Henry John Kaiser

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Henry Kaiser

Born May 9, 1882

Sprout Brook, New York

Died August 24, 1967

Honolulu, Hawaii


Henry Kaiser's imprint on American industry was remarkable. He has been called the "father of modern shipbuilding" and was considered the most powerful businessman in the U.S. West during World War II (193945). The concrete he manufactured went to build Pacific military bases, his aluminum into new advanced warplanes, his steel into warships, and the thousands of cargo ships he built carried troops and supplies across the oceans to the European and Pacific war fronts. The electricity generated by the dams he built fueled the West Coast war industries. Kaiser became a favorite of the news media and was considered by many to be the most influential civilian to help America win the war.

A born worker

Henry John Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, in Sprout Brook, New York. Both of his parents were emigrants from Steinham, Germany. Henry grew up in a family of modest means. His father, Frank, was a shoemaker. His mother, Mary Yops, first worked in a cheese factory and then became a part-time nurse as the family began to grow. Henry, the youngest of four children, had three older sisters. Throughout his life, Henry would always credit his mother for giving him the principles of hard work and determination that led to his business success. Her untimely death at fifty-two years of age in 1899 profoundly affected young Henry and likely inspired his later interest in establishing preventative medicine systems.

Young Henry quit school following the eighth grade at age thirteen. It was not so much to support the family but simply because he was eager to work. His friends described Henry as an energetic, bright individual. He was very outgoing and assertive, yet pleasant. He found a job as a dry goods clerk in the nearby town of Utica. For the next several years through various sales jobs, Henry Kaiser honed his ability to readily sell others on an idea or product. Kaiser's strong combination of charisma and salesmanship made him a very persuasive young man.

Kaiser also became interested in photography and began developing his photography skills while away from the store. The Eastman-Kodak Company, located near Utica, was making major advances in photography during the 1890s inventing smaller cameras including the Brownie model that could be used by the general public and not just professional photographers. Inspired by these developments, Kaiser launched a new career as a photographer by age sixteen. Always ambitious, by 1901 he became part owner of a studio in Lake Placid, New York, and by 1903, after saving several thousand dollars, he opened several photography shops in Florida. He made postcards, promotional photographs for railroads, and portraits. Kaiser enjoyed the annual cycle of working the five summer months in Lake Placid and the remainder of the year in Florida.

A move west

Through a fateful portrait session, Kaiser met his future wife, Bess Fosburgh, in 1906. He soon proposed marriage. However, Bess's father, a wealthy Virginia lumber businessman, challenged Kaiser to gain more stable employment before marrying his daughter. More specifically, he was to go out West, make at least $125 a month, and build a home for his future wife. In response, Kaiser sold his Florida studios and moved to Spokane, Washington. There Kaiser became a very successful traveling salesman for the McGowan Brothers wholesale hardware business. He and Bess married in Boston, Massachusetts, in April 1907 and returned to Spokane, where they had two sons.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, automobiles were just coming into general use. While on his frequent travels as a hardware salesman, Kaiser became increasingly aware of the need for better public streets and roads for the growing number of automobiles. Seeing the business potential, Kaiser left the hardware business in 1909 and joined a cement and gravel company in Spokane to learn the trade. Before long, he began work for a Canadian road construction company. In December 1914 Kaiser took over the company, which was going bankrupt, and quickly rebuilt it. Through the following years, Kaiser gained respect in the construction industry as he built numerous roads in California, Oregon, and Washington. He played a major role in creating the infrastructure (public roads and key facilities) of the West. By 1921 he moved his company headquarters from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Oakland, California. Kaiser enjoyed the economic boom times of the 1920s as new construction nearly doubled in the United States. He established local sand and gravel companies to supply his own road materials. Besides roads, he built various other structures such as dams and levees. He even constructed a highway across Cuba that crossed swamp lands and included five hundred bridges.

Establishing a Washington, D.C., link

With even bigger projects in mind, in 1931 Kaiser joined his company with several others to form Six Companies. They won a government contract to build the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in southern Nevada. It would be the world's largest dam. Kaiser served as the communication link between the giant company and the federal government. He spent considerable time in Washington, D.C., between 1931 and 1935 gaining knowledge of government contracting processes and making many contacts with administrators of public works

Liberty Ships

Of all the businesses Henry Kaiser founded during his career, he is best known for his World War II (193945) shipbuilding yards. In 1941 under the Emergency Shipbuilding Program, the U.S. Maritime Commission (USMC) began a massive expansion of the merchant marine fleet. A central part of the program was a standard designed cargo ship called a Liberty Ship. Designed for emergency production, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345) referred to them as "ugly ducklings." At first the USMC planned to construct 60 ships for the British, which grew to 112. The first Liberty Ship was completed on September 27, 1941. Over the next year, Kaiser shortened the time of production from 197 days for each ship to 14 days. The record was 4 days, 15 hours, and 30 minutes.

Each of the 441 foot-long ships cost about two million dollars. Each could carry nine thousand tons of cargo inside its hull and airplanes, tanks, or other equipment on its deck. A Liberty Ship could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 tanks, or 230 million rounds of rifle bullets. A crew of forty-four would sail the ship and some twenty Naval Armed Guards would man the nine large guns, fitted for protection.

Constituting the largest production program for a single type of ship, a total of 2,710 Liberty Ships were built by sixteen shipyards in the United States. Another 119 revised Liberty Ships were also produced. The ships were built in assembly-line fashion, made from parts prefabricated at various other locations. Each ship had 600,000 feet of welded joints. Kaiser's seven yards built 821 ten-ton Liberty Ships and 219 Victory Ships, a slightly improved version of Liberty Ships. Liberty Ships comprised 27 percent of total World War II shipping. Of the 2,710 built, only 200 were lost in action.

The same day a ship was completed, its crew boarded and they set off to sea to join one of hundreds of convoys crossing the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. The ships were named after prominent deceased Americans, with early American leader Patrick Henry (17361799) being the first. Any organization that raised enough money through the sale of war bonds to fund construction of a Liberty Ship could provide a name. In 2003 two Liberty Ships survived as public museums.

projects. Kaiser also created Boulder City, Nevada, a planned community to house the Hoover Dam workers and their families consisting of about five thousand people. It was the first planned city in the United States during the twentieth century. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) came to dedicate the Hoover Dam in 1935 near its completion.

After completing the Hoover Dam, Six Companies won more government contracts to build the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in the late 1930s on the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. It also won the contract to build the San Francisco Bay Bridge connecting the city of San Francisco, California, with the east side of San Francisco Bay. Though Six Companies failed to win the contract to build the Shasta Dam in northern California, Kaiser's own company became the key supplier of cement for the project beginning in 1939. In order to produce the six million barrels of cement required, Kaiser built the world's largest cement plant, Permanente Cement, that year south of San Francisco.

World War II shipyards

Though highly successful and nearing the age of sixty, Kaiser would be further propelled into national prominence with the advent of World War II. As German forces expanded through Western Europe in early 1940, Kaiser became concerned about the limited U.S. industrial capacity, especially for steel and aluminum production. He also believed if the United States were drawn into the war, a great demand for shipping would exist. As a result, Kaiser became outspoken about mobilizing U.S. industry. Mobilization became the key word used to describe converting American industry from peacetime to wartime uses. Through his efforts, he built a close friendship with President Roosevelt.

As the war in Europe expanded, Great Britain looked to the United States for much needed supplies. In December 1940 Kaiser and two partners won a government contract to build thirty cargo ships for the British. For this project he built a large shipyard in Richmond, California, and used workers from the Grand Coulee Dam project. Though he had no previous experience in shipbuilding, his industrial production genius led to national fame. His shipyards were the first to build a ship in separate sections prior to final assembly and to weld steel plates together instead of using rivets. In late 1940 Kaiser also won a government contract from the Defense Plant Corporation to build aluminum plants on the West Coast to

supply aluminum for aircraft manufacturers. More contracts followed in 1941 from the U.S. maritime commission. He built another large shipyard near Portland, Oregon, and established the town of Vanport in 1942 for the workers. A flood would later destroy Vanport in 1948 after the war. In all, Kaiser ran seven shipyards during the war, employing some two hundred thousand workers. Kaiser's shipyards built 1,490 ships, including 1,112 cargo ships and 107 warships. The warships included 50 small aircraft carriers. Kaiser built one-third of the nation's cargo ships for the war.

Kaiser was the subject of hundreds of magazine articles. He was a favorite of media giant Henry R. Luce (18981967) of Time-Life-Fortune. The media referred to Kaiser as the "Miracle Man" and America's "Number One Industrial Hero." Roosevelt even considered naming Kaiser as his running mate for the 1944 presidential elections. In 1943 when Kaiser established an experimental laboratory to explore various new projects, the public would continually send him new ideas for inventions.

Kaiser, however, was less popular among other industrial leaders. Many disliked his headline notoriety and suspected he was receiving favoritism from Washington because of his close association with the president. Through 1941 other industry leaders opposed some of Kaiser's project proposals, particularly his proposal to build a major steel mill in the West to supply his shipyards. Most steel was produced in the East. However, following the shock of the Japanese bombing of U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941, Kaiser received millions of dollars in government loans to build a large steel mill east of Los Angeles in Fontana. Meanwhile, his Permanente plant produced a large portion of the cement used in the Pacific to construct military installations.

In a public poll conducted near war's end in the spring of 1945, the public listed Kaiser as the U.S. civilian who had done the most to help win the war. A 1946 public poll named Kaiser a strong prospect for U.S. president.

After the war

The sudden death of President Roosevelt in April 1945 broke Kaiser's well-placed connection to Washington. With the war over and Roosevelt gone, Kaiser closed his Washington office. Kaiser could constantly predict future U.S. wants and needs. Back when war production was in full stride in 1943, he began planning for an anticipated postwar economic boom. One idea was to produce inexpensive automobiles. The manufacture of automobiles had been suspended during the war, and he anticipated a large demand afterwards. In 1945 Kaiser joined with Joseph W. Frazer, an automobile industry executive, to form the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation. They purchased the large Willow Run plant outside of Detroit, Michigan, that was no longer needed for war production. Sales of the Kaiser cars were good. By September 1947 the company was manufacturing fifteen thousand cars a month. They produced more than three hundred thousand cars in 1947 and 1948, earning $29 million. However, by late 1948 the big car manufacturers of General Motors (GM), Ford, and Chrysler were catching up, thanks to their larger research and development capabilities. The Kaiser cars steadily lost ground until the mid-1950s, when Kaiser stopped production. By then, this endeavor had lost 123 million dollars.

Kaiser's other industries prospered in the postwar period, including Kaiser Steel and Kaiser Aluminum. Kaiser Aluminum remained one of the top three aluminum producers in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1956 he formed Kaiser Industries to oversee the various companies, and in 1962 Kaiser constructed a new high-rise headquarters office building in Oakland, California. However, Kaiser's industrial domain proved less competitive during the Cold War. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union falling just short of military conflict. Kaiser never gathered the scientists and engineers needed to keep up with the fast-appearing technological innovations. His leadership gave way to other newly rising West Coast industrial entrepreneurs such as Howard Hughes (19051976) of Hughes Aircraft.

Health plan

In 1938 Kaiser had introduced a company health plan and hospital program, the nation's first health maintenance program. It was a prepaid plan for workers at Grand Coulee Dam. The program grew dramatically during the war, covering the thousands of shipyard workers. After the war, it was opened to the general public and became the nation's largest health organization by 1967, with 1.5 million members and nineteen hospitals providing preventive health care. Kaiser also established nursing schools and aided medical education programs. The Kaiser system of partnerships among physicians served as a model for federal health care programs.


In 1951 Kaiser's wife, Bess, died after a lengthy illness, and Kaiser married Bess's nurse only weeks later, creating a small scandal. In 1954 he semi-retired to Hawaii, where he built a large resort and cement factory. In 1961 he sold the resort to Hilton for more than twenty-one million dollars. Kaiser also led in the development of the planned community of Hawaii Kai on Oahu. He sponsored radio and television programs, including the popular television series Maverick. Kaiser died in Hawaii on August 24, 1967, after a brief illness. Throughout his life, Kaiser had founded more than one hundred companies. In 1986 the 677-foot long USNS Henry J. Kaiser, a naval refueling ship, was added to the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet. It was converted to a tanker in 1995.

For More Information


Adams, Stephen B. Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Foster, Mark S. Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Heiner, Albert P. Henry J. Kaiser: Western Colossus. San Francisco, CA: Halo Books, 1981.

Nash, Gerald D. The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Web sites

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. http://www.kff.org (accessed on July 22, 2004).

United States Navy. http://www.msc.navy.mil/mpstwo/kaiser.htm (accessed on July 22, 2004).

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During the first part of the twentieth century Henry Kaiser (18821967) became one of the most prominent business entrepreneurs in the United States. Because he built most of his businesses in the western United States, he played a major role in developing the economy of that region. By the end of his life he had founded Kaiser Paving, Kaiser Steel, Kaiser-Frazer Automobile Corp., Kaiser Aluminum and Chemicals, Permanente Cement, Kaiser Industries, and the Kaiser Health Plan, the largest health maintenance organization (HMO) in the United States.

Born in 1882 in upstate New York to German immigrant parents, Kaiser was the youngest of four children. He began working full time at age thirteen in a dry goods store in Utica, New York. His boundless energy, optimism, and creativity showed in most things he did. By age seventeen Kaiser had taken up photography, just as the nearby Eastman Kodak Company was pioneering major advances in photographic equipment. He began as a partner in a small photographic studio, and by age twenty-one had opened a successful string of photography shops on the east coast of Florida aimed at servicing the tourist trade.

Looking elsewhere for more business opportunities, Kaiser made his way to the west coast of Canada and started a cement paving company. Before long, he expanded his operations to Washington, Oregon, and California. Later his headquarters moved from Canada to Oakland, California.

Kaiser's major work began as an extension of his cement company. He earned a reputation for fast, high quality work as a road builder and expanded his operations to build highways. In 1931, Kaiser joined an incorporated consortium of contractors known as Six Companies in order to contract with the federal government to build the Hoover Dam. He served as a liaison between the contractors and the government bureaucrats. Later he was similarly involved in building major portions of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River.

With the outbreak of World War II (19391945), Kaiser recognized that the war would enlarge the prospects for business by increasing the need for rawmaterials, such as aluminum, steel, and magnesium. Between 1939 and 1941, he advocated greater business involvement in war preparations. After 1939, Kaiser became heavily engaged in the shipbuilding industry, primarily the building of cargo ships. He attracted national attention during World War II, gaining the reputation of a "Miracle Man" and the "Number 1 Industrial Hero" because of the speed with which he built ships crucial to the war effort. Kaiser ignored the usual methods of building ships bottom up from the keel; instead he employed assembly-line methods. (His reputation was so well established that President Franklin Roosevelt (19331945) considered him as a vice presidential running mate in the 1944 election.)

Kaiser made his share of enemies in business. When eastern steel shortages began in the United States prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 12, 1941), Kaiser began to make his own steel. The large steel industries of the east were outraged. After World War II began, however, much of the anger against him fell away as the nation entered into a spirit of business cooperation to support the war effort.

Kaiser joined in a business partnership with Joseph Frazer in 1945 to manufacture automobiles that featured streamlined body curves and eliminated old-style wheel fenders altogether. Kaiser-Frazer quickly became the fourth largest producer of automobiles in America. It was a short-lived enterprise, lasting only until the early 1950s. At that time Kaiser-Frazer could no longer compete with Detroit's Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and the Chrysler Corporation. Nonetheless, Kaiser-Frazer automobiles were visionary and changed the shape and design of modern cars. Though Kaiser's automobile business was a business failure, the company inspired car owners with a new vision of what cars could be. Moreover, despite dropping his car venture, Kaiser continued to develop his aluminum and chemicals companies which had been created to aid the production of his modern, lightweight cars.

Kaiser's aluminum company was, overall, his most profitable enterprise. After World War II, however, the Kaiser Corporation became a multi-faceted empire. His company's personal health care program, Kaiser Permanente, eventually grew to become the largest health maintenance organization (HMO) in the nation.

Kaiser was a successful and creative businessman who was known as a "workaholic" because of his addiction to his work. In 1954 he moved with his second wife to Hawaii but never retired; leisure did not interest him, and he had few hobbies. Though he remained seriously overweight, he enjoyed good health until near the end of his life. He died in Hawaii in 1967, at the age of 85, still involved with the many successful business projects he created.

See also: Assembly Line, Automobile Industry, Health Maintenance Organizations, Liberty Ships


Adams, Stephen B. Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Cobbs, Elizabeth A. The Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Foster, Mark S. Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Heiner, Albert P. Henry J. Kaiser, American Empire Builder. New York: P. Long Pub., 1989.

Loeb (Carl M.) Rhoades and Company. Aluminum, an Analysis of the Industry in the United States. New York: Loeb (Carl M.) Rhoades and Company, 1950.

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Henry John Kaiser (May 9, 1882–August 24, 1967) became a national figure through involvement in New Deal public-works projects and wartime defense contracts. Initially a salesman in New York and Spokane, Washington, Kaiser was a small-scale contractor on highway projects in western Canada and then California during the 1920s. Kaiser's business was transformed by major public-works contracts, beginning with the Six Companies consortium of western construction firms that won the Hoover (Boulder) Dam contract in 1931. The immense project required effective coordination of a large workforce in hazardous conditions, major investments in raw material supplies, and the construction of Boulder City. Kaiser was the consortium's key link to politicians, officials, and insiders in Washington, D.C., during the bidding phase, and he later maintained support and confidence during the lengthy construction phase. Kaiser was a prime example of a "government entrepreneur" and a model for positive working relationships between business and the government during the New Deal era. Further public-works contracts followed the Hoover Dam. When unsuccessful in bidding for the prime contract for the Shasta Dam in northern California in 1938, Kaiser won contracts to supply cement for the project, establishing Permanente Cement.

During World War II, Kaiser's contacts and ambition resulted in spectacular diversification into shipbuilding, steel manufacturing, and the production of magnesium and aluminium. All were major elements in western economic development, in which federal support and contacts, including Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans, were fundamental. Kaiser's public profile attained great heights, aided by his own attention to public relations and by regular and favorable coverage in Henry Luce's Time/Life media during the 1940s. In 1944 Roosevelt even considered Kaiser as a potential vice-presidential running mate. Kaiser's construction companies maintained a tough relationship with workers and unions, but beginning with the Grand Coulee contract in 1938 Kaiser adopted more liberal views on collective bargaining. The Grand Coulee project included a medical-care plan, and similar provisions were made for Kaiser's shipyard workers during the war. After 1945 the healthcare plan developed into the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, which proved his most durable business. By contrast, a postwar venture into car manufacturing via the Kaiser-Frazer company was short-lived.

Kaiser's achievements depended on effective networking to negotiate the complex but lucrative challenges of federal contracting. Moreover, his greatest achievements were in projects that fulfilled the goals of key New Deal policymakers, whether in public works, defence contracts, or efforts to increase competition in monopolistic industries.



Adams, Stephen B. Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur. 1997.

Foster, Mark S. "Giant of the West: Henry J. Kaiser and Regional Industrialization, 1930–1950." Business History Review 59 (1985): 1–23.

Foster, Mark S. "Prosperity's Prophet: Henry J. Kaiser and the Consumer/Suburban Culture, 1930–1950." Western Historical Quarterly 17 (1986): 165–184.

Foster, Mark S. Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West. 1989.

Kaiser, Henry J. Papers. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Michael French

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Henry John Kaiser

Henry John Kaiser (1882-1967), American industrialist, was the driving force behind the expansion of his small construction firm into an industrial corporation with assets exceeding $2.7 billion.

Henry J. Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, in Sprout Brook, N.Y. He left school at the age of 13 to work, and in 1906 he moved to the West Coast. Sales jobs led him into the construction business, and in 1914 he formed a road-paving firm, which pioneered in the use of heavy construction machinery. His boundless energy, imagination, and optimism were reflected in his company's reputation for speed, efficiency, and economy.

In 1927 a $20-million Cuban road-building contract helped forge the expansion of Kaiser's firm. Four years later he joined with several other large contractors to build the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams; he also expanded into sand and gravel and cement production. When the United States entered World War II, he decided to apply his company's construction skills to shipbuilding. By 1945 the company had built 1,490 vessels, establishing new records for speed. During this period Kaiser built the first integrated steel plant on the West Coast, a factory which supplied material for his wartime manufacturing.

In 1944 Kaiser began looking forward to the postwar period. He predicted needs for housing, medical care, and transportation and began working to fill them. He expanded his cement and steel operations; began manufacturing aluminum, gypsum, and appliances and other household products; and built 10,000 houses. His most ambitious project, undertaken with Joseph W. Frazer, was the manufacture of automobiles, which Kaiser approached with his customary boldness and imagination. However, postwar and Korean War shortages, under-capitalization, and the disadvantages of being a new entrant in the automotive industry caused his company's failure. It sustained a $111,188,000 loss, although the Kaiser Jeep division survived.

One of Kaiser's proudest achievements of this period was his medical care plan, begun for employees in 1942 and made public in 1945. This became the largest privately sponsored health plan in the world.

In 1954 Kaiser began a new building project in Hawaii, after a visit there had revealed great opportunities for his undiminished desire to build. From that time on he left the day-to-day control of the rest of his enterprises to his son. Kaiser himself remained in the islands, supervising the construction of a hotel, hospitals, plants, housing developments, and a $350,000,000 "dream" city called Hawaii Kai. He died in Honolulu on Aug. 24, 1967, at the age of 85.

Further Reading

The Kaiser Story, published by Kaiser Industries Corporation in 1968, offers a fairly detailed, if nonanalytic, account of his career and the growth and development of his companies.

Additional Sources

Foster, Mark S., Henry J. Kaiser: builder in the modern American West, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Heiner, Albert P., Henry J. Kaiser, American empire builder: an insider's view, New York: P. Lang, 1989. □

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Kaiser, Henry

Kaiser, Henry, innovative American improvisational guitarist and keyboardist; b. Oakland, Calif., Sept. 19, 1952. He took up the guitar at 12, developing a unique and eclectic style that shows influences as varied as East Asian, classical North Indian, and Hawaiian music, free jazz and improvisation, and American steel-string guitar; he also draws freely from other abiding interests, which include information theory, experimental cinema and literature, mathematics, and scuba diving. He has performed extensively with such groups as Crazy-Backwards Alphabet, Invite the Spirit, The Henry Kaiser Band, The Obsequious Cheeselog, French-Frith-Kaiser-Thompson, and The Henry Kaiser Quartet. His list of collaborators is extensive; he also has assisted various composers and performers in their compositional and recording endeavors through his elaborate recording studio in Oakland, Calif. He is senior instructor in Underwater Scientific Research at the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley. Among his solo recordings or recordings in which he is a featured artist are Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It, Re-Marrying for Money, and Alternate Visions; he also produced an instructional video, Eclectric Electric, Exploring New Horizons of Guitar and Improvisation (1990).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire