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.


Later still ...

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

You're an absolute angel, Steve. What a find!

It was rumored that Vivian ran Kaiser's Oakland hospital from first floor Station B. She was incredible -- and my role model throughout our lives. She was the first true internationalist I think I ever knew. She was without a doubt the most honest, compassionate, irreverent, and loving person in my limited experience -- either then or now. These brief lines in the interview with Joe Sender catch her spirit, her playfulness, and her ability to cut through all of the garbage of pomp and status.

She died about five years ago in a nursing home in Vallejo -- of a stroke after a lifetime of excesses and heartbreak, I'm sure. A party girl to the end, and with more adoring followers than most people gather together in a lifetime. Wish you could have known her. She was an active member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club for as far back as I can remember.

Edgar Kaiser was among her closest friends and spent many off hours at her (just ten minutes drive away from the hospital) spacious converted mansion on tree-lined Linden street in West Oakland. The wood-paneled foyer with its three-story sweeping elegant marble staircase gave more than a hint of its glorious hospitable past. The house is etched in my memory still. Her apartment was on the right side of the entry on the ground floor of what had -- long before she acquired it -- been converted into 6-8 studio apartments. This neighborhood -- at that time almost exclusively black-owned in the oldest section of the city. It was the first developed area of the East Bay and surely the most prestigious. But that was before the turn of the 20th Century. That gracious old home fell to the wrecking ball in the Sixties when I-80 wiped out those exquisite old mansions and Oakland's more glamourous past with them. Almost as an afterthought, some were saved and restored to create what is now known as Preservation Park in downtown Oakland. Such a pity that hers wasn't among them.

As I told you yesterday, Dr. Jean Neighbor was also a member of her inner circle. She referred to him fondly as "the Devil!" She was known to possess the most sensitive BS detector on the planet. It was impossible to resist her ability to see deep into your psyche, and all the professionals knew it. Vivian probably heard more confessions than the Pope! I suspect that there were probably multiple sets of keys to her apartment ... .

Thanks, again, for this renewal of memories of one of the most remarkable women in memory -- and not only in mine. I'll gather together the memorabilia that I have strewn around my apartment so that you can scan them into the record. Be sure to raise her name to any old nurses or doctors who may still be around. They will all have known Vivian.

Later ...

From: Steve Gilford
To: Betty Reid Soskin
Subject: Vivian Jernigan
Date: May 12, 2007 12:13 AM

As always, it was a pleasure talking with you even though I felt guilty at taking up so much of your time.

I thought you might get a kick out of this. I looked up Vivian Jernigan in my notes and found her in an interview with Joe Sender. It was about his first day with Permanente. He went on to become one of the leaders of the medical group, a member of the Executive Committee and the Chief physician at the Oakland Medical Center.

JS: Oh, I've got to tell you another story though. The day we got here was July 1st. When I walked on the ward, there was a woman, a black woman by the name of Vivian Jernigan, whom I will never forget. I walked on the ward and first thing she told me was, "Oh, you're Doctor Sender? You're on call today."

I'm on call today? I know nothing about the organization. I'm brand new here. I'm not going to work. I just can't work. I've got to get my people settled in. I only reported because I was supposed to report on July 1st." And then I started looking at the notes. "Gee, these notes, I'm not too sure, what is all this about?" And she said, "What are you griping about?" she said.

Q: Was Vivian Jernigan the charge nurse?

JS: She was a clerk and I'm sure everybody who's worked at Oakland from the '50's until maybe the '70's knew Vivian. As time went on, I really got to like her a lot. Whenever I came on the floor and would start griping about something, she said, "Jesus and Joseph! What do you want?" (Laughing!) But I really think she was thought of very fondly

Q: So you were supposed to be on call that first day?

JS: When I got my acceptance, it had said, "Please report on July 1st." so we made it our business to get here by July 1st. But I figured I'd get oriented. Everytime I went anywhere else, I got an orientation. It didn't make sense to start right in. I didn't have a chance to study the charts, I didn't know where x-ray was, I didn't know what was going on, I didn't even know where the laboratory was.


in an employee newsletter that came out in 1962 I saw that she was given something called the "Personality Award from the Management Association. The article headline said the award went to "A Blunt Spirit" and she was called "Mrs. B Ward." The actual working of the award said she was "one whose activity over and above any job requirement fosters better relations among employees, members, the community ... confers distinction upon our medical program ...".

Have a fine weekend!


Photo: Vivian Allen at age 18 upon graduation from Xavier High School in New Orleans. At that time she was a charming Cajun/Creole girl from St. James Parish -- but was now ready to join her father in Oakland, California, to continue her education at the University of California, Berkeley where she studied for 3 years. One of her greatest regrets was that she was unable to complete her degree. This was in the Twenties, long before higher education was common to women in general, regardless of race or ethnicity. (I hear you asking, "but is she "black"? You'll need to remember that Vivian lived proudly under the "one drop rule," in force until the 1990 census categories changed and multi-race self-identification was allowed for the first time.)