Still stirring things up

By Marilyn McCrimmon, June 2012

Dr Ken Williams, now 96 and a former high rigger, credits lessons learned from logging with guiding his work in medicine.

Social responsibility and personal accountability are the values that Dr Ken Williams passionately believes in and lives by. Ken’s extensive educational credentials coupled with his vast experience, first as a logger in BC’s forests, and then as a physician and finally as an international medical administrator, inform his strongly held opinions. Ken is not afraid to say what he thinks, and in fact, until he retired, health care organizations around the world would hire him to do just that.

At the age of 96, Ken is very clear about being responsible for what happens in his own life. He lives at Cridge Centre, where he can’t say enough good things about the food, the staff and the facility. This is not light praise, given Ken’s background. But he is also a realist. If his health no longer permits him to live at Cridge, Ken has compiled a carefully researched list of acceptable full-care facilities for a possible final move.

Ken’s time in the BC logging camps in the 1930s and ’40s had a major impact on him. “It set my whole value structure for my life and it stood me in good stead.” He had left school early, and when he quickly tired of 18-cent-an-hour jobs, he decided to “go out to the logging camps, because they were far away, with great allure, more money and they were masculine.” In the forest, he “decided to take the high-risk stuff and get into high rigging.” 

His voice rises with passion when he explains how important responsibility and accountability were in the woods. “Whatever you did overlaid other people’s work. If something went wrong, you could trace back, and it was always traced back. Your work was always under account—you had accountability built in with a big ‘A’ right from the start.” His voice gets quiet when he says, “You learned a lot.”

Tall and still living up to his logging camp nickname of Slim, Ken is decisive and focused, and he moves with a purposeful energy. He is animated, eloquent and thoughtful in conversation, and quick to laugh at life’s absurdities. It is easy to imagine Dr Ken Williams as a university lecturer. In our morning conversation I got a glimpse of a fascinating and rich life, one that is easily interesting enough to fill a book, and indeed, upon urging from some friends, Ken did write a self-published memoir, Bunkhouse to Boardroom, printing only enough for his friends. (To put this man’s eminently interesting life in perspective, the book is 538 pages long!)

Ken knew he wouldn’t stay in the woods. He says, “I enjoyed working in the woods, but it wasn’t very long before I figured out to stay here forever was an idiot’s game.” The job was dangerous and—between jobs—the money was tight. Or as Ken puts it, “The pork-chops were out of reach.” Things changed after he formed fast friendships with four fellows he met in a logging camp in Port Alice, friendships that would last a lifetime. Ken and his friends agreed that at least one of them should get some book learning at the “knowledge box.” Ken was selected. With his four friends providing the financial support, Ken went off to the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1942 at the age of 27 to do premed and then medical school.

At university, Ken met and married a nurse named Joy, a woman he describes as, “my number one strength.” In 1949, they moved back to BC—Invermere to be exact—with a young family in tow—the first two of what would eventually be five children. Ken opened a medical practice and set about paying back his four friends. No electricity, except what could be supplied by a diesel generator, not surprisingly, his first patient was a logger. But after eight years, Ken was “tired of looking up rear ends” and even more so, he was critical of the “failure of my brethren to lower the boom on their confreres when they found somebody incompetent,” so he went off to Yale in 1957 to take Hospital Management. He was in for a surprise.

“It became apparent to me: hey, what they’re hammering out here—purpose, authority, responsibility, functions, accountability—Christ, I learned all that in the woods. That’s exactly what we had to do in the woods, every one of those steps, and God help us if we didn’t, there’d be an accident.” Ken had found his niche.

His reputation spread in this field. He and two others comprised the founding faculty of the Estes Park conferences at the University of Colorado, formed to bring healthcare issues into public view. In 1969, he was hired as director of medical affairs of 800 Catholic hospitals based in Canada and the US. Though he wasn’t Catholic, they said, “The job is yours. We want you to go in there and be merciless.” Ken recalls, “We got a lot of progress and it was rewarding.” He lived in various states, and often lectured at universities, until with Joy’s strong encouragement, in 1973 he decided to form his own international advisory company, KJ Williams and Associates, Inc. Now he found himself being invited all over the world—to South America, Africa, and India.

After a long, satisfying career, Ken and Joy moved to Sidney in the mid ’80s to retire. “I promised my wife I wasn’t going to do any consulting,” but he did take on a contract for the Greater Victoria Hospitals Society in the late ’80s before he finally retired, producing what proved to be a politically controversial report in 1990 known as “The Williams Report.” He also served for a time on the UVic School of Nursing Advisory Council, and he and Joy sponsored a lecture series. Joy died in 1992, and shortly after, Ken moved into town, first to Somerset, and then to Cridge.

Today, Ken keeps his mind sharp by staying interested in what’s going on around him, and by continuing to learn. He enjoys Noam Chomsky and the great thinkers, as he likes to read about socio-economic issues and changing the system. Ken is not interested in fiction, though he did confess to reading the books in brown wrappers that little children weren’t supposed to read, when he could get his hands on them as a youngster.

When you ask what Ken thinks about the forest industry and the medical system today, at first he demurs, but then says, “What they let the logging barons do is just a continuation of screwing up our society, our world, our ecology, our environment.” Ken adds, a twinkle in his eye, “In case you haven’t guessed it, I am left of centre and pro-environmental.” It frustrates him to see truckloads of small logs, when he recalls how massive the harvested logs used to be.

Ken believes the medical system is in a “real nasty mess,” but although we discussed this hot topic, he is thinking about writing something himself on this topic, so stay tuned. Ken has written a book and professional articles on hospital management, and obviously he is not finished yet.

“Life is what you make it,” may sound like a cliché coming from some, but it’s the way Ken lives his life. He acknowledges that ageing isn’t always easy, but he is not one to whine. “You’ll have down days, but I say to myself, ‘It’s your own damn fault, Williams, if you have a down day. Just live with that. You can’t go blaming it on anyone.’ It’s what you make of it.”

Writer Marilyn McCrimmon has moved from school counselling full-time and writing part-time, to writing full-time. With two books, and many articles and columns behind her, her favourite writing topic is people and their lives.