Benefactor Stories > Investing in Humanity: Russ and Kathy Van Cleve

Investing in Humanity: Russ and Kathy Van Cleve

By Karen Scherting

As business leaders, Russ and Kathy Van Cleve understand the importance of timing. As patients, they appreciate the Mayo Clinic Model of Care. As philanthropists, they want to do the greatest good for the most people.

While meeting with Mayo's leaders, they learned about an emerging priority area with the potential to move heart disease — the leading killer of men and women throughout the world — from "treatment" to "cure."

In 2014, they established the Van Cleve Cardiac Regenerative Medicine Program with the bold vision, as Russ describes, of Mayo Clinic becoming "the regenerative medicine center of the world."

Russ reflects: "As we reviewed the many charitable organizations we've supported over the years, we knew we were helping individuals and families. And then we began to ask, 'How do we have the greatest impact for the most number of people?' "

Exploring that question helped them focus on Mayo Clinic. "We heard Dr. Andre Terzic describe his vision for cardiac regeneration at several Mayo events," says Kathy, "and the more we learned, the more excited we became."

Harnessing the body's ability to heal itself

Cardiac regenerative medicine is an initiative whose premise is elegant in its simplicity and profound in its impact. "Our team is harnessing the body's ability to heal itself," says Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., the Michael S. and Mary Sue Shannon Family Director of Mayo Clinic's Center for Regenerative Biotherapeutics. "If you've had a paper cut on your finger or skinned your knee falling off a bicycle, you've experienced this self-healing phenomenon, initiated by the body's own ability to renew and keep our tissues and organs healthy. We're applying the same principle to cardiovascular diseases, the leading cause of death among men and women throughout the world."

Natural as well as engineered tools help restore damaged heart muscle.

"Mayo Clinic developed a state-of-the-art method to strengthen the ability of a person's own stem cells to repair heart muscle," explains Atta Behfar, M.D., Ph.D., who directs the Van Cleve Cardiac Regenerative Medicine Program. "As technology evolves, we see the potential to use noncardiac sources in regenerating cardiac tissue. These sources may include growth factors and other products produced by the body. Ultimately, we envision characterizing and manufacturing these products and services to individualize treatment for cardiac patients."

Support from the Van Cleves comes at "a critical time," says Dr. Terzic, who is also the Marriott Family Director of Comprehensive Cardiac Regenerative Medicine and the Marriott Family Professor of Cardiovascular Research. "We are building upon a momentum of success as we work toward changing the medical horizon from 'treatment' to 'cure.' "

The timing was right for the Van Cleves as well. As entrepreneurs and business leaders, they understand how to grow an enterprise from concept to reality. Coming from families that valued a strong work ethic, Russ began his career in banking and Kathy started hers in investment real estate. Together, they established a successful private homebuilding and land development company in Newport Beach, California.

"Russ and Kathy Van Cleve are formidable benefactors who co-create with us," says John H. Noseworthy, M.D., president and CEO emeritus of Mayo Clinic. "In our culture of teamwork, we often talk about collaboration among physicians, educators and researchers in different specialties. We know from data and experience that this model produces outstanding results. Equally important is the teamwork between benefactors and Mayo Clinic. With their expertise and passion, friends like the Van Cleves collaborate with us. Together, we can achieve remarkable outcomes."

As discussions moved forward with the cardiac regenerative team, Russ and Kathy reviewed the program's business plan. Their goal was a plan whose business discipline matched its scientific vision.

"The Van Cleves asked tough questions — the right questions," says Michael Camilleri, M.D., Executive Dean for Development and the Atherton and Winifred W. Bean Professor, describing a back-and-forth dialogue that spanned several months. "Mayo colleagues dug deep and produced the answers. Throughout the process, all parties were committed to developing the best product."

Russ notes: "We're delighted with the outcome. Mayo has been highly communicative. It's a pleasure to meet and know the staff, tour the labs, and learn about the milestones that have been achieved and those that are to come."

Gratitude inspires generosity

The Van Cleves are invested in Mayo Clinic as philanthropists, but they are equally dedicated as patients.

In 2006, Russ — always healthy and vigorous — began to experience troubling symptoms that no one could diagnose.

"The chief of staff at our local hospital said we should go to a teaching hospital," he recalls.

Kathy, drawing upon her Minnesota roots, knew about Mayo Clinic. Decades earlier, her father taught Dale Carnegie leadership classes at the nearby Kahler Hotel.

Russ was examined by gastroenterologist Kenneth K. Wang, M.D., and colleagues. The diagnosis was cancer of the esophagus, Russ recalls, "But Mayo caught it early, so they could offer a new treatment."

Dr. Wang notes, "Russ was one of our earlier patients to undergo endoscopic resection, which preserves the esophagus and maintains the patient's quality of life."

Since then, the procedure has become the standard of care for patients with this condition. Russ and Kathy continue to have their medical care at Mayo Clinic.

"We have referred many friends to Mayo, and they come back in awe," says Kathy. "Mayo Clinic provides top-quality care that is highly coordinated, delivered in a culture of kindness."

Their appreciation for Dr. Wang led the Van Cleves to establish a named professorship as well as the Russ and Kathy Van Cleve Endowed Fund in Gastroenterology Research Honoring Kenneth K. Wang, M.D.

By expressing gratitude to Dr. Wang and supporting cardiac regenerative medicine, Russ and Kathy focus on the present and envision the future.

"A lot of people think about making charitable gifts in their wills," says Russ. "That's good, and we'll do it too. However, I would also encourage anyone who has a heart for helping others to start now, whatever the amount may be. Don't miss the excitement of joining a great cause while you can enjoy it."

Russ and Kathy are not afraid to dream big.

"We see Mayo Clinic becoming the regenerative medicine center of the world," says Russ. Kathy agrees: "We get so much joy watching our giving help other people."