October 23, 2014

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

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?”

Jim Gersbach, KPNW, 2013, photo by Lincoln Cushing
Jim Gersbach, 2013

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.”

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.