Steve Gilford

From Steve Gilford – 2000

I stayed at WGBH until ’71. By this time, I was in a new group over there called SES, Special Educational Services, run by Bob Larsen. The idea was to take advantage of the potential of the new technologies (most of which have since disappeared) not just video, in a coordinated way to meet educational needs.

After I finished a series that was a great deal of fun — training cops in Constitutional Law — Bob L. wanted me to produce a series on Nutrition with someone from the Harvard school of Public Health. The guy had just finished testifying in front of a Congressional Committee about breakfast cereals. He was defending the manufacturers of the sugar cereals marketed to children even when there was testimony from equally reputable people that there was more nutrition in the cardboard of the box than there was in the cereal. Then, the Harvard School of Public Health got big donations from General Mills and the like. It was very disappointing and I decided to leave WGBH.

I worked at the Educational Development Center for a while and then started working with a guy I had first met when he was talent on some shows I produced at ‘GBH. David Prowitt had been ABC Science Correspondent and had moved into Public Broadcasting.

Together we produced end-of-year science programming, five one hours, live, from the annual meeting of The American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was a kind of report to the nation about the state of science. I got to go live in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington doing those shows. It was exciting and very stimulating I got to meet the leaders in science from all over the world and felt really up-to-date about what the issues in research and application were. Some of the things I learned then are still playing out today, especially the results of work in genetics.

The AAAS shows led to doing two high-visibility PBS series, The Killers and The Thin Edge. The Killers was five 90-minute docs, each about one of the five diseases that kill most Americans (what it is, what causes it, what it’s like to live with it, what the treatment is, research what the future is likely to be in treatment”) The Thin Edge was similar only it was about mental health. The program I did on depression was one of the first to popularize the idea that depression can be a physiological condition responding to specific drugs rather than a purely psychological state. I got a lot of satisfaction from that. I had one friend go get treatment and it changed her life. Decades later, she is still grateful.

David Prowitt and I had formed a company (along with our assistant) and we did some good programming out of NY and DC. For one of the most interesting programs, I went to Stockholm with three Nobel Laureates and went through the whole procedure of the award with them as well as visiting them in their labs and homes in the US for a documentary called, The Prizewinners. Unfortunately, even though we had been doing well, David became ill and dropped out of production.

Having lost the executive producer with whom I had developed a good working relationship, I did some teaching at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, something I found I liked a whole lot but knew I did not want to do full time so I did it for an odd semester here and there. I also worked on a couple of nationally syndicated radio programs on international topics using reporters from Europe as well as the US.

Sons, David and Sam (and myself): David is the taller of the two boys. This picture is about five years old although the boys have changed much more than I have.

Somewhere in this period, I got married to an aptly named California lady named Bliss. Many of the old timers from WGBH will remember her as a freelance photographer who among other things did the opening to the original ZOOM. We had two children, David and Sam. David just finished a year in Oxford and is now in his last year at Williams (Class of 2000). Bright, good looking, and personable, he is a real pleasure and treasure as is his younger brother, Sam. Sam is in his senior year at a boarding school in Colorado where he is doing extremely well academically. He’s the kind of guy who tutors his friends who are not doing as well in their courses as he is. He is also a varsity tennis player there and is hoping to go to Williams. If there is any justice, he will get in and they will be grateful to get him.

Despite her name, and probably because of my own obtuseness, in my late forties, I decided I wanted a divorce. By this time, we were living in San Francisco where I was working on a Disney Channel science series. We both decided to stay out here although a couple of years later, Bliss met an archaeologist from New Mexico and moved out to Taos. Now she and her husband live in Durango, Colorado. In a great stroke of luck for me, David and Sam (as well as for Bliss, I am sure), he turned out to be a good choice as a stepfather and has been a really fine influence on the boys.

I eventually remarried, to Elfi, a German woman who had grown up in Bavaria. The marriage took place in Virginia City, the Comstock Lode boom town in Nevada. We moved to Petaluma, about forty miles north of the Golden Gate and after getting through a period of being a suspect in the really terrible murder of Polly Klaas (this was a national story – the murder, not me), we bought a house, a cottage really, here in Petaluma where I have my office. I was cleared by a lie detector test and then they found the killer who confessed.

Elfi with our dog, Bess (named after Bess Kaiser – HJK’s wife).

We found Bess in the old Kaiser shipyards seven years ago. She’s been a wonderful friend. The picture was taken in our back yard where Elfi has been planting roses. She never had her own place before and the chance to plant flowers in her own land is a continuing delight to her.

Elfi has her own motorcycle although she really prefers to ride on short trips. Since we live in such a beautiful area, only twenty miles from the coast and in the middle of the wine country, even a short trip can be a an exciting little vacation. After all, this is one of the places I used to love to come to all the way from the East Coast in order to be able to ride my motorcycle down these same roads.

Around this time, I started going to The Superstition Mountains in Arizona with a friend, looking for gold. That is a great hobby. It gives me a chance to ride horses into the wilderness. Finding gold is easy but we never found enough of it in one place to make it worthwhile mining.

In one remote valley I did find a statue carved into live rock of the Virgin Mary. It was next to the entrance to an old Mexican mine and was probably carved 150 years ago by miners who were working there. This is a wonderful valley. When we went back a year later to a campsite where the bones of a modern era miner’s mule had been dragged into a cave, we found the miners clothes and his cookware untouched a year later.

Apparently, no one had been in this valley in a year and since then we haven’t seen any signs of people. (About the miner himself: there has never been a sign of him, just his “going to town clothes” his bedroll, and canned foods that judging from the products are about ten years old.)

Now, I have pretty much changed careers, I am an historian. I specialize in the delivery of health care, especially the history of Kaiser Permanente and I have written about the life of the industrialist, Henry Kaiser, who was the co-founder of the 8 million member program. Starting around the WWII anniversaries, 1988, there was a lot of interest in Kaiser because of his wartime work building ships, planes, steel, munitions, vehicles, that it became profitable to be a “consulting historian”. I am on a retainer with Kaiser Health Plan to salvage and communicate their history. When I started, there was hardly any interest in the topic and now they have decided to use it as a way of communicating the real differences between themselves and other health care organizations; e.g grew out of idealism, non-profit, leadership in clinical research, medical methods, organization of delivery, etc. It has been pretty gratifying to see the leaders of this multi-billion dollar organization come to understand how rich the history is.

I still produce and direct some television. For the past ten years, I have been working on a series about child development for childcare professionals and I have done some programs for kids about some issues that are important to children such as dealing with bullies.

Here I’m standing with Sam, the younger boy, in our back yard by the garage (where the motorcycles are stored!).

My major hobbies today are riding my motorcycle and traditional music. In September, I drove out to Winfield, KS to a traditional music festival. Some friends from Petaluma carried my instruments on a plane with them and I met them in KS. I try to take one long motorcycle trip each year; this was one of the shorter ones. Last year, the trip was a big loop that took me from Petaluma up to Oregon and then into a big loop down to Big Bend, Texas and home – a six thousand miles trip from museum to historic site and always looking for some interesting old timers to sit down and talk with. That’s the historian in me, I guess. I found a motorcycle dealer in Arizona who was building helicopters made from old motorcycle parts! It can lift the pilot and two bales of hay. Ranchers loved the idea that for a four thousand dollar price tag, they could get up high enough to locate their herds and even fly a little food directly in if needed. But I am digressing…

From Steve Gilford – 10/17/2000

I suspect that I am just one of many ‘GBHers who has changed careers, although I seem to be doing it rather late. I am morphing into a historian. The good thing about doing it at my age is that the events I am most involved in took place during my lifetime. Perhaps, if you live long enough, anyone can get to be a historian.

This past weekend was the beginning of a project that will eventually turn into a new National Park celebrating the Home Front of World War II. They dedicated a statue commemorating the women workers in the Kaiser shipyards on San Francisco Bay as well as in the other shipyards and war plants around the country.

I have had a wonderful time working with very interesting people at the National Park Service on this new park and sharing my knowledge collected vocationally and avocationally about the Kaiser shipyards. A historian friend is very jealous. We are both doing interesting work but I don’t have to sit on faculty committees. I do get to do things like crawl around on big 60 year old whirley cranes that once lifted immense prefabricated ship sections onto the shipways as workers in California at the Kaiser yards built more ships and faster than at any time or place in the history of the world.

I recently got to lead a film crew through the abandoned dry docks where Kaiser built troop carriers more than six decades ago. We crawled over the detritus of those decades, impressed by the signs of massive organization to carry out this work. I have had the chance to clamber over ships in dead storage in the “Mothball Fleet” including some that were at Tokyo Bay for the surrender. But for me the most fun has been meeting the people, welders, pipe fitters, naval architects, doctors, all sorts of people who were needed to make the shipyards work. It took an average of 1.5 million man hours to make a ship and they made 747 of them in Richmond. There is a lot to be learned about organization from these people. …

My next adventure? After having had such a wonderful time at the WGBH reunion, the first reunion I have attended, I am encouraged to go to my college reunion in May. I have begun getting my motorcycle ready for the trip. Some would say that both of us are a little too old for the journey but I think we each have the necessary 7,000 or so miles left in us and I am determined to give it a try if it still seems reasonable to me in terms of time and money as the departure date gets closer.

On another motorcycle trip, years ago, I happened to run into Deedee Morss Decker in the little mountain town of Ouray, CO. She invited Bliss and me to her ranch in nearby Ridgeway and introduced me to her husband. The two were wonderfully hospitable and, as he showed me around their ranch, I learned a lot about Western water rights, the realities of irrigation, and the effect of Los Angeles on their ranch. Years later, Bliss found a book that DeeDee’s husband had written about their life on the ranch and sent it to me. Unfortunately, I don’t have the title in front of me but I am sure DeeDee could give it to anyone who is interested in what ranch life is today in the West, both the glories and the warts.

One thought on “Steve Gilford

  1. I can’t express how badly I’d like to find a copy of the short film “Toomph” from “How Can I Tell You?”

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