Bernard Tyson, East Bay Person of the Year

Bernard Tyson helped Kaiser Permanente thrive as a business and as a corporate citizen.


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Photo courtesy Tyson family

In the week before he unexpectedly died at age 60, Bernard J. Tyson, then chairman and CEO of the vast Kaiser Permanente medical system, went on one of his regular visits to the home of his mother and older sister in Vallejo, the city in which he was born and grew up.

Tyson sat in his deceased father’s old chair, a striking resemblance of his forebear, and the three family members talked about life and past times in a way that left his sister, Shelia Tyson, thinking later that her brother might have had a sense that his time on Earth was short.

“My brother knew — he had to know that he was getting ready to leave us,” Shelia Tyson, who at 66 is the oldest of seven children, said in an interview following his death on Nov. 10.

But if that was possible, Tyson didn’t let it affect his stride, as he continued onward with his demanding schedule, including multiple public appearances, the last at the Afrotech conference in Oakland just the day before he died in his sleep. 

Tyson had reason to feel good. Several weeks earlier, Kaiser Permanente had reached an agreement with a coalition of 11 unions, thus averting a strike. Although there were still acrimonious negotiations ongoing with another union representing several thousand mental health workers (who went on strike in December), that conflict was not entirely new, and Tyson, known widely for his steady and upbeat demeanor, never talked about work stress with his sister. 

“He wore it well because I think he loved what he was doing,” she said.

Tyson’s passing came as a huge shock to those who knew or worked with him. It brought an abrupt end to the life and career of a beloved and charismatic man who rose through the ranks from humble beginnings to become one of the most admired and powerful leaders in the health care industry, and one of the nation’s most influential African-American corporate figures.

He left behind his wife, marketing executive and entrepreneur Denise Bradley-Tyson, and three sons, Bernard Jr., Alexander, and Charles.

During the six years that Tyson was CEO and then also chairman, Kaiser Permanente grew from 9.1 to 12.2 million members, from 174,000 to more than 218,000 employees, and from 17,000 physicians to 23,000 physicians. Over the same period, annual operating revenue rose from $53.1 billion to nearly $83 billion, with $2.5 billion in net income. 

Such impressive business metrics alone, however, do not come close to explaining the high regard for Tyson, who was hailed as a corporate visionary, an ambassador of wellness, and a community builder. 

Tyson was known internationally for promoting preventive health care, bringing down health care costs through efficiencies, and moving away from a system that pays hospitals and doctors based on the volume of care provided. Kaiser Permanente is an integrated health insurer and health provider system that many see as a model for the nation.

He was lauded not only for his corporate savvy but also because he advocated passionately for, and led Kaiser Permanente in committing resources toward, addressing social determinants of health by improving access to affordable health care, stable housing, quality food, jobs, education, and safe neighborhoods. In addition, he called for a more inclusive society, especially regarding racial relations.

Kaiser Permanente supported programs that were designed not just for its own members but to help all of the 68 million residents in the communities where Kaiser Permanente operates, which include eight states and the District of Columbia.

Just 11 days before he died, Tyson published an essay on LinkedIn, the business networking site, about the need for food security among low-income Californians and what Kaiser Permanente was doing to help individuals and community groups connect with government resources, regardless of insurance status.

“It’s unacceptable that so many should struggle to find nutritious meals to keep them thriving,” he wrote. “No one in America should go to bed hungry.”

Upon news of his death, encomiums poured in from around the globe from corporate, labor, nonprofit, and political leaders, who praised Tyson for his business acumen and his efforts to build a more equitable world. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Golden Gate Warriors star basketball player Stephen Curry paid tribute.

“Bernard was a larger than life figure,” said Keith Block, co-CEO of Salesforce.com, the San Francisco business services technology giant where Tyson had been a member of the board of directors for the last two years. “He touched so many people, and his reach was global.”

About a month before his death, Block hosted a dinner at Salesforce Tower in San Francisco for the American Heart Association’s CEO Roundtable, an entity co-founded by Tyson, who was a member of the association’s board of directors.

In a room filled with powerful people, Tyson held court, his warm, engaging demeanor; big smile and laugh; and passion for improving public health inspiring to others.

“He lit up that room like a Christmas tree,” Block said. “He was a force.”

Yet, like many others, Block said Tyson’s large presence was matched by his down-to-earth style, which did not change regardless of whom he was addressing. 

“He had this charisma, authenticity, and touch that was incredible,” said Block. “When you met him, his personality was so disarming. He was just a regular person. But a great person.”

Robert F. Smith, the African-American billionaire in Texas who was a friend of Tyson’s, similarly issued a statement after Tyson’s death praising him as someone who “never forgot where he came from and always stayed true to his values.” 

“He embraced his opportunity to be a change maker, and he leaves behind a staggering legacy of accomplishments in his too-short life,” Smith said.  

Bernard James Tyson was born Jan. 20, 1959, in Vallejo. He was one of three boys and four girls. His mother, Billie, now 87, was a homemaker, and his father, Rev. Moses Tyson, who is deceased, was a union carpenter and pastor. 

The family lived in a two-story house that Moses Tyson built. They were the first African-American residents on their street. Unlike in some places, there were no problems around race, and they got on well with their neighbors. 

Discipline was strong but loving. Bernard and his siblings had enormous respect for their father, who instilled in them the value of fulfilling their commitments and of treating others with respect.

Sundays were spent at the Rescue Mission Church of God in Christ, where Moses Tyson ministered to a small but devoted congregation. The quaint structure with its steeple and cross rising above the front doors still stands on a large corner lot, and Billie and Shelia Tyson regularly attend.

Tyson would later tell how he was inspired as a child to seek a career in health care after being impressed by the treatment his mother received during her visits to Vallejo General Hospital for diabetes. Tyson’s younger brother, Kenneth Tyson, died of the disease in 2008.

Upon graduating from Vallejo High School in 1977, Bernard Tyson went to work for that same hospital as an administrative assistant while attending Golden Gate University in San Francisco, where he got a B.S. in health service management in 1982 and an M.B.A. in 1984. He later got an advanced leadership certificate from Harvard University.

Also in 1984, Tyson secured a six-month internship at Kaiser Permanente, which led to his being hired full time in an administrative position. Shelia Tyson fondly reminisced about commuting with her brother by car into San Francisco, where she worked at a bank.

Bernard Tyson’s star rose quickly, and he had a succession of assignments that lasted several years, with the result being that he continually moved up the food chain. 

In 1992, Tyson got a major promotion when he was named chief executive officer of the new Kaiser Permanente hospital in Santa Rosa. 

Tyson later told Fortune magazine how the job almost went sideways because his physician partner had never worked on an equal basis with a black man and did not know how to act. But eventually, the two were able to have frank discussions on the subject and build a successful working partnership.

Then in 1999, Tyson became part of Kaiser Permanente’s corporate leadership when he was promoted to be hospital administrator and division president with responsibility for regions outside of California. It was a very challenging assignment: At the time, Kaiser Permanente was divesting itself of operations in Texas, North Carolina, and the Northeast after a period of aggressive growth that had put the organization under severe financial strain.

Tyson played a key role in a debate about whether to spend several billion dollars to create an automated medical record that would be connected electronically to every aspect of care — including the imaging data, pharmacy operations, and patient scheduling systems. 

Despite questions about the value of such a risky investment, Tyson supported the plan, according to an essay by the former Kaiser Permanente CEO and Chairman George Halvorson for the health-policy website HealthAffairs.org. Kaiser Permanente subsequently became a national leader in the use of electronic health records.

Halvorson remembered Tyson saying, “This is just like the Internet five years ago. That computerized information will let us do things well that we don’t even think about doing today. Yes. We have the money, and it would be very wrong for us not to spend the money to automate everything and build that EMR [electronic medical record].”

Tyson’s predictions proved prescient. Kaiser Permanente became a national leader in the use of technology in delivering care, and the initiative he advocated has evolved so that today tens of millions of patient visits are handled through online messaging or video each year. Kaiser Permanente even has mobile vans that include a lab and an exam room that can remotely connect to central facilities. 

For a time, Tyson moved with his family to the East Coast to spearhead Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to expand in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. He returned as senior vice president, brand strategy and management, and oversaw the creation of Kaiser Permanente’s now-iconic “Thrive” advertising campaign, which remains foundational to the corporation’s identity to this day.

In 2006, Tyson was promoted to be the senior vice president for health plan and hospital operations. That same year, he had a heart attack while in Las Vegas for a conference and underwent open-heart surgery.

After recovering from his heart surgery, Tyson jumped into helping promote heart health awareness activities with the American Heart Association. He joined that organization’s national board of directors in 2010, the same year Kaiser Permanente promoted him to be its president and chief operating officer. 

After becoming Kaiser Permanente’s CEO in 2013 and chairman in 2014, Tyson entered the upper echelons of the corporate world, locally, nationally, and internationally. He became a member of The Business Council, an organization of the country’s leading chief executive officers. He was a steward of the Global Challenge on the Future of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of the world’s elites in Davos, Switzerland.

“He was exceptional because his impact was felt everywhere,” said Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s co-founder and co-CEO, also a Davos attendee, “That’s why this is such a huge loss for our whole world.”

Though Tyson acted the same around family members, they could not help but become aware of his increasing stature. In addition to the headlines, there was the big corner office at Kaiser’s Oakland headquarters and the fact that Tyson was provided with a security detail that was mandated by the board of directors.

Family members could not help but notice the awed expressions on the faces of people who learned that Bernard was their relative.

“We started realizing, ‘Wow, Bernard is really well respected,” said Tyson’s sister, wishing her father and deceased brother could have been around to see his success. 

Tyson was an excellent cook, and he used to love to entertain, particularly around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of the parties featured luminaries, others were just for family. He never put on airs, but Shelia Tyson knew he was proud that his family was proud.

“He was always just our brother,” his sister said. “He was always very modest. Most people like him because he was very approachable.”

Tyson’s national profile sharpened considerably in 2017 when he was outspoken in defense of the Affordable Care Act as Republicans in Congress and newly elected President Donald Trump unsuccessfully sought to dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, which Kaiser Permanente had successfully implemented. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated at the time that 22 million Americans would lose health insurance if “Obamacare” were repealed as a Senate Republican bill proposed.

Tyson met with Trump along with other insurance executives, wrote a column for Time magazine, and testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He praised the Affordable Care Act for its emphasis on access, prevention, and technology, and when some for-profit companies pulled out of health benefit exchanges created by the law, Kaiser Permanente stayed in. 

Tyson said he did not think it was necessary to throw out the current system of healthcare to expand coverage to the 30 million in the United States who remain uninsured, particularly the working poor. He did, however, want to see the nation move from a sickness-care model, with fee-for-service financial incentives built on volume, to one of preventive, total health.

Among the fixes that Tyson proposed were having the Affordable Care Act help low-income patients pay for deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs and requiring everyone to get medical coverage or pay a fine, as a way to spread the act’s costs around.

“We must work together to find real solutions to make high-quality, affordable health care accessible to all Americans,” he said. “These solutions also must be sustainable over multiple years and not just a patchwork fix.”

That year, Time recognized Tyson as one of the nation’s most influential people.

At the subsequent star-studded Time 100 Gala, Tyson was asked to give remarks to kick off the event, and he chose the opportunity to pay tribute to his father. Tyson described visiting a beach with his dad and telling him how, despite being a rising Kaiser Permanente executive, he had problems like other people. His father pointed out how he was fortunate to be able to bring his problems to such a beautiful spot.

“My father was a wonderful male image for me,” he said. “He was a strong individual. He was mighty. He was a preacher. He was a carpenter. He was a man of few words, but he always had wisdom and insights.”

Tyson’s support for the Affordable Care Act continued and was evident again just recently when he spoke out against the so-called Medicare-for-all plans proposed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

He argued that these proposals, which would do away with private insurance in favor of an expanded version of Medicare, would not produce the sought-after cost savings. Tyson said on CNBC that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan was “questionable at best.” 

Tyson was known for forthrightness on health care matters and other issues not directly related to medicine, notably matters of race.

The day before his death, Tyson appeared at the Afrotech conference on equity in health care and technology. Earlier that week, he spoke on a panel at the AT&T Business Summit, where he discussed the need for companies to be diverse and inclusive.

Tyson frequently talked positively about how diversity can benefit an organization by providing different viewpoints.

He was also ready to confront the dark side of race in America. In 2014, for example, after a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tyson wrote a blog post on LinkedIn saying it was “time to revolutionize race relations.” 

He told of his father giving him the talk given to so many young African Americans about how to interact with police officers so as not to get killed, and of “being disrespected in my early twenties by someone who was supposed to protect my rights.”

“If you’re not black, it’s hard to relate to situations as a black man might,” Tyson wrote. “So you know I’m speaking from a realistic rather than theoretical standpoint, here are a few personal examples I’ve experienced in the past couple of months.”

He went on to recount being tailed by a clerk in an upscale store, being told by a waitperson in a nice restaurant how to tip, and being required to show identification for a credit card purchase when non-African Americans just before him were not.

Tyson emphasized that he wrote “not to complain about what is, but instead offer hope that we can harness the positive energy from the demonstrations for change and start a new chapter in America based on better understanding of race relations.”

“I love this country and we’ve made so much progress, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

Similarly, when President Trump issued an executive order in 2017 restricting entrants to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, Tyson sent a message throughout Kaiser Permanente making clear that the organization would continue to serve all needing medical attention.

“It prompted me to send a message across the organization making sure everyone was clear that we will continue to stand for equal access and care for everyone, and that no one will feel that they’re being scrutinized if they need care from Kaiser Permanente,” Tyson told MIT Sloan Management Review. It was “an opportunity to reaffirm what we stand for, to reinforce what people throughout the organization already know about our values, and to remind them that they are a part of it,” he said.

Tyson also described for the publication how he encouraged outspokenness in people who worked for him.

“First, I believe strongly that we live in a great country and that freedom of speech is, in part, what makes it great,” he said. “In senior management meetings, when one of my executives feels strongly about an issue and they want to take me on, sometimes they’ll ask, ‘Freedom of speech?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes.’ And they’ll repeat, ‘Freedom of speech?’ And I’ll say, ‘Absolutely.’ And then they’ll come with it: ‘I think you’re dead wrong.’ They don’t have to sugarcoat it.”

Hal Ruddick, deputy executive director of the Alliance of Health Care Unions, said that Tyson made a point of seeking out the unfiltered views of frontline workers when he went to visit Kaiser Permanente facilities, meeting personally with the labor-management work groups through which union members, physicians, and managers collaborate on providing care. 

Tyson also attended the annual gatherings of union leaders and insisted on answering unscreened questions, Ruddick said.

“Most CEOs are not going to do that,” Ruddick said. “He wanted the opportunity to engage with union members.”

Ruddick said Tyson was a “visionary” and “charismatic” leader who played an important role in Kaiser Permanente offering “the best jobs in healthcare.”

That is not to say that Kaiser’s labor relations while Tyson was CEO were always rosy. They were not.

In November of 2018, Kaiser Permanente locked down a three-year contract with Ruddick’s group, covering 49,000 Kaiser Permanente workers after the Alliance split off a larger coalition. 

But negotiations with the remaining unions, representing 85,000 workers through the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, got very prickly over the last year before a contract settlement was signed in October. 

Among other things, coalition members criticized Tyson’s 2017 salary of $16 million, increases in individual and group plan rates, and Kaiser’s spending priorities given the billions of dollars of taxes it does not have to pay as a not-for-profit corporation. Prime targets were Kaiser’s plans for a new $900 million headquarters building in Oakland and its branding deal for the entrance to the Golden State Warriors’ new Chase Center arena in San Francisco, the latter of which Kaiser Permanente said was misrepresented because the deal creates a venue for community health programs. 

Regardless, after Tyson died, the coalition issued a statement calling him “a bold and outspoken advocate for diversity, racial justice, and affordable, accessible health care.”

“The difficulties of the past few years do not diminish our appreciation for Bernard Tyson’s work and leadership,” it said.

The Alliance of Health Care Unions also issued a statement calling Tyson “a visionary labor-management leader.”

Both unions said that Tyson had been an important supporter of Kaiser’s Labor Management Partnership, a landmark agreement signed in 1997 that ended years of financial instability and labor strife at the corporation and ushered in a period of growth. The partnership formalized the approach of programmatically engaging frontline union members in decisions about care delivery.

Tyson’s steady leadership helped the agreement, the nation’s oldest and largest of its kind, to evolve and survive significant pressures, including a major split this year in the labor coalition that resulted in the signing of contracts with two separate labor alliances, said Prof. Thomas Kochan at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who was the lead author of a book about the Labor Management Partnership.

“He had the broad shoulders to not get too caught up in the criticism and stay the course,” Kochan said.

“Bernard Tyson was a very strong supporter of the Labor Management Partnership before he was CEO, and especially during his tenure as CEO,” Kochan said. “He believed in it very deeply personally. I know that from talking to him personally and from his behavior. It’s a model for what a CEO leader should stand for in this country.” 

One union that is not part of the Labor Management Partnership has a more contentious relationship with Kaiser, and that is the National Union of Health Care Workers, which represents 4,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals in California who went on strike in early December after briefly postponing their action in deference to Tyson’s family following his death.

The union has for years argued that mental-health services get short shrift compared to other medical services, in violation of legal requirements, and are chronically understaffed, resulting in overworked staff and needed appointments being deferred for months.

Kaiser Permanente has consistently rejected the union’s charges, but the corporation has nevertheless suffered some embarrassing dings. 

After a union investigation, state officials fined Kaiser Permanente a whopping $4 million in 2013. The union reached a labor agreement with Kaiser Permanente in 2015 that included provisions aimed at increasing staffing and reducing wait times for appointments, but the union said problems persisted. The state subsequently issued warnings and entered into a three-year settlement agreement with Kaiser Permanente in 2017 that requires an outside consultant to help it implement changes. State officials say Kaiser Permanente has been meeting the deal’s benchmarks.

“For the last nine years, our relationship with Bernard has not been good,” said NHUW President Sal Rosselli. While Rosselli praised Tyson for his support of the Labor Management Partnership, “that has not extended to mental health.”

Kaiser Permanente insists that it has been stepping up to the challenge of bolstering its mental-health care services. It says it has aggressively been hiring therapists, including hundreds of therapists in California in 2019 alone, and in the face of a statewide and nationwide shortage of mental-health professionals, it is investing more than $40 million to expand postgraduate training programs and advance the education and experience of its therapists and others hoping to join the mental-health profession.

Kaiser Permanente also says it has accelerated the addition of dozens of new treatment facilities as part of a $700 million spending plan covering the next several years.

Tyson, meanwhile, made mental health an important talking point in his public appearances.

Earlier this year, he hosted a mental health and wellness summit at the 2019 World Economic Forum, where he shared the stage with Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge. At the event, he urged global leaders to reduce the stigma of mental illness by encouraging an open dialogue, tackle inequity in treatment of mental-health care, and focus on prevention and integration of mental-health services into primary care systems.

To Rosselli, Tyson’s messaging was “public relations,” but to others it was another example of Tyson using his pulpit to advance a holistic vision that marries human and community wellness.

Under Tyson’s guidance, Kaiser Permanente in recent years launched nearly 35 programs across all of its regions that identify members with social needs such as housing, food, safety, transportation, and utilities and connect them to community resources. 

In 2018, for example, Kaiser Permanente committed $2 million to studying gun injuries.

Another example is a social-health network called Thrive Local that connects into Kaiser’s electronic health-record system to enable health care workers to make referrals directly to community organizations and social-service agencies and then track referrals to confirm that patient needs have been met. 

And in February, Kaiser Permanente said it would open a new technology-focused medical school in Pasadena, and tuition would be waived for the first five years, part of a broader effort to get more minorities to be doctors. The school will be named for Tyson in his memory.

Possibly nowhere did Tyson make more of an impact in recent years, however, than in the area of homelessness, a condition associated with poor health outcomes, heightened risk of communicable diseases, increased costs to medical systems, and shortened life expectancies. 

It was an issue that gnawed on Tyson as he saw the growing encampments on the streets of Oakland and in Mosswood Park, directly across Broadway from the building where he worked. “We simply cannot and will not accept that homelessness is unsolvable,” Tyson wrote on LinkedIn in August. “A safe, stable home is necessary to thrive, and access to affordable, secure and reliable housing is key to improving the health of our communities and serves to advance the economic, social and environmental conditions for total health.”

Salesforce’s Benioff, a philanthropist who donated $30 million last year toward alleviating homelessness, was impressed that Tyson would stop while under freeway overpasses to talk with people living there.

“We don’t have that many people like this in the world who have this much impact and carry the spirit of the Bay Area wherever they go,” Benioff said.

 

Tyson, indeed, was working to shape programs and policy concerning homelessness at the city, regional, state, and national levels.

In 2017, Tyson started a two-year stint as chairman of the Bay Area Council, an influential business association that promotes the economic and social development of the greater San Francisco region. As with everything he undertook, Tyson was extremely dedicated to the job, on one occasion flying in from Washington, D.C., to make a meeting and then flying back the same day.

On the issue of homelessness, Tyson prevailed on his fellow members to devote resources to studying the issue, with one result being the issuance in April of an in-depth, region-wide report that found the Bay Area has one of the worst homelessness problems in the nation, and that people with the lowest incomes were being forced into the streets. 

“That was 100 percent Bernard,” said Jim Wunderman, the council’s president and CEO. “He was very committed to solving that and got the council engaged on that issue. We’re committed to that work in his memory.”

While the council was doing its research, Kaiser Permanente steered significant resources of its own to addressing homelessness and joined a coalition of mayors and businesses to advocate for housing and homelessness policy and funding reforms at the national level.

In 2018, Kaiser Permanente announced a $200 million housing initiative, the Thriving Communities Fund, to tackle housing instability and homelessness, among other community needs, across its service areas.

The first investment of $5.2 million announced in early 2019 went to helping the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation buy and upgrade a 41-unit building called Kensington Gardens in East Oakland’s San Antonio district. The goal is to keep the apartments affordable and healthy for habitation.

In addition, Kaiser Permanente said it would contribute $50 million to a $100 million loan fund to create and preserve rental homes for low-income residents in its service areas around the country. The rest of the money is coming from Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit.

Kaiser Permanente also committed $3 million to Built for Zero, a nonprofit that is seeking to use real-time analytics to reduce homelessness in 70 communities across the United States, including in Contra Costa and Marin counties.

At the same time, Kaiser Permanente spearheaded a public-private consortium that over a seven-month period successfully housed 515 people who were homeless in Oakland and were over the age of 50 and living with at least one chronic health condition. 

The effort included the city of Oakland, Alameda County, and the regional nonprofit Bay Area Community Services, which found the housing and has provided support to individuals over time with services like assisted trips to the doctor’s office or to legal assistance.

Bay Area Community Services was able to place all identified individuals through diverse arrangements, mostly in Oakland, ranging from government-subsidized apartments to living with family members.

“This is some of the most significant work our organization has done in 66 years,” said Jamie Almanza, executive director of Bay Area Community Services, who credited Tyson with having the boldness to set such a lofty goal. 

“I didn’t know if we would succeed,” Almanza said. “That faith from him and the organization was critical. And for us to be successful in it, I can’t tell you how special it is.”

Kaiser Permanente is hoping lessons learned from the Bay Area Community Services effort can be applied locally and across the country. Oakland has been hit particularly hard by the housing crisis; between 2017 and 2019, homelessness in Oakland increased 43 percent to 4,071 people. Alameda County as a whole saw a similar increase to more than 8,000 people.

The first time Almanza ever spoke to Tyson was when he surprised her with a telephone call to tell her that he had made and liked one of the dishes contained in a Kaiser-backed Bay Area Community Services cookbook featuring recipes from senior citizens her agency had helped. 

“He was so sophisticated and also someone who was really dedicated to the community and really engaging and approachable,” Almanza said.

 

That is the sort of testimony that comforts Shelia Tyson’s heart. 

After her brother’s death, the family received a call from a janitor at the new Kaiser Permanente hospital in Vacaville who wanted to tell about how Tyson had been so gracious to her and other workers low on the totem pole during the opening festivities for the facility.

“She said he was so down to earth. ‘He started talking to all of us like he knew us,’ ” Tyson said.

Perhaps that was a reflection of the faith that was so important to Bernard Tyson and others in his family.

Shortly before he died, Bernard Tyson was at the Sunday service at Glad Tidings International Church of God in Christ in Hayward when he was called to the stage to address the congregation in honor of the 41st anniversary of Bishop Jerry W. Macklin’s marriage to his wife, Vanessa Wells Macklin.

Tyson had joined Macklin’s congregation after returning from the East Coast. The two men had known each other for decades as their fathers were both preachers and friends, but they grew much closer after Tyson had his heart attack and awoke from a coma to find Bishop Macklin by his side. 

Typically when Tyson was traveling, he’d send a text message to the pastor to let him know why he wasn’t at Sunday services and ask for his prayers. When Tyson was in town, he could be counted upon to appear in his dark suit and red tie, the deacon uniform for administering communion.

Macklin said that in addition to providing wise counsel on church matters — particularly on matters of business — Tyson was very generous when it came to donating money to support church programs, scholarships, or families in need, though he never wanted recognition.

“He was extremely faithful to the church,” Macklin said. “Anytime we were doing any kind of project, he was always a financial supporter.” 

The church, in turn, showed its devotion to Tyson by posting an honor guard flanking his body while it lay in state in the rotunda at Oakland City Hall.

Back on that day before he died, smiling broadly as he gave extemporaneous remarks that were met with repeated exclamations of assent, Tyson had told the congregation, “I believe that I’m saved. I believe that. But you know, I have to actually repent all the time. You all may not have to, but I have to,” he added with a chuckle. “I say something at work or something, and I say oh, ‘Lord, forgive me.’”

 

The family has requested that donations in Tyson’s memory be made to the Bernard J. Tyson Fund for Equitable Health and Well-Being, which has been established by the American Heart Association.

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