Sunday, May 13, 2007

And still later ...

From: Betty Reid Soskin
To: Steve Gilford
Subject: Vivian Allen Jernigan
Date: May 12, 2007 9:03

Just re-read this fragment of your interview with Dr. Sender re dearly departed Aunt Vivian and realized again that she surely played a role in shaping the historic beginnings of the Oakland Kaiser Permanente hospital ethos. Were the truth to be known, I'd guess (and probably rightly) that in those innocent and carefree days in the early development of Kaiser policies with regard to race and equal opportunity, Vivian was extremely influential.

It occurred to me in a moment of epihany; Aha! I've been seeing Vivian through mother's judgemental eyes. Vivian's partying was strategic. Pure and simple. She was far too sophisticated to not have used every technique in her social vocabulary. She was well educated and armed with more charisma than any ten average women. I watched her friends vie for her attention, and how skillfully she "worked the room" at all times. We used to laugh that Aunt Vivian had eyes in the back of her head. I don't remember ever hearing her talk politics. Her political beliefs were so much a part of her daily life, that there was little reason to do so. Vivian was her politics.

And -- no feminist was she. No. Never. She married and buried two loving husbands, the second being the love of her life. She even ironed his underwear. He was the equally charming tall and handsome caramel-colored Ted Jernigan, a former boxer and chief bartender at Slim Jenkins legendary cocktail lounge a few miles away on Seventh Street, and deep in the heart of (Black) West Oakland.

Vivian's welcoming home served as the off-duty hangout for many of the hospital staff -- nursing, administrative, and professional. There they practiced the kind of baudy cameraderie that often accompanies and lessens the intensity of hospital life. She was positioned right in the center of it all. They were all relatively young and venturesome and in the throes of making medical history, though I doubt that they were aware of the importance of their combined contributions to medical and social history. They were breaking the mold in so many fields -- much of it growing out of the wartime experience gained under the leadership of Dr. Sidney Garfield.

It would have been impossible for anyone to be anything but real in her presence. She modeled for me (very young and adoring) what human relationships were about when the garbage was eliminated. I knew no one with her sense of integrity and honor, nor anyone with a greater sense of fun laced generously with compassion and respect.

My mother was intensely jealous of her. They'd shared a father but had different mothers -- and Papa George unabashedly preferred his Vivian. Who could not? She never had children of her own, so her nieces and nephews were very important in her life, which probably added to mother's envy.

Mom's mother died when she was but seven months old at which time she was given to her grandmother, Leontine, to be raised. Papa George quickly married Vivian's mother, Desiree Hernandez Allen, who gave him four more children -- then she, too, died -- at which time a not-yet-6-year-old Vivian and her 3 older brothers also were returned to Mamma's little house beside the levee in St. James Parish to be raised with that gaggle of kids that were now one large and loving family.

I am certain that it was those early days of being "Vivian-ized" that set in stone the racial policies of Kaiser Permanente. Everyone who was exposed to her succumbed to her blunt charm. The award mentioned speaks to that, and not unintentionally. It would have been she who would have seen to it that racism would have been dealt a fatal blow in those early days, and that Kaiser Permanente would have cut a clear path throughout their organization toward equality and opportunity for all. I'm sure of it, and of her role in creating the climate in which that could happen. Vivian was the intellectual equal of all who gathered at the Linden Street hangout, and everyone knew it; thus her obvious powers of persuasion, and ability to overcome race and gender in the interest of good medicine and social policy.

I wish somehow, that though posthumously, we could ferret out her contributions to what is now clearly a corporation that remains at the forefront of Affirmative Action practices. I heard the KP president state at their 60th anniversary celebration in Richmond -- that throughout the nation -- KP employs 52% women and minorities at all levels, both administrative and professional. That's an enviable record of achievement. And I'm certain that much of that informal policy-making took place over gin and tonics (with an occasional brandy tossed in) in front of the fireplace at what my mother would have called, "Vivian's Hell House" on Linden Street. Many a young Kaiser physician sobered up under the tender loving care of Vivian Allen Jernigan and lived to heal another day.

Wish I knew how to flesh out her story -- but these few words from the good doctor may serve as a nice place to begin. On the other hand, maybe we've already done that.