairman of the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, and President Lyndon B. Johnson shake hands at a White House reception in 1968.

The occasion was Johnson’s creation of the Urban Institute to serve as the Government’s center for research into the problems of poverty and urban decay in American cities. Johnson saw the Urban Institute as a way to “bridge the gulf between the lonely scholar in search of truth and the decision-maker in search of progress.” Edgar Kaiser, also chairman of Kaiser Industries, Inc., was one of the national leaders appointed to the founding board of trustees of the Urban Institute.

Kaiser was just completing his role as chairman of the President’s Committee on Urban Housing that published “A Decent Home” later that year. Dubbed the Kaiser Committee, it played a major role in helping to address urban housing issues that President Johnson called “the nation’s most urgent domestic task.” The following year, President Johnson honored Kaiser with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil honor for service to the country.

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Kaiser’s first labor attorney in the thick of union battles

posted on January 23, 2014

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Second in a series

In 1941, before the United States entered World War II, Henry J. Kaiser was already building cargo ships for the British war effort. Early on, labor jurisdiction issues loomed large, and Kaiser’s labor man Harry F. Morton had his hands full.

Before the shipyards opened, Kaiser representatives signed a closed-shop agreement with American Federation of Labor-affiliated unions and hired a handful of workers; when the yards began full operation, the thousands of new workers were required to join the AFL.

Because many of them were already members of Congress of Industrial Organizations-affiliated unions, they were subsequently discharged. The CIO filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.


Aerial photo, Todd-California Shipyard in Richmond, CA (later Permanente Metals shipyard #1), circa 1941

In a letter dated Dec. 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor, Morton reported to Kaiser’s shipyard managers, Edgar Kaiser in Portland and Clay Bedford in Richmond, on this issue.

The “industry” side proposed a formal proportional allocation among the unions for journeyman jobs for welders, but this did not sit well with the nine AFL unions whose members included welders.

Eventually a compromise was reached in which welders in the shipyards would not be required to maintain membership in more than one union and that employment would not require purchase of a permit fee.[i]

Morton aligns with the AFL in closed shop fight

When the jurisdiction wars erupted again in 1943, Morton fought alongside the shipyard craft unions and received a landmark favorable ruling.

The U.S. government had charged that the Kaiser shipyards in Portland had acted unfairly in favoring the American Federation of Labor over the emerging, competitive, and radical CIO.

This time Congress’ help was called upon and passed what is known as the “Frey amendment” (named for head of the AFL Metal Trades Department, John P. Frey). The CIO lost on a technicality.

This ruling was crucial because it meant Henry J. Kaiser could run a closed shop in his shipyards, and production of ships for the war would not be jeopardized by struggles over workforce representation.

Morton read his victory telegram at a Metal Trades conference and declared: “And thus endeth another chapter in the history of the attempt of the National Labor Relations Board to break the union shop.”[ii]

Labor man tapped for aircraft plant

Corsairs in production line at Brewster Aviation.

Corsairs in production line at Brewster Aeronautical, circa 1943.

In late 1943 Morton moved back East as vice president of Industrial Relations for the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. Brewster was manufacturing F3A-1 Corsair[iii] fighters, but had been ineptly run.

As a favor to the Navy Secretary, Kaiser agreed to try and turn the company around. Despite cost-cutting and improved output, Kaiser was delighted to turn the plant back over to Navy officials in May 1944.

While at Brewster, Morton continued to advise Kaiser on labor.  After reviewing a report by Industrial Relations Counselors[iv] on the then-new steel mill in Fontana, Calif., Morton sent a telegram to Kaiser executive Eugene Trefethen Jr.:

“I did not advocate a closed shop provision for the Fontana contract, but I did object to IRC’s recommendation that “. . . the company resist any demands of the union for a closed shop or union shop contract.”

“This is so foreign to all of Mr. Kaiser’s fundamental beliefs and public utterances that I could not let it go unchallenged . . . I violently disagree with the fundamental approach of IRC to labor problems.

“It is the approach of AT&T, Bethlehem, DuPont, G.E., General Motors, Standard [Oil] of New Jersey, U.S. Rubber and U.S. Steel, but not of Kaiser.

“It is my conviction that a large part of Brewster’s trouble is the result of IRC thinking and approach, and I am confident that what is needed is less IRC and more Kaiser thinking and approach in labor relations.[v]

Morton active after war ends

In early 1945, Morton briefed Kaiser on a meeting he’d had with Charles MacGowan, president of the Boilermakers union, a group that was influential (and controversial) in Kaiser’s wartime shipyards.

The subject was the merger of the American Federal of Labor with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. MacGowan opposed the merger. Morton advised Kaiser:

“I pass these suggestions on to you for what they may be worth. Personally, I don’t believe they are worth much, as [Philip] Murray and [William] Green had agreed to this once before and the agreement was later repudiated.[vi]

Green (AF of L) and Murray (CIO) both died in 1952; it would not be until 1955 that the two labor organizations would merge under the leadership of George Meany. The AFL-CIO Murray-Green award received by Henry J. Kaiser in 1965 was named for them.


Carl Brown (left), president of the Independent Foremen’s Association of America, confers with Harry F. Morton while representing Kaiser-Frazer. UPI newspaper photo, 2/19/1949.

The last known records of Morton’s career reflect his negotiation with employees at the Kaiser-Frazer automobile plant. One of the provisions of the recently enacted landmark Taft-Hartley Act removed any legal obligation to bargain with foremen; Morton felt that they should keep faith with the foremen, and the Ford Motor Company managers felt they should not.

Harry F. Morton’s full story remains to be told. We lose sight of him in our research after the early 1950s. However, he now is recognized as a significant factor in shaping the climate of positive labor relations that characterizes Henry J. Kaiser’s legacy.


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[i] Harry F. Morton correspondence to Edgar F. Kaiser and Clay Bedford, December 6, 1941; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 9, folder 12.

[ii] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.

[iii] The Brewster F3A was an F4U “Corsair” built by Brewster for the U.S Navy; Chance-Vought created and built the Corsair, which also was built under contract by Goodyear.

[iv] In the wake of the horrific Ludlow Massacre in the Colorado minefields of 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., created a labor-management think tank that today is known as Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc. <>

[v] Telegram from Harry F. Morton to Eugene Trefethen Jr., about IRC report on Fontana, October 1, 1943; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 19, folder 25.

[vi] Interoffice memo, Fleetwings Division of Kaiser Cargo [aviation manufacturing, Bristol, PA], from Harry F. Morton to Henry J. Kaiser in New York, January 22, 1945; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 151, folder 12.



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Edgar F. Kaiser – Kaiser Permanente civic leader

posted on January 29, 2013

Edgar F. Kaiser, president, Kaiser Industries Corporation; Henry J. Kaiser, founder and chairman of the board. Photo, 1962.

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer


Recently the Heritage team was asked to provide inspirational quotes from Kaiser Permanente’s founders for inclusion in a public sculpture park in Oakland, California. (We will have more to say about the park later this year.) We weighed in and uncovered something timely in sync with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Remembrance. The quote comes from Edgar F. Kaiser (1908-1981), Henry Kaiser’s eldest son, who served on President’s John F. Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

“The only kind of intolerance we can afford is intolerance of ourselves if we fail to bring forth from our own hearts and minds every last ounce of ingenuity and imagination and hard work needed to make equal employment opportunity not just the law of the land, but to make it the spirit, the intent and the actuality of our actions.”
— Edgar F. Kaiser

Edgar is largely obscured in the shadow of his illustrious father, but he was a man of civic mind and of no small accomplishment in his own right. Back in 2008, Tom Debley, formerly Director of KP Heritage Resources, called out Edgar’s induction in the organization’s Diversity Hall of Fame in the internal newsletter, KP Chronicles.

“Edgar F. Kaiser was inducted into the Kaiser Permanente Diversity Hall of Fame at the 30th annual National Diversity Conference in December 2007. Edgar Kaiser was co-founder Henry J. Kaiser’s eldest son who, among other things, brought his father together with founding physician Sidney R. Garfield.

His role in early diversity efforts included hiring the first woman shipyard worker in U.S. history as well as workers with physical disabilities during World War II. He succeeded his father as chairman of the KP Health Plan and Hospitals Boards of Directors.”

In addition to the KP diversity award, in 1969 Edgar was awarded the national Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to low-income housing. He served four U.S. Presidents. John Kennedy named him to the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Lyndon Johnson chose him to head the President’s Committee on Urban Housing and to serve on his Advisory Committee on Labor-Management Policy. Gerald Ford appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Refugees, and Jimmy Carter selected him for the Advisory Committee on National Health Insurance Issues. We look forward to bringing his many accomplishments to light this year in these pages.

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‘Aloha’ Symbolizes Kaiser Permanente’s Entry into Post-war America

posted on July 27, 2010

By Tom Debley

Front and back covers of launch program for the S.S. Burbank Victory, July 28, 1945 (Courtesy of the National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, Launching Program, RORI 3169)

Director of Heritage Resources

The world was changing dramatically 65 years ago this week. The war in Europe was over, and Japan would surrender within a few weeks. In Richmond, Calif., the last Victory ship built in the Kaiser Shipyards was readied for launch on July 28. Above the ship, the S.S. Burbank, the word ‘Aloha’ in giant letters was suspended between two cranes.

An orchestra played Hawaiian music, guests wore leis made from fragrant pikake blossoms, and Henry J. Kaiser’s wife, Bess, cracked the traditional flower-wreathed bottle of champagne across the bow.

“In launching the last of the Victory ships, we are not registering a finality,” said Kaiser, “but beginning the second phase in the achievements of our industrial family.”

Looking on were Kaiser’s two adult sons, Edgar and Henry Jr.

It was said 10,000 people were on hand, including shipbuilders who had worked on the very first Victory ship.  They sang “Aloha” to Mr. and Mrs. Kaiser and, as the S.S. Burbank slid down the way into San Francisco Bay, flowers tossed from the deck showered the crowd.

The symbolism of the “Aloha” theme has only grown over time. The Hawaiian word is used to say both goodbye and hello. America was saying farewell to World War II, and greeting the post-war world. Henry Kaiser was leaving shipbuilding and embarking on new ventures—including opening the Permanente Health Plan, later renamed Kaiser, to the public. And he was advocating for national reforms that would make health insurance available to all Americans.

Indeed, days before the launch of the S.S. Burbank, Kaiser announced he had drafted a legislative proposal that he presented to several U.S. Senators to create a national program of voluntary prepaid medical care.

“…The greatest service that can be done for the American people,” said the preamble to Kaiser’s 1945 proposal, “is to provide a nationwide prepaid health plan that will guard these people against the tragedy of unpredictable and disastrous hospital and medical bills, and that will, in consequence, emphasize preventive instead of curative medicine, thereby improving the state of the nation’s health.”

These events also were coupled with opening the Permanente Health Plan and Hospitals to the public under the leadership of physician co-founder Sidney R. Garfield. Thus, this week became the springboard for the 65 years—to date—of continually defining the future of health care with the growth and leadership of Kaiser Permanente . (See: Opening a Prepaid Health Plan to the Public 65 Years Ago this Month.)

This would be Kaiser’s ultimate legacy.

The Kaiser family at the launch of the last Kaiser Victory Ship, July 28, 1945.

As the preeminent California historian, Kevin Starr, has noted, “After all the things he did—the great dams he had built, the great waterways, the unprecedented work in the shipyards—Kaiser knew that this was the thing that would last.”

Or, as Kaiser, himself, said on several occasions in the last years of his life in Hawaii, “Of all the things I’ve done, I expect only to be remembered for…filling the people’s greatest need—good health.”

National health care legislation failed in 1945 and many times thereafter, but Kaiser, Dr. Garfield and their successors have persisted in advocating for heath care for all ever since and saw President Obama sign the Affordable Care Act last March 23. That came exactly 65 years and 20 days after the official date of Henry J. Kaiser’s original “Proposal for a Nationwide Prepaid Medical Plan Based on Experience of the Permanente Foundation Hospitals,” which had been prepared in consultation with Dr. Garfield.

Today, Kaiser and Garfield are honored for their contributions on the Home Front of World War II at the Rose the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park for making prepaid medical care “a legacy of the WWII Home Front.”

(Special thanks to Veronica Rodriguez, Museum Curator at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, for locating and sharing use of the program images for the launch of the S.S. Burbank Victory, July 28, 1945.)

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Henry Kaiser’s Respect for People of All Races Dates from African-American Worker Who Was One of First Employees Ever Hired

posted on June 15, 2010

By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources

“Tote! Tote!”

Little Edgar Kaiser, 5, would call out to a gregarious black laborer named James A. Shaw with those words.

Jimmy Shaw would hoist the lad up onto his shoulders and carry the boy, all the while raking asphalt on a road-building project for Edgar’s father, Henry J. Kaiser.

The year was 1913. The site was a work camp where the toddler would often live, sleeping in a car or a tent, with his parents, Henry and Bess Kaiser. Little Edgar’s affection for riding on Shaw’s shoulders, calling out “Tote, Tote!” when he’d see Shaw, earned Jimmy the nickname “Tote,” or sometimes “Totem,” for the rest of his life.

"Totem" Shaw is seen in an undated photograph after his retirement in Fontana, Calif. (Photo courtesy of John Charles Anicic Jr., author of "Images of America: Kaiser Steel Fontana," Acadia Publishing, 2006.)

This was in the early years of Henry Kaiser’s fledgling road-building business—long before he became the great 20th century industrialist who gained fame building highways, dams, and World War II ships.

And Totem Shaw’s story, as recorded in historic archives, helps shed light on both Henry and Edgar Kaiser’s later reputations as businessmen who understood the value of workforce diversity and, in their personal lives, moved beyond racial divides decades before the rest of the country.

Born in 1879, Shaw was not quite two years older than Henry J. and represents the earliest documented friendship between the Kaisers and a person of African heritage. Shaw’s is a powerful story that helps explain why Henry Kaiser was open to hiring minority workers.

Shaw was Kaiser’s first black employee, hired several years before Kaiser even formed his own company. He actually was hired by A. B. Ordway, Kaiser’s very first employee, when they were working for another company paving part of Post Street in Spokane, Wash., about 1909. Kaiser was general superintendent and Ordway was foreman.

One day Shaw walked up to the Post Street paving gang and asked Ordway for a job. According to Gordon Barteau, a Portland Oregonian newspaper reporter who wrote a profile of Shaw in 1943, “Ordway sized Tote up and said he thought Tote looked kind of runty for a job like that.”

In a style reminiscent of Kaiser himself, Shaw offered to work for free for a week on trial.

“Well … the first day he wore out two men and the next day Ordway told him he was on the payroll,” the Oregonian reported.

“Tote” worked in a variety of jobs on just about every big Kaiser project – from road building in Cuba to the Grand Coulee Dam, the Vancouver Shipyards in World War II, and the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, Calif., before he retired. It was during the war years in Vancouver, according to Barteau’s article, that whenever Henry Kaiser “comes to town he always looks up Tote and they hash over the old days.”

Clearly, it was Shaw’s relationship with Edgar and his ability as a skilled laborer with problem-solving skills that made him a lifelong, unforgettable friend of Henry Kaiser.

During construction of the original Highway 99 between Redding and Red Bluff in Northern California, in 1921, Kaiser was having trouble keeping a muddy detour open. He’d sent in a work crew of six men, and they had failed.

Kaiser summoned Shaw. “Tote,” he said, “every truck on the job is stuck in the mud. …You go down there and see what you can do.”

Shaw grabbed an axe, a pick, and a shovel. In short order, he had all of the trucks out of the mud and running.

“How did you do it?” Kaiser asked him.

“Mr. Kaiser,” he replied, “when you do things, you mixes brains and money. Well, sir, I mixes mud and brains.”

“Kaiser loved the phrase,” wrote one of his biographers, Mark Foster. “It became a company slogan.”

Shaw lived his final years in Fontana. They had a big party for him when turned 85 in 1964. In addition to cards, gifts, and a huge birthday cake, a teletype arrived from the giant Kaiser Industries headquarters in Oakland—birthday greetings from A. B. Ordway, who had known “Tote” since the day he had walked up to Ordway on Post Street in Spokane and asked for a job.

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