“Papa John” Kalafatich passed away Nov. 22
He was 80.

John Kalafatich is a big man. He doesn’t use his size to intimidate, nor does he raise his voice very often. His face is ruggedly ringed with a white beard and topped by a thick mane of gray hair. He conveys a point without a word said, but the man known as Papa John cannot stay quiet any longer; not when his entire livelihood is dependent on the fate of San Leandro Hospital. It’s the source of the food in his pantry and the health of the heart beating in his chest. If Papa John can save the hospital, he figures, he can save lives, including his own.

“Papa John’s Crusade,” East Bay Citizen, Sept. 19, 2009

On the day before Thanksgiving, the man known to many in San Leandro simply as “Papa John” passed away. He was 80. It’s a seemingly apropos date since so many people in San Leandro owe an endless amount of gratitude to people like John Kalafatich.

He didn’t save San Leandro Hospital from impending closure earlier this decade all by himself, but he was one of the handful, who, through their words and tenacity, likely saved the life of loved ones all over the East Bay by keeping the hospital’s emergency room in operation. In a medical emergency, it is said, the difference between life and death is mere seconds. “If you’re having a heart attack, every minute counts and you are interfering with the possibility of me living,” he reminded an Eden Township Healthcare District board member in 2010.

At a moment when it seemed all but certain that Sutter Health, aided by curious intransigence from Alameda County and San Leandro elected officials, was hastening the demise of the hospital, people like Papa John rose to the occasion. During what would become a series of appearance before the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, Papa John excoriated them for their inattentiveness to the issue. Papa John laid into Supervisor Scott Haggerty and famously told him to “remember my name. I’m Papa John.” When Papa John appeared at a subsequent supervisors meeting, Haggerty, without prompting, called up Papa John by name. Haggerty, indeed, remembered.

His ability to rally the troops only grew. Later, during a town hall hosted by then-state Sen. Ellen Corbett, Papa John stepped “to the podium, twisted his body toward the group of 300 behind him and with outstretched arms, like a prophet leading his flock, said, ‘What’s my name?’ There were cheers among a cascade of nurses, yelling ‘Papa John!’”

John Kalafatich speaking at a San Leandro Hospital town hall in 2011.

But despite, the county’s push to convert San Leandro Hospital into an acute care rehabilitation facility, and repeated attempts since to undermine its continuing service as an emergency room hospital, the crusade led by the nurses union, community activists, and people like Papa John kept it open. This fact should inspire all because the overriding theme of the battle for San Leandro Hospital, wasn’t really health care at all. It was a proxy for the story of our times: Corporate greed and corrupt government expanding the gulf between the rich and poor.

Sutter Health’s plan to close San Leandro Hospital was pure avarice meant to enhance its bottom line at its nearby and newly-reconstructed Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. Over the years, the groundwork for Sutter Health’s plan was aided by a clear strategy to pack the local health care district board with its political cronies, while also courting local public officials. The plan would have succeeded without San Leandrans like Papa John rising to the occasion. He did it for himself because he in fact worked at San Leandro Hospital. He did it for you. He did it for his Mary. And he did it because it was just.

For this fact, San Leandro should be proud of its David versus Goliath story. Those fighting a similar battle with Sutter Health over the closure of Alta Bates in Berkeley should take notice. Do they have a Papa John forcefully advocating for their cause at the grassroots level?

Not only should you remember Papa John’s name, remember his actions, too.