history

History & Legacy


Stephen B. Kahn founded the Arkay Foundation in 1996 as a memorial to his beloved second wife, Ruth Kahn (RK) who died of cancer. Originally started as a Foundation focused on supporting innovations in women’s health, it quickly grew to encompass Steve’s vision and passion for progressive social change in America. Shortly before his death in 2007 at the age of 96, Steve endowed the Foundation and passed on the vision and direction to continue its mission to fight for justice and innovative social change.

A true American original, Steve created himself, and his wealth, while carrying on the ideals of his mother - herself a devoted follower of Margaret Sanger and the progressive causes of her generation. He grew up on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side where he became an Eagle Scout, and a budding advertising executive. After the crash of 1929, he moved West where he attended the University of Oregon, obtaining degrees in both journalism and law.

Steve thrived during hard times as, among other things, a documentary film maker for the WPA. Among his most prized achievements was hiring Woody Guthrie to write a cycle of songs for the WPA’s Columbia River Dam project in Oregon. These songs, among them the famous “Roll On Columbia Roll On,” went on to become an indelible part of the American progressive lexicon and our historical folksong tradition. Steve fervently believed in the power of song as a means for social change and up until his death at age 96 he penned lyrics to promote a progressive vision for America.

From 1937 to 1949, Steve served as Communications Director for the Bonneville Power Administration. He created a Motion Picture Division and produced many films telling the story of how the BPA and its federal partners worked to bring power, irrigation, navigation and commerce to the Pacific Northwest. Steve remained committed to public power throughout his life. The films show the crucial role the BPA played in supporting the U.S. war effort by providing low-cost, abundant hydropower for building ships and planes. These films include Hydro, The Columbia: America's Greatest Power Stream, Highline, Power Builds Ships and Look to the River. These films can be seen here.

As World War II erupted, he was drafted and served on the front lines of the European theater where he survived as a stenographer because - as he liked to boast, - he was the only guy who could type 100 words a minute.

Steve created a fortune which, throughout the later part of his life, he devoted to supporting innovations in health and progressive causes. The Directors of the Arkay Foundation are informed by his wisdom and dedicated to carrying on his legacy in ways that meet today’s needs.