From the Midwest and the East Coast to northwestern Washington, Dr. Ken Gass has lived in many different regions throughout the country. Along the way, he learned the monumental significance of the relationship between parents and their children, a belief that became the foundation of his life’s work.
“My parents were very involved in their community, and they were my role models,” says Gass. “They were certainly a model for giving back to any community I lived in.”
For Gass, paying his privilege forward is one of the main tenets of his drive. “I had such a strong platform to develop from, and I was able to make use of all the advantages I was given,” Gass says. “I realize that’s not something everyone has — especially people who are marginalized in our country.”
Gass spent his early years in Nebraska before his family moved to Greencastle, Indiana, where he attended public school until ninth grade. From that point on to the end of his high school career, Gass went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for prep school.
“I went to school for the first 30-31 years of my life, between graduate school, medical school, and residency,” says Gass. “I realized smarts had something to do with the genes you were born with, but they had a lot more to do with the environment you were raised in, beginning in utero.”
After completing his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in Ohio, Gass chose the prestigious University of Chicago for medical school. “That’s how I connected with my wife Francie, who was a pediatric nurse at a children’s hospital in my final year,” Gass says. When selecting a location for his residency, they sought regions that included mountains and close proximity to water.
“I checked out Denver down to San Francisco, up to Boston, and then Seattle, and once you’ve been out to see the two mountain ranges, it’s pretty hard to turn down,” says Gass. “The University of Washington-Seattle Children’s Hospital program offered a real experience on primary care, and we were farmed out to community practices if we chose to be.”
After Gass’s residency in Seattle, he and Francie moved to Bellingham where Gass joined a small pediatric group. The couple made Bellingham their home, started a family, and have been here ever since, nurturing the community and creating opportunities for underprivileged families time and time again.
“When I first became a pediatrician, I was drawn to Planned Parenthood — I thought it was very important that children be planned or have parents as prepared as possible,” Gass says. “It’s crucial for a parent to be ready and supported. It wasn’t too long after connecting with the health officer up here that I joined Planned Parenthood’s Board of Directors.”
Healthy development of the family unit is a recurring theme in everything Gass has accomplished in his career and community outreach.
“It’s all about that understanding of the human potential and how it is impacted from your environment; how it isn’t just something you’re born with,” says Gass. “Many of your skills and how you make use of your genes are actually related to what you experienced in utero, after birth, and in your formative years. That was a big eye opener for me. I was nurtured at critical times in my life and not everyone has that benefit.”
After joining Planned Parenthood, Gass’s community involvement rapidly grew. He radiated encouragement, positive reinforcement, and care through his patients and the countless groups he and his wife have become a part of over the years.
“Francie and I have supported each other being active in the community — sometimes in the same group, sometimes in different groups,” says Gass. “Because of that experience with Planned Parenthood, I formed a Prolife/Pro-Choice group with Ron Pollander. We formed the Whatcom County Taskforce on Positive Teenage Sexuality and ran that for years, eventually winning a national award on creativity while trying to bridge a gap.”
From 1986 to 2014, Gass was on the Whatcom County Child Protective Team, and he co-founded the Young Teachers of Health International in 1987. In 1990, Gass founded the Whatcom County Commission of Children and Youth, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and was president of the board from 1990 to 1995. In 1997, Gass was named Chair for the Children’s Healthcare Taskforce of Whatcom County and also became a member of the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities Leadership Council, a group for which he eventually joined the board of directors in 2005. In 1998, he joined the Bellingham School Board and was board president in various years between 2002 and 2013. These are just a few highlights of his incredible career.
“In all these efforts, Bellingham is the right place to be to have the right people with so many different skills to collaborate and join in,” Gass says. “Because of people like that, you can have much more of an impact with great folks that share a vision for better opportunities in our community.”
Currently, Gass is involved with the Mount Baker Foundation, having served as a board member, committee chair on the Children and Families Committee, and president. “It started in 2017 and is a community foundation that was endowed by the sale of the Mount Baker Kidney Center,” says Gass. “When that was sold to a national company, the net was about $42 million and that endowed this private foundation that can’t give money directly to individuals but can give it directly to other nonprofits. It’s wonderful that I have the opportunity to be involved in contributing over $2 million of grants a year to Whatcom County organizations.”
With a full career and incredible dedication to community service, Gass was the perfect choice for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m honored and I have a lot of people I need to give credit to including, and especially, my life partner Francie who has made it possible for me to do more things while she kept a steady home. She was my partner in all things.”
Even though Gass is retired from his work as a pediatrician, his involvement in the community only continues to strengthen. Where his parents planted a seed, Ken Gass has grown a vast forest of love and support, becoming the role model he saw in them tenfold.