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Joy Dana Kaiser
Aug. 6, 1930-Feb. 3, 2021
Palo Alto, California

Joy Kaiser died on February 3, 2021 in Palo Alto, California from complications of Covid-19. She was 90.

A health care activist, Joy played a pivotal role in providing medical education for over 10,000 medical personnel of color in South Africa, where such opportunities had been severely stunted by decades of apartheid. For this work, she was subsequently honored with the Albert Schweitzer Award and honorary doctorates from the Medical University of South Africa and Swarthmore College. Even more noteworthy was her induction in 2010 as a Member of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in Silver, South Africa’s highest honor for a foreigner.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1930 to Arnold and Margaret Sundgaard, her childhood coincided with the Depression. Her father’s work as an itinerant young playwright gave Joy precocious exposure to a life both of culture and of travel — the family was uprooted repeatedly as he sought work, with Joy switching elementary schools six times in the space of four years.

In 1940 Joy settled in New Haven with her mother and younger sister, at first unaware that her father had left the family. Her mother managed to earn a living as a typist in a local manufacturing company, eventually rising to the rank of executive secretary. Thanks to the generosity of her godmother, Marion G. Dana, Joy was able to attend Hamden Hall Country Day School, where she was valedictorian. In 1947 she entered Swarthmore College on a full academic scholarship. There she met and soon married her husband, Herbert Kaiser, who attended with the assistance of the GI Bill following his wartime service on a submarine in the Pacific. In 1950 the newly married couple moved to Glasgow, where Joy completed her undergraduate coursework at the University of Glasgow while her husband served in the U.S. Consulate. Joy returned to take her Honors exams at Swarthmore in 1952, graduating with highest honors and becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Joy worked for a time in the Office of Military History, U.S. Army, but soon came postings to the U.S. Embassies in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1955-1958); Vienna, Austria (1959-1962); Warsaw, Poland (1965-1968); Pretoria/Cape Town, South Africa (1969-1972); Zagreb, Yugoslavia (1975-1978); and Bucharest, Romania (1980-1981). Between these various overseas assignments, there were stints in Washington, D.C., Cambridge, MA, and Carlisle, PA. Although these missions were formally her husband’s, Joy participated in the work to a remarkable extent. She was fluent in Serbo-Croatian, German, Polish, and Romanian, and she helped develop a broad network of contacts throughout the societies around them, and in the process kick-starting many life-long friendships.

After retiring from the Foreign Service, Joy and Herb turned to activism in 1983. They were driven by the knowledge that the superb medical care Herb had received in apartheid South Africa for malignant melanoma would have been withheld had he been Black. To remedy this injustice, Joy and Herb started a foundation, Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB). In addition to the shoestring budget with which they began, they faced daunting challenges. At the time the apartheid government of South Africa restricted educational opportunities for Black South Africans; conversely, African American activists in the United States were forcefully opposed to offering any aid to organizations operating within apartheid South Africa. These obstacles were overcome through persistence and diplomacy, and by the late 1980s MESAB began to deliver significant assistance to Black South African medical students, who were trained in that country.

Following the end of the apartheid regime, and with the enthusiastic support of luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and George Soros, MESAB’s efforts continued and expanded, even as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was sweeping through the country. In the final move of their itinerant life together, Joy and Herb moved to Palo Alto in 1993, a period that Joy declared to be the happiest of her life. MESAB was shuttered in 2007, and Joy and Herb reflected on their experiences in their memoir Against the Odds: Health and Hope in South Africa (Amazon, 2013).

Joy Kaiser was predeceased by her husband, Herb, who died in 2018. She is survived by her children, Timothy, Paul, and Gail and their spouses Margaret Darmanin Kaiser, Kathryn deGroof Kaiser, and Mark Anderton; her grandchildren, Natalie (Steven Richter) and Nicolas Kaiser, Alice and Jane Kaiser, and Claire and John Anderton; her great granddaughter, Léa Richter; her sister Jill Jones; and her half-brother Stephen Sundgaard.

Tags: public service

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