After her husband died last year, Karen Huntsman decided to clean out the cupboards and drawers of their home. And as she did, she found them filled with hundreds of little notes he had written to himself.
They were scrawled on torn pieces of lined yellow paper. A few were on parts of “a barf bag from an airplane,” Huntsman recalled with a laugh. Her favorite one, though, was on a calling card from London.
It said: “The sole purpose of the Huntsman Cancer Institute is to serve the patient.”
On Friday, nearly a year after losing her husband who founded the institute in 1995 and with that note in mind, Karen Huntsman announced that her family will donate $30 million in his honor to again expand the research center and hospital at the University of Utah. It is the first commitment since the Huntsmans said goodbye to their patriarch, Jon Huntsman Sr., in February 2018 — but Karen Huntsman promised it wouldn’t be the last.
She said she wants to continue “to see this hillside expand and grow” like her husband hoped it would. It was his proudest accomplishment.
The family’s donation will go toward a new center focused largely on women, specializing in treating breast, ovarian, cervical and uterine cancers. The addition, which the institute calls phase five, will include 50 more inpatient rooms. Currently, the center has 100.
“Our hospital beds are full,” said Mary Beckerle, CEO of the institute, who has been researching cells and cancer for decades. She then quoted the late Huntsman: “Cancer moves fast, and we need to move faster.”
The commitment from the Huntsman family changes recent plans for the center — first announced in September — doubling it from a four-story building to an eight-story building and adding a total of 200,000 square feet to the institute’s north end. It was initially projected to cost $80 million and is now tagged at $129 million.
The center has raised $40 million in other private donations. It plans to ask the Legislature for a $40 million bond. And it hopes to collect the remaining $19 million needed from more community contributions, which have already included investments from Spencer and Kristin Kirk in honor of Kathryn F. Kirk — whom the building will be named after — and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Humanitarian Aid Fund and doTERRA International.
“This is remarkable, transformative support,” U. President Ruth Watkins said at the announcement. “That unwavering commitment allows us to innovate in our research.”
Watkins and members of the Huntsman family, including three of Jon and Karen’s children — Peter Huntsman, Christena Huntsman Durham and Jennifer Huntsman Parkin — were surrounded by the institute’s clinicians and researchers, most wearing their white lab coats, and a handful of patients. The group cheered and clapped at the announcement.
Before Huntsman died, the university and the family clashed over the leadership of the institute. Beckerle was ousted from her position by former U. President David Pershing and later reinstated. Pershing stepped down. And Vivian Lee, the CEO of University of Utah Health Care who initially fired Beckerle, resigned from her post.
At the time, in April 2017, a $130 million donation from the family to the institute was tabled. But though the resolution concerned some, Jon Huntsman Sr. felt good about it: Beckerle was brought back, and the center gained more autonomy. They donated the money. And he continued to believe in the mission until he died.
“We feel very passionate about carrying on the legacy of my father,” said Peter Huntsman, CEO and chairman of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. “We’re not just here for the next year or two. We’re hopefully here for the next generation or two.”
Throughout his life, Jon Huntsman Sr. donated or committed to donating at least $580 million to the cancer institute. He battled cancer himself and was a four-time survivor. He had envisioned the new addition but didn’t see it to completion.
The space will increase the number of patients served per year from 125,000 to more than 180,000, according to the institute. The center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer treatment location in the Intermountain West, meaning the demand is high and comes from several neighboring states. Peter Huntsman said the family feels an obligation to provide care for any and all who need it.
Before the addition can be completed, the U.’s board of trustees and the Utah Legislature must approve the project. If it does, as anticipated, construction could begin in December 2019 with an opening slated for September 2022.
When her husband wanted to build the institute nearly 24 years ago, Karen Huntsman remembers looking at the hillside behind the University of Utah. It was covered in weeds and dirt. She thought: “How’s he going to do this?”
She believes he did it with love and hope and “all of those scattered little pieces of paper” that held his vision.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a son of Karen Huntsman and the late Jon Huntsman Sr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.