I want to say goodbye to a gracious and remarkable woman who helped carry the Henry J. Kaiser legacy forward into the 21 st Century. Barbara Kaiser, the widow of Henry J. Kaiser, Jr., passed away in late September.
Barbara “Bobbie” Kaiser was married to Henry J. Kaiser’s second son, Henry, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1944 and died in 1961 at age 44 despite his father’s best efforts to find a cure.
Bobbie, as she liked to be called by everyone, survived her husband by more than 50 years.
In those years, she continued the Kaiser involvement in community affairs, helped to found a thriving Episcopal congregation in Oakland, Calif., and supported the celebration of Henry J. Kaiser’s epic history of shipbuilding during World War II in Richmond, Calif.
She also branched out on her own as an apprentice architect studying in the 1970s at the famed Frank Lloyd Wright school at Taliesin West, Arizona.
For a few months in 2010, my life intersected with Bobbie’s, and I shall always remember her as the woman who — accustomed to a chauffeur-driven limousine — didn’t mind riding in my VW Beetle, invited me for lunch and explained to me how Cobb Salad came about.
She knew about Cobb Salad’s legendary origin at the famous Brown Derby Restaurant in Los Angeles because she was there, along with others who moved in Hollywood circles.
Barbara Preininger was working as a stewardess and assistant to entertainer Dennis Day when she met Henry J. Kaiser, Jr. They married in 1947. At the time, Henry was managing the Kaiser-Frazer division of the Kaiser Motors Corporation.
The couple lived for a time in one of the Kaiser Community Homes in Panorama City. In 1951, they moved to Oakland and Henry was responsible for the Kaiser Companies public relations program. In 1952 they had a son, Henry J. Kaiser, III, who has become a musician and filmmaker.
I met Bobbie through Kaiser Permanente Heritage Director Bryan Culp who knew her from the St. John’s Episcopal congregation. He suggested I contact her about the upcoming Home Front festival in Richmond to invite her to come along as our guest. She was delighted.
As it turned out, Bobbie and I were neighbors, so I just had to swing by to pick her up from the senior citizens building where she lived. When I got there, the doorman escorted her out to the car. She was dressed fabulously.
In a lovely, rich red wrap, black pants and top with beaded fringe about the bottoms and stylish shoes. She was sporting a gorgeous straw hat — a trademark for Bobbie — and her face was beaming from underneath it.
At the festival, the National Park Service rangers greeted her with reverence and invited her to sit in “Rosie’s Corner,” an area approximating a 1940s parlor, for photographs. Later she browsed the festival booths on her own, seeming to read every word on historical displays. She took every opportunity to speak to festival-goers and staffers throughout the day.
A few weeks later, the Heritage team, led by former director Tom Debley, and Elizabeth Sandel, MD, took Bobbie on a tour of the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center in Vallejo, Calif. Sandel was chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the center, which moved in 2010 to a new, totally updated building.
Bobbie’s visit to the rehab center could not have been more relevant. She played a significant role in the development of the early techniques used at the first center, which was established in 1946 to treat her husband and others who had neuromuscular diseases.
With an opportunity to speak with the rehab staff, Bobbie described the regimen she used every day to help her husband get through the day. “Every morning, we would fill the bathtub with ice and Henry would get in . . . it really helped,” she recalled. “If we were traveling we’d ask the hotel to bring us buckets of ice.”
Again, Bobbie illustrated her keen curiosity by viewing up close many of the art pieces in the center. She talked to patients and told them the story of her husband and her familiarity with rehab therapies.
She had a chance to see the two gyms for rehab patients and the outdoor patio with steps for patients to practice their mobility skills. She posed with the 1953 Kaiser Manhattan automobile that sits on the grounds and is used to teach patients to transfer from wheelchair to car.
Dr. Sandel confirms that the icing method is still used in the rehab center. A trained oral historian, Dr. Sandel, now retired, planned to interview Bobbie but never had the opportunity due to Bobbie’s recent illness.
The last time I saw Bobbie it was pouring rain. She invited me to visit her home for an interview. I went with her to the hairdresser’s shop in her building and then to the dining room for lunch. She was kind and non-demanding of all the people we encountered and before I left, she realized the gift shop had closed before she could get a fellow resident a birthday gift. “Oh, I guess I'll just walk over to (the market),” she said frowning at the rain.
Every day as I walk by Bobbie’s long-time residence I think of her — her wondrous hats, her smiles, her curiosity — and I wish I’d met her sooner.