SALT LAKE CITY – Red flags immediately went up in Karen Huntsman’s mind when she saw her husband, Jon, pull into their driveway one day in 1993.
“It was noon. I had never seen my husband at the noon hour,” she recalled. “I knew something was wrong. I got in the car and with tears streaming down his face, he said ‘I want you to know that I have cancer.'”
She says she will never forget what her husband said immediately after delivering that life-changing news.
“He said, ‘Our affairs are in order. You will be OK and so will the children, but I don’t know how many years I will be blessed to live. But I want you to know, from this day forward, everything we do will be dedicated to eradicating cancer,'” she said.
Soon after that, Jon Huntsman Sr. drove his wife to a hillside behind what existed of the University of Utah’s campus at the time.
“We drove over and looked at this mountain and he described what he could see on this mountain,” Karen Huntsman recalled. “I couldn’t see it. You see, in order to see something you have to believe something so passionately in your heart. He believed it and he saw it. I soon after could see it, and it has been my privilege to stand by his side.”
The Huntsmans were relating this story Wednesday to several hundred people gathered to see the latest fruits of their efforts to defeat cancer: The Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute, a 225,000-square-foot facility dedicated to the studying of genetically traced cancers, particularly those known to afflict children.
The $173 million center, equipped with genetic sequencing imaging equipment and a biotechnology lab, officially opened Wednesday, about three years after construction started. It is expected to double the Huntsman Cancer Institute’s capacity for research, adding up to 800 faculty and staff to the 1,800 already working there.
“Cancer moves fast, and I am here to tell you that we will move faster,” Mary Beckerle, Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO, said to loud cheers.
A young donor
Jon Huntsman Sr. also thanked everyone responsible for the work being done at the center, including over 1 million donors to the Huntsman Cancer Foundation over the years. He took the time to recognize one individually: 11-year-old Andrew Van Wagoner.
Dressed in a white shirt and tie in the sizzling summer weather, Van Wagoner found himself speaking to leading researchers, prominent business moguls and religious figures on short notice after Huntsman called on him to say a few words.
But if Van Wagoner was overcome with nervousness, he didn’t show it.
“I’m just grateful that Mr. Huntsman can make this cancer institute and help save lives. I’m grateful that he put so much effort into it,” the Salt Lake City boy said steadily into the microphone, to applause.
Andrew, who told the KSL his close friend just recently beat leukemia, began volunteering for yard work and other projects around the neighborhood when he was 9 and used his earnings to donate to Huntsman Cancer Institute. He estimates he has raised at least $360 for the institute since that time.
Huntsman said he was touched by Andrew’s generosity.
“I said, ‘Andrew, how do you do it?’ He said, ‘I go door to door, I go to everybody I know. The bigger the house, the more I ask for,'” Huntsman said to laughs. “It’s children like Andrew and many others who … we will watch over and protect and pray over as we research and study this disease.”
More capacity for research
Beckerle is eager to share her vision for the future of cancer research at the facility, which will provide a large number of unique services, including medical counseling for individuals with genetic histories of cancer, genome mapping research and collecting intricate statistics on genetic codes.
“It used to be the case 50 years ago that when a child was diagnosed with cancer, parents were told take your child, give them love, shower them with affection, take them home and enjoy the small amount of time you have left together,” she said.
Today, 4 in 5 children diagnosed with cancer survive.
“But there’s still 20 percent for which we don’t have cures,” she said.
The new facility will bring with it 276 new research lab benches.
Cancer moves fast, and I am here to tell you that we will move faster.
Mary Beckerle, Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO
Multiple prominent researchers on hand at the center’s opening said they were only successfully recruited by the Huntsman Cancer Institute because of the promise of the kind of expanded depth and breadth of research that could be done on the newly expanded campus.
Huntsman also announced a new $120 million donation to the institute from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and Huntsman family.
Turning the page
Connected to the rest of the institute via a sky bridge on the sixth floor, the pristine building was the backdrop to an exultant atmosphere Wednesday, where the Huntsmans were joined by Gov. Gary Herbert, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, Bishop Oscar Solis of the Catholic Church’s Salt Lake Diocese as well as outgoing U. President David Pershing.
President Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also attended as did Elders M. Russell Ballard, Gary E. Stevenson and Ronald A Rasband of the Twelve.
President Uchtdorf, who offered the dedicatory prayer, included petitions to keep the cancer institute untangled from any political turmoil.
“May this magnificent center be a place of healing, of comfort, of dignity, of kindness, of caring for both the patient and their loved ones,” President Uchtdorf prayed. “May it be a place free of fear, free of bullying, free of political power play, a place free of unkind words or deeds. May it be an example of goodness kindness and generosity.”
Huntsman, who turned 80 Wednesday, was treated to two renditions of Happy Birthday by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The mood stood in contrast to the uncertainty and discord that hung over the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the U. a little more than two months ago.
At that time, Beckerle had just been fired from her top spot at the institute, sparking multiple protests on campus, and Huntsman was on an angry media blitz, calling for the ouster of Pershing and then-U. Medical School President Dr. Vivian Lee. The future financial relationship between Huntsman Cancer Foundation and the Huntsman Cancer Institute seemed uncertain.
Pershing reinstated Beckerle in the aftermath. Lee, who was also CEO of University of Utah Health and senior vice president for health sciences at the U., resigned.
Pershing also announced he was moving up the timeline of his resignation so that the next U. president could participate in the search for Lee’s replacement.
An investigation by the Deseret News found that, prior to Beckerle’s firing, there were strong disagreements between the U. and the institute over its role and degree of autonomy at the university — particularly the independence of its own funding as it related to the rest of the U.’s medical programs. At the time of Beckerle’s reinstatement, the university, institute and Huntsman Cancer Foundation agreed to negotiate a new memorandum of understanding. Those negotiations are still ongoing.
Beckerle on Wednesday spoke with the KSL in person for the first time since her firing.
“I received an email and was notified that my position was being terminated. At that time, I was bewildered, I was surprised. I didn’t expect that at all,” Beckerle said. “But honestly, the first thing that I thought of after it sunk in was — we’ve got to pull the team together, we’ve got to get everybody back together to focus on our patients and our families and our lifesaving work.”
Beckerle added that, “on a personal level,” she was “so incredibly touched by the tremendous outpouring of love and support” following her firing.
Asked about the status of the memorandum of understanding being negotiated, Beckerle said it may take “several months.”
May this magnificent center be a place of healing, of comfort, of dignity, of kindness, of caring for both the patient and their loved ones. May it be a place free of fear, free of bullying, free of political power play, a place free of unkind words or deeds. May it be an example of goodness kindness and generosity.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency
“This is obviously going to be a process that is going to unwind and progress over the next several months, but I’m very optimistic about the future,” Beckerle said. “I’ve had many conversations with my colleagues at the U., many conversations with the Huntsman family, with the president of the U. and with many of our patients and their families. And all of us are dedicated to the same thing: Eradicating cancer from the face of the Earth.”
“And we’re not going to let anything, politics or anything else, distract us from that sacred mission.”
She would not comment about Lee’s resignation.
Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and Huntsman Corp., echoed his father’s earlier comments to not let “egos” get in the way of research.
“Where do we go from here? Do our communications go between lawyers, legalities, contracts and commitments, leaks and egos, or do our communications go with hope and generosity and vision and commitment?” he said. “We stand at a crossroads here.”
Jon Huntsman Jr. also spoke, praising his parents for their ability to “see beyond the bend” when it came to curing cancer.
“No, my folks aren’t crazy. They’re just driven crazy by those who don’t get the bigger picture of a world without cancer,” he said.
Huntsman Jr., who is expected to be named an ambassador by the Trump administration, also joked that speaking with the diverse cancer institute stakeholders might be “good training for Russia.”