SALT LAKE CITY — Hardly a month goes by, Jon Huntsman says, a satisfied smile spreading across his face, that somebody doesn’t try to spirit away one of the most valuable, irreplaceable assets at his cancer-fighting institute in Salt Lake City. Universities, other medical centers, think tanks here and abroad. They all want what Huntsman has.
Dr. Mary Beckerle. The woman in charge.
They look at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, about to become the world’s largest cancer center when construction of the massive childhood and family research addition is finished. They look at its impressive breakthroughs in cancer gene discovery. They look at its 99 percent patient satisfaction scores, the highest in the country. They especially look at the uncommon cohesion between upwards of 1,500 scientists, researchers, visiting investigators, physicians and staff coexisting under the same roof. All those enormous IQs, all those tremendous egos, all those rival interests, all getting along.
Then they look at the leader, Beckerle, the head coach as it were, who has been the institute’s CEO and executive director since 2006 and shows no signs of leaving — or wanting to leave.
Hence the reason for Jon Huntsman’s smile.
“We are so lucky to have her and to be able to keep her,” says the billionaire businessman-turned-philanthropist. “I’ve been on the boards of six or seven of America’s largest companies, and I can tell you I’ve never seen a CEO who has bestowed the self-confidence and the will to do better on an entire organization like Dr. Beckerle has here. She is one of the preeminent leaders and motivators in America today.”
Running a cancer institute has been compared to running a small country — one that’s in the middle of a war. There’s the huge payroll, the hospital, the research labs, the university and state government to coordinate with, as well as the National Cancer Institute. There are grants to write, clinical trials to perform, donors to court, all-star scientists to keep happy, all while mounting a running battle with the most insidious disease known to mankind. And yet, for the better part of a decade Beckerle has quietly and efficiently steered the Huntsman Cancer Institute, recognized as one of the nation’s most distinguished cancer centers, past all the rocks while its reputation builds as a leader in, if not yet curing cancer, isolating and identifying cancer-causing genes and aiding mightily in cancer prevention.
One big key to Beckerle’s success, in the view of colleague Barbara Graves, is her management-by-inclusion style. Graves, senior scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., formerly worked full-time at Huntsman and still runs a lab there. In the past, she has been on Huntsman’s leadership boards and closely observed Beckerle’s leadership touch.
“I’ve served on review councils for a number of other cancer centers,” says Graves. “Usually it’s a team of two or three people and they might meet every so often. But at Huntsman, Mary built a very diverse leadership team with eight people or more and we would meet every week to ensure that the many different parts of the program were represented at the highest level — and understand, at a cancer center there are many, many parts to consider. It takes a special person to put it out there and see where the parts of the puzzle fit together and have every part feel appreciated and listened to even when they all know they can’t necessarily get everything they want.”
Graves also had a ringside seat when Beckerle first came to the University of Utah, because both women arrived about the same time as new faculty recruits in the mid-1980s. “I saw very early on that she was an effective communicator and good bridge-builder,” she says. “Universities are full of lots of diverse people and opinions, and you have to navigate that carefully. Mary’s always been very good at recognizing people’s strengths and bringing them together to realize we’re all on the same ship.”
It was fall 1986 when the U. brought Beckerle aboard as an assistant professor in biology. Those were heady times for scientists and researchers at the University of Utah.
A young biophysicist and future Nobel Prize winner named Mario Capecchi was on the faculty, and played a major role in bringing Beckerle to Utah. Surgeons William Devries and Robert Jarvik had recently introduced the Jarvik 7 artificial heart. Geneticists Ray White, Randall Burt and Mark Skolnick and others were at work unlocking the genome map.
The atmosphere was: Shoot for the moon, you just might hit it. “They were good times and I think people did come here thinking it was an open field where they could test themselves and prove things and develop their own ideas,” says Chase Peterson, the university’s president during the ’80s. “Utah couldn’t offer the most money, but we could offer openness and freedom. That was a wonderful situation for so many scientists.”
They gave Beckerle a lab coat, a lab to work in and a handful of 300-student beginning biology classes to teach. She thrived. So much so that it wasn’t long before the Johns Hopkins University Medical School came calling, promising that she could not only teach and have a lab, but also lead an entire department if she’d come to Baltimore.
It was a flattering offer, but as Beckerle seriously considered the move, the Johns Hopkins recruiters made a fatal mistake — calling Dr. Ray White at the U. of U. Medical Center for a reference. White hardly knew Beckerle but decided they better get acquainted. When they met and White quickly sized up what the U. would be losing, he turned recruiter himself. Buoyed by a sizable donation from billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, he informed the young professor that the university was in the midst of building a cancer institute at the medical school. She could use her background in cellular biology, continue her cancer research, contribute to building the new institute, and not have to leave Utah at all.
When the Huntsman Cancer Institute opened its doors in September 1999, Beckerle was among the first scientists to move into the building.
She led a program specializing in cancer cell biology until 2003, when they added to her duties the title of deputy director to Dr. Stephen Prescott, the executive director. When Prescott stepped down in 2005, the university and cancer institute mounted a nationwide search for a successor. Beckerle’s name was one of many on the list.
“We spent a year looking across the country,” remembers Dr. Lorris Betz, the senior vice president for health sciences at the U., who led the search team. “At the end of the day she seemed like she had it all. Not everybody who is a terrific scientist is naturally going to be a terrific administrator, but Mary quite amazingly does both very, very well. The strong reason for appointing her as director was the collaborative spirit that she brings to her leadership.”
So where does this leadership know-how, this spirit of collaboration, this ability to inspire confidence and the will to do better, come from?
For an answer to that, the search might well end where it starts, in River Edge, N.J., where Mary grew up and where her mom, Mickey, still resides.
Mary, or Mary Catherine as her mother still calls her, is the oldest of three daughters born to Martin and Mickey Beckerle. Barbara, or Bobby, came along two years after Mary, and Jeanne arrived two years after that. The tight-knit family’s world was rocked when Martin, who worked for the New York Telephone Co. across the river in Manhattan, suddenly died of emphysema. He was 36 and never smoked a day in his life. The girls were 12, 10 and 8.
Families have imploded for far less. But Mickey Beckerle would not have it. A devout Catholic, now left alone to run the family, she clung to her faith and her work ethic. Using her training as an RN, she went to work full-time as a nurse at the high school and as the girls got older and college loomed nearer she took on a second job, working the 3-to-11 shift at a nursing home.
“My mom could do what seemed impossible,” says Mary. “Raise a family of three kids by herself, hold down a full-time job, then hold down another full-time job, and take care of us all. She had a very, very powerful influence on me.”
The clear message was that everything was possible, and no one got a free ride. All the girls worked their way through school. Besides being a Girl Scout and participating every summer on the local swim team, Mary found jobs in a bakery, in a library, at a Howard Johnson restaurant and as a lifeguard.
But school, above all, was priority one. Says Mary: “Mom always gave us this message of how important it was to focus on education, learn all we could, and have a career. If she hadn’t been able to work, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Mickey Beckerle, still driving her own car and as self-sufficient as ever in her mid-80s, looks back on her raising-the-family years with a certain amount of incredulity. She is equally proud of all her girls and their accomplishments — Bobby is a first-grade teacher and Jeanne is a surgical nurse. “But I don’t quite know how I did it,” she says. “I honestly don’t other than I prayed a lot and did the very best I could do and that’s all you can ask. I have very high expectations of myself and I think I probably put those on the girls. I wanted them to be good people and they rose to the occasion.”
Any trouble from the teenage girls? Nothing significant she can remember.
“I could count on one hand the incidents with all three of them. The middle one, Bobby, was the perfect child, never did anything wrong, never got in trouble. Mary Catherine and Jeanne every once in a while, but not often because I had a ‘no’ look and the girls knew it. They still talk about my ‘no’ look. As the oldest, Mary Catherine did like to be in charge.”
To illustrate that point, Bobby, who teaches first grade in Connecticut, likes to pull out a snapshot that was taken at a birthday party when she was a little girl. The photo shows a big-eyed Bobby wearing a bewildered look as she stares at her presents while Mary Catherine is opening them.
But that was then and this is now. A grownup Bobby gushes as she talks about her older sister: “She’s a born leader, very bright and talented, and she’s the most modest person despite her incredible accomplishments. .
"And to think we shared a bathroom!”
Adds Mickey: “We’re all in awe of what she’s achieved. She always excelled and it came easier academically for her, but she is the very same person we always knew. She’s never blown her own horn. Some people are very brainy but they act it. I don’t think she does at all.”
Getting from New Jersey to Salt Lake City was not a straight line. Thanks to a generous academic scholarship, Mary first went north to Wells College, a small, private all-women’s (at the time) school in upstate New York. Clutching her bachelor’s diploma four years later and conflicted about whether she wanted to specialize in science or medicine, she delayed deciding between grad school or medical school and got in her VW Bug and drove south to Dallas, where she spent a year doing cellular biology research at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Science won. From Dallas she enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she obtained her Ph.D. in molecular biology. Then it was back across the country for post-doctorate studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where, while playing volleyball, she met David Murrell. They would marry after she had crossed the country yet again and settled into her first professional job at the University of Utah.
David and Mary are the parents of a son, also named David, a graduate of Salt Lake’s West High School and currently a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, of whom Mary says, “he is cherished and my greatest joy in life.” Her husband runs a successful export business in Salt Lake City.
At 59, Beckerle looks at her career and mentally knocks on wood. “I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am,” she says. “I love the west. It’s not just open spaces physically, but people have open minds. There’s a collaboration and a team spirit and a willingness to take risks. Those are the hallmarks at HCI.”
In the war against cancer, she is both a soldier and an officer.
“Here’s the thing,” she explains. “I am a scientist. I’m trying to control Ewing sarcoma, a children’s bone cancer, with a team of people. That’s incredibly exciting for me personally, at a time when we’re positioned to make more progress than has ever been possible. So that’s one job. I could never give that up. The other job is working with the team at HCI to chart the most effective course for the institute. I feel like the very fortunate conductor of a world-class orchestra. My role is to help them sound their best together, tap into their core desire to do something different and make something special.”
The thought prompts her to think of the way Mickey Beckerle raised her daughters.
“She made us feel like we could do anything and she expected us to do something really great,” she muses. “That’s exactly the way I feel about people here. I have the same expectation for them.”
* * *
It’s all music to Jon Huntsman’s ears. Ever since 1993, when he donated his first $10 million — it’s now more than $300 million — to start a cancer institute in partnership with the University of Utah, he’s learned over and over again that the fight against cancer requires not only the sharpest and the brightest minds — but someone with a deft hand to hold them all together.
“Someone once told me that the most difficult group to lead is one where you’re one of the same,” he says. “Your own peer group is always the hardest to truly manage. Mary is dealing with her own peer group — a group of highly educated, remarkably outstanding professionals — and she manages them with such tremendous class and leadership. I don’t get any complaints. I just don’t get any. She ought to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“I know what my job is,” he grins. “Keep slipping the checks under the door.”
And hope the leader on the other side keeps picking them up.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company