August 5, 2015

Courting health at Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical

Kaiser Aluminum men's basketball team, Trentwood, Wash., "Spokane County champs AA division" 1978; coach Barry Wills #19.

Kaiser Aluminum - Trentwood men's and women's basketball team
Barry Wills, Kathy Baird, Kaiser Aluminum - Trentwood men's and women's basketball team (men's and women's), Spokane Valley, Wash., 1979-1980.

The American economy at the end of World War II faced a huge challenge. We’d won the war, but now returning GI’s needed everything from jobs and housing to cars and refrigerators. The postwar demobilization was monumental, with over 10 million servicemen returning to civilian life by 1947. Sensing an opportunity and an obligation, Henry J. Kaiser turned his shipbuilding skills to domestic production.

That included making aluminum.

In March, 1946, the Board of Directors of Permanente Metals — originally formed to produce ships and magnesium — voted to go into the aluminum business. Leases were signed for war surplus plants in eastern Washington State at Mead and Trentwood. Mead was an aluminum reduction plant (where the mineral alumina is refined into metallic aluminum) and Trentwood was a sheet and plate-rolling mill.

The business was very successful. In 1949 the company was renamed Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation and the next year it purchased those two plants as well as others. KACC became the nation’s third largest aluminum producer. But during the 1980s the aluminum market tanked, and by the end of that decade the Kaiser family had divested itself of KACC. The new corporation continues under the Kaiser Aluminum Corporation name.

Kaiser Aluminum - Mead Ingots Men’s softball team, Spokane, Wash., 1975.

Just as the Kaiser shipyards encouraged “healthy competition” through sports and wellness programs, so did KACC.

Barry Wills and his future wife Kathy Baird worked at the Trentwood plant. Barry started in 1976, was briefly transferred to the Kaiser Refractories plant in Plymouth Meeting, Penn., and then continued working at Trentwood until 1981. Kathy worked there from 1972 to 1981. They played on Kaiser Aluminum sponsored softball and basketball teams (where they met) as well as participating in the popular “wellness” programs that encouraged healthy activities between 1975 and 1981. They loved it. In a recent interview, Barry recalled some of the highlights:

First Kaiser Aluminum women's basketball team, 1977
First Kaiser Aluminum women's basketball team, Trentwood, Wash., 1977; coach Harold Vigue.

We played in the Spokane County Parks and Recreation Adult Recreation League. I believe we played at the AA level (AAA was the highest level). Typically, all the players on a AAA team played college ball at some level (NCAA or NAIA, Division II). We had one player that played basketball at a Junior College.

We were very competitive and won most of our games. Some of our opponents were Bob’s Barber Shop, Whitworth Alums, E & J Meats, Kaiser — Mead, and the Freeman Thrills.

Yellow women's t-shirt with the text 'wellness 80'
T-shirt given to Kaiser-Trentwood employees for participating in the Wellness Program, owned by Kathy Baird, 1980.

Our biggest thrill was an invitation to play in a pre-game [exhibition] at the “Kennel” at Gonzaga University. Gonzaga played Oregon. We were excited to have a full house of Gonzaga fans halfway through our game.

The women's basketball team enjoyed success in Regional and State tournaments.

This was healthy competition and thriving, one of the hallmarks of Henry J. Kaiser’s many former industries. It remains a hallmark at Kaiser Permanente.

All images courtesy Barry Wills.