Claude D. Watts Jr., a health care executive who was director of facilities services for the Kaiser Foundation Plan’s Mid-Atlantic States region, died July 12 of prostate cancer at the Gilchrist Center in Towson. The Reisterstown resident was 63.
“Claude was something else,” said Jacqueline M. Ennis, director of business management at Kaiser Permanente National Facilities in Hyattsville. “He was so good as a manager because of the depth of his experiences. I think the way he went about his job not being a commanding and controlling kind of person but one that made people feel comfortable and positive.”
Dr. Deborah L. Gould, retired assistant physician in chief at the Permanente Medical Group Inc., worked alongside Mr. Watts at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center in Oakland, California.
“Claude was an individual that people could connect with from the board room to the basement, from physicians to nurses, from staff to those who cleaned the building — he always took the time and had conversations with them,” said Dr. Gould, an Alameda, California, resident. “He was always supportive of them. He could bring people together, and when he walked the halls people knew who he was.”
Claude David Watts Jr., the son of Claude D. Watts Sr., a Baltimore County public schools maintenance worker, and his wife, Ethenia Watts, a nurse’s aide, was born in Baltimore and raised on Chelsea Terrace in Gwynn Oak.
After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1974, where he played varsity football and ran track, he began his college education at Howard University and later earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Towson University and received a master’s degree from the University of Maryland in health care administration.
He was a member of the Xi chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which he joined while a student at Howard.
Also while attending Howard, he met and fell in love with a fellow student, Vicki Janice Ballou, whom he married in 1985.
Mr. Watts was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army, serving from 1984 to 1988 as an infantry and airborne officer and also as a member of the Presidential Honor Guard, also known as the Old Guard, the Army’s official ceremonial unit.
He began working in 2005 for the Cambio Group, a Pikesville consulting firm that was later acquired by FTI Consulting, a health care management company, where he was responsible for turning around troubled hospitals in Memphis, Tennessee; Oakland; East Orange, New Jersey; and Baltimore.
In 2012, Mr. Watts was named chief operating officer for Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, and during his tenure as COO of the hospital Kaiser completed construction of a new multimillion-dollar hospital.
“When Claude came, there was a culture shift for the better, and he helped change that culture in providing care and that the patient came first. He’d say, ‘We’ll figure out the issues later.’ He was able to bridge gaps in a very collaborative way, and he brought that collaborative to problem solving,” Dr. Gould said.
“Prior to Claude’s coming, no other leadership was willing to bridge the gap and make things right for the people they were serving. He could argue the tough points. He brought people together and it was fun working with him. He helped grow us as leaders, and when he left, we really missed him.”
Mr. Watts returned to Baltimore in 2015 as director of facilities services for the Kaiser Foundation Plan for the Mid-Atlantic.
In his new position in Silver Spring, "he was in charge of more than 50 facilities from Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania,” said his wife, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts.
In her eulogy, Ms. Ennis recalls the first day Mr. Watts reported for work four years ago.
“I came up to greet him and there stood an impeccably dressed, perfectly coiffed professional. Cuff links on a monogrammed starched white shirt, that signature crease in his slacks, well-polished shoes and manicured nails,” wrote Ms. Ennis, a Stone Ridge, Virginia, resident.
“The real deal! But this was just the package! We also got the heart and soul of Claude as a leader, mentor and friend. He was accessible to building engineers, biomech techs, security personnel, day porters, managers and executives ... early career, midcareer and seasoned,” she wrote.
Ms. Ennis recalled in her eulogy that “as a leader, he put his people first and was their defender, protector, counselor and guide. He used his career experiences as lessons but gave staff room to grow, to be successful and to win. They all knew that there was room to try and succeed and try and fail. Claude was always there to cheer you on or protect you from the wolves.”
She wrote that to his leadership team colleagues, Mr. Watts was “a true partner, strategic, non-judgmental, and always available for advice and counsel, a good laugh, a scream, and, yes, an occasional tear of frustration.”
She noted that Mr. Watts was known for his collection of what she called “Claudisms”: “It is what it is,” “I’ll take the hit” and “It’s a failure to communicate.”
In a telephone interview, Ms. Ennis said Mr. Watts “let people try new things, and if they didn’t work out, Claude was there to catch and rescue you. He championed the people he worked with and never wanted the glory."
Mr. Watts, who had not retired, was in failing health when he traveled to Oakland for Dr. Gould’s retirement party.
“Even though he had health issues, he managed to make it to my retirement party,” Dr. Gould said. "I was very touched by that."
Mr. Watts enjoyed golfing at the Forest Park and traveling.
“One of his favorite trips was to Cuba in 2018,” Judge Ballou-Watts said.
He was a fan of Westerns and science fiction films and was a “great storyteller,” his wife said.
“He was a larger-than-life personality and was known for that,” Judge Ballou-Watts said.
Mr. Watts was a member of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, where a celebration of life service was held July 20.
In addition to his wife of 34 years, Mr. Watts is survived by two sons, Sean M. Watts of Reisterstown and Vincent A. Watts of Wheaton; a daughter, Claudia M. Watts of Washington; a brother, Kenny Watts of Baltimore; two sisters, Renee Coleman of Owings Mills and Deborah Watts of Pennsylvania; his father, Claude D. Watts Sr. of Baltimore; and many nieces and nephews.