If you saw her making a speech at a Native elders potlatch, or arm wrestling some politician for program money, you might figure out Katherine Gottlieb is the CEO of a $100 million health corporation.
But you probably wouldn’t realize right away that she’s responsible for fixing EVERYTHING.
We’re not talking here about things at Southcentral Foundation, which she heads. Not just her 1,200 employees, more or less. Or Southcentral’s 65 programs, more or less.
And we’re not talking about her family, which includes
20 grandchildren although she’s only 52. In fact, let’s not even go there.
We’re talking about EVERYTHING.
Mostly it’s EVERYTHING Native. She’s half Aleut, born in the village of Old Harbor and raised in Seldovia, so that makes sense. But in life stuff spills over so there are no real limits to what she feels responsible for. Think a kid not in school. An injured puppy on the highway.
Ask Katherine how it happened that she ended up in charge of fixing EVERYTHING and she says she doesn’t know. She didn’t make the rules. She just has to live by them.
It began when she was about 6, when her mother disappeared into a bottle of booze leaving the kids to fend for themselves. “She woke up to beer, went to sleep to whiskey,” Katherine remembers. Dad was a cook, a non-drinking workaholic focused on supporting the family.
So Katherine became the caretaker. She wasn’t the oldest, not even the oldest girl. She was fourth from the top, but she was the one who came home from school and threw a blanket over a passed-out mom, then pulled together dinner and made sure everybody ate.
She doesn’t know why the role seemed natural to her. That’s just how it was. An older sister still remembers leaving for school one unexpectedly cold morning only to have little Katherine come running after her with a coat.
Being responsible for EVERYTHING doesn’t make you an angel. Pregnant at 16, Katherine married the baby’s father and lived to regret it. After six years of getting smacked around, she decided to take her two kids and leave.
They say the most dangerous time for an abused wife is when she gets the grit to go. This was the 1970s. There were no domestic violence shelters. So Katherine organized a secret escape, enlisting the police chief, the ferry boat captain, her co-workers at Whitney-Fidalgo and God knows who else.
The ferry whistle was the signal.
She packed the car with a few changes of clothes, got the kids, and listened for the whistle. When it sounded, she sped to the dock and right up on deck, the last car aboard before the gate closed and the ship left. A friend called the two airlines in town and told the ticket sellers there would be blood on their hands if they let Katherine’s husband board a flight.
This was all a long time ago, but it helps explain why Katherine believes big changes can be made in damaged lives. It even explains a little why she feels a personal obligation to fix things, starting with herself.
At 16 she was a pregnant high school dropout and now she’s got an AA, a BA and an MBA.
She started at Southcentral in 1987 as a receptionist and now she’s the president. It’s not all been sunshine and roses. No one gets out of her early life without some baggage. Over the years, she worked longer and harder than was good for her and worried that she wasn’t working long or hard enough. There was another marriage and a divorce.
Katherine says her strength is as an idea person. “I can see the great big picture. I can see down the road.” Lately she’s promised the people who have to translate her big ideas into reality that she’ll concentrate on the programs in place for a while and not push to start new ones.
The woman promising to ease off is the big shot corporate president, winner of a 2004 McArthur Foundation Fellowship — a so-called “genius award” — for visionary transformation of a moribund medical bureaucracy into a patient centered health service. That woman might be able to keep such a vow.
But Katherine Gottlieb is also that little girl running after her sister, bringing a coat to keep her warm. And responsible for fixing EVERYTHING.