Hands-On Giving

By Cheryl SooHoo

Humanitarian Ann Lurie touches lives through active philanthropy

The central police station in Nairobi can be chaotic and intimidating. It is a place philanthropist Ann Lurie has seen and one that she would like an American physician volunteering at her African-based AID Village Clinics to avoid. “The doctor’s passport was stolen,” explains Lurie to a recent visitor to her Chicago office. “I’ve spent all morning working my connections to see if we can replace it without her going to the police station. I really don’t want her to have to go there.”

Ann Lurie (2nd from left) helps “break ground” for the new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago that is due to be completed in summer 2012.

Welcome to Ann Lurie’s world where her desire to help often goes beyond providing generous gifts for important causes. Touching, experiencing, and doing have always been part of her philanthropic support. Her $100 million commitment to the building of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, for example, has brought her to the construction site numerous times to see the progress. On a first-name basis with the building’s construction supervisor, a fit and energetic Lurie has inspired “Bubba” to adopt some elements of her vegetarian lifestyle. He has lost 20 pounds as a result.

“I frequently find myself developing interesting relationships with people through my work,” she shares. “My philanthropy is somewhat selfish. I do get pleasure from it, in part, because of a hands-on approach.”

Lurie’s willingness to be an active participant in her philanthropy is evident, for example, in her work in Kenya. She travels to Africa about six times a year to oversee the health clinics she created from scratch. During her most recent trip in August, while supervising building contractors working on new clinic space, she helped hang paper towel holders and sharps containers. She also made sure that workers correctly installed shelves by using the appropriate tools—some that she brought with her. Remarks Lurie, “Surprisingly, some of the local Maasai builders don’t have leveling tools.”

Leadership Matters

Ms. Lurie, once a pediatric nurse at Children’s Memorial Hospital, has been personally and passionately involved in bringing modern health care to remote areas of Africa.

Entrepreneurial and personal about targeting causes, an upbeat Lurie, who lost her husband Bob to cancer, always seeks to transform. She learns about issues from the ground up and searches for efficient ways to solve problems by supporting the “top of the pyramid” if possible. “When Bob and I created our foundation, we had some criteria in place,” she explains. “We wanted to add value through donation to established charities or organizations with good infrastructure and strong leadership so that they could attain the next level of maturity and expand their resources to reach a wider number of people in need.”

Lurie has clearly applied this method to advancing the medical school’s missions by endowing the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University, providing the lead funding for the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center at Northwestern University (including a $25 million commitment in 2008 for the Lurie II Research Tower), and funding two named professorships at the school, to name a few.

An early recipient of the Lurie Foundation’s generosity—totaling more than $95 million in commitments to Northwestern since the early ’90s—the Lurie Cancer Center has become a world leader. In 1998, the National Cancer Institute awarded the Lurie Cancer Center the highly competitive “comprehensive” designation—reflecting the center’s dedication to the highest standards of cancer research, patient care, education, and community outreach. Today, the center and its members generate in excess of $150 million in extramural funding with approximately $40 million of these awards coming from the National Cancer Institute.

"Ann's generosity and commitment transformed our institution,” says Steven T. Rosen, MD ’76, GME ’81, director of the Lurie Cancer Center and Genevieve E. Teuton Professor of Medicine at the medical school. “She is thoughtful, compassionate, and altruistic. Few have her energy, understanding of complex organizational structures, and sincere desire to help humanity."

While very evident at Northwestern in bricks and mortar as well as in spirit, the leadership of the Lurie Foundation has not gone unnoticed. Recognizing Lurie’s important role in transforming health and medical research, public education and advocacy group Research!America awarded her its prestigious 2010 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Award for Sustained National Leadership in March. The previous year, she received the 2009 Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Award for Humanitarian Contributions to the Health of Humankind by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

“Ann is one of the nation’s most influential philanthropists. Her influence comes in many forms. She leads by example, illustrating how small steps can change the world. She uses her philanthropy to engage others in important endeavors and to leverage her own influence,” remarks J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, vice president for medical affairs and Lewis Landsberg Dean at Northwestern. “She communicates in a powerful and poignant manner, bringing passion and reason to important issues. Ann is deeply committed to Chicago, Northwestern, cancer research, the health of children, support for abandoned animals, and myriad other topics. The world is a much better place because of Ann Lurie.”

Leaps and Bounds

Ann Lurie helps Dr. Steven Rosen, director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern, kick off the 2007 Cancer Survivors’ Celebration & Walk.

In 1990, six children lost their father, Bob Lurie, to cancer. Fittingly, their names grace the title of one of two Lurie-endowed professorships that fuel innovative translational cancer research. Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, inaugural holder of the Jesse, Sara, Andrew, Abigail, Benjamin, and Elizabeth Lurie Professor of Oncology at the Cancer Center, can personally attest to the transformative power of Lurie’s philanthropy.

Former chief of hematology/oncology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Platanias had long focused his research on identifying abnormalities in key signaling pathways of cancer cells. The goal? To develop novel molecular therapies targeting these pathways in leukemia patients. When Dr. Platanias arrived at Northwestern in 2002, the Lurie-endowed professorship gave him the additional boost he needed to unleash the potential of his research more quickly. It allowed him to expand the size of his research group to pursue further innovative approaches to curbing cancer cell growth in myeloid leukemia and also opened up new recent studies in kidney cancer.

“The support the Cancer Center receives from benefactors like Ann Lurie has substantially brought my research to the next level,” says Dr. Platanias, Cancer Center deputy director. “While we all try to think out of the box, this endowed professorship has made it possible for me to pursue even more ambitious yet very important research with the potential for clinical translation.”

Charles V. Clevenger, MD ’87, PhD, couldn’t agree more about the leaps and bounds he has made in his breast cancer research due to Lurie’s support. This professor of pathology has held the Lurie-funded Diana, Princess of Wales Professorship in Cancer Research for the past five years. In that time, he has quickly expanded upon his initial basic science discoveries—made while on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania—that focus on the role of peptidyl-prolylisomeras inhibitors in fighting metastatic breast cancer. After achieving promising results in a mouse model developed at Northwestern, Dr. Clevenger and his associates opened up a phase I clinical trial. He remarks, “Definitely that’s some measure of progress and a significant accomplishment that would not have happened without the endowed chair.”

For the past 20 or more years, Ann Lurie has generously supported organizations that help people in myriad ways, from providing basic nutritional needs through the Greater Chicago Food Depository to beautifying Chicago via the city’s Millennium Park Lurie Garden. Sharing her home with a Goldendoodle named Sophie, the philanthropist also helps improve the lot of other living creatures. She funded the PAWS Chicago Lurie Family Spay/Neuter Clinic to stop the unnecessary euthanasia of homeless dogs and cats in Chicago shelters. Since the free clinic opened in 2001, PAWS Chicago, a no-kill humane organization, estimates that the euthanasia of shelter animals in the area has been reduced by 60 percent.

“More than 40,000 homeless dogs and cats a year were being euthanized in Chicago when PAWS Chicago was founded,” says Lurie. “The solution was to either adopt out as many animals as possible or get to the root of the problem and prevent unwanted litters. I thought the latter was a good idea.”

Lurie believes her late husband, Bob, would be proud of the work of their foundation and what it has accomplished. Even though he might not have selected a spay/neuter clinic as a top priority, she thinks Bob—the consummate problem solver—would have appreciated the positive impact it has made. Says Lurie, “I think he would have liked the solution to the problem.”