SIU receives $10.2 million donation from lawyer

Saturday, November 5, 2005

The money will fund research and treatment at the university's Cancer Institute.

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A lawyer whose firm made millions of dollars in product-liability cases, many involving cancer-causing asbestos, on Friday pledged $10.2 million to Southern Illinois University's Cancer Institute, making the gift the largest in the 136-year-old school's history.

John Simmons said his contribution through his family and his East Alton, Ill-based SimmonsCooper LLC firm will fund research and state-of-the-art treatment at what will be the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute in Springfield, Ill. It will benefit downstate Illinois patients who often must trek to St. Louis or Chicago for treatment.

"We felt that we led the legal charge and now we want to help find the cure," Simmons, a member of the university's Board of Trustees, said during a news conference Friday with SIU officials. "We felt this is the best way to do this."

Since SIU's board signed off on plans for the institute in 2000 and the Illinois Legislature approved $14.5 million for design, land acquisition and construction two years later, the university has recruited faculty and begun research.

But that site's staff -- now numbering 50 and expected to double in two years -- has been dispersed among various Springfield buildings. The university expects to seek bids for the institute's new headquarters in January, launch construction next spring and perhaps have the $20 million project finished by mid-2007, said Walter Wendell, the university's chancellor.

Simmons' pledge "provides what patients and their families want most -- and what doctors want to give -- and that is hope," said Dr. J. Kevin Dorsey, dean and provost of the university's medical school.

Simmons presented the university Friday with about 10 percent of the $10.2 million pledge; the lawyer and university didn't specify the exact amount. Hours earlier, Simmons told The Associated Press that he and his wife would donate an additional $4 million over the next five years, with his law firm covering the remainder of the pledge "over a period of years."

"I think that's a little flexible," he said of the payout's duration.

Simmons said his wife's grandmother was 42 when she died of breast cancer in the early 1960s, and "it was just some kind of the hole that was left in the family -- the matriarch missing all these years."

Absent from Friday's news conference was James Walker, the university system's president, now on medical leave as he battles cancer. Walker announced in June that he planned to retire next year after six years in the post.

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