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Why St. Paul philanthropist Helene Houle donated $60 million to Mayo Clinic: 'He firmly believed in Mayo'

The newest building on the Saint Marys campus will be renamed Nasseff Towers after her late husband.

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Helene Houle and the late John Nasseff. (Contributed photo)
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For several years, St. Paul philanthropist Helene Houle had Mayo Clinic on her mind while trying to pay tribute to her late husband, John Nasseff.

On March 15, Houle made a $60 million donation to Mayo Clinic that will be used to help “transform healthcare delivery in Minnesota,” according to the clinic.

Mayo Clinic spokesperson Kelley Luckstein said it has not yet been determined how the donation will be specifically used.

But as part of the donation, the new patient tower at Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus will be renamed the Nasseff Tower.

ALSO READ: 'It was nuts. It was exhilarating': How a punishing year transformed Mayo Clinic

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“I was married to a wonderful man,” Houle said. “That was a great incentive to have his name up on a world-renowned building, because he’s done so many wonderful things for so many good causes.”

Nasseff was a retired vice president and stakeholder at West Publishing, where he built a 50-year career and retired a multimillionaire at the age of 72. He spent his remaining years donating his wealth to numerous organizations throughout the state, including multiple donations to Mayo Clinic, before he died in 2018 at the age of 93.

The clinic has always held a special place in Houle’s and Nasseff’s lives, beginning in the 1960s when Nasseff’s youngest son, Arthur, developed a brain tumor at age 17.

“Oh my goodness, it was terribly stressful,” Houle said once they were given the diagnosis. “And so, (John) had some friends that were at West Publishing that knew somebody that knew somebody, and they got Arthur into Mayo. It was the best thing that ever happened.”

Arthur had surgery at Mayo Clinic from a “world-renowned surgeon” to remove the tumor. Internal bleeding the next day, however, required another surgery to save his life.

Dr. Burton Onofrio performed that procedure, and the next morning when John was able to visit Arthur, the scene was emotional.

“Dr. Onofrio was laying in the bed next to Arthur," Houle said. "John said to Dr. Onofrio, ‘Do you do this as a rule?’ And Dr. Onofrio said, ‘Arthur was my first patient, and I wasn’t going to lose him.'

“I’m able to cry when I think about it.”

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Arthur fully recovered from the surgery, and has lived a relatively healthy life alongside his wife, Susan, in St. Paul, Houle said.

That day sparked a lifelong relationship not only with Mayo Clinic, but also with Onofrio. Houle said her husband felt indebted to Onofrio for saving his son.

"He definitely would have just a tremendous dedication for what they did for a son, and he firmly believed in Mayo," Houle said.

The couple made several donations to Mayo over the years, but none mean as much to Houle as the most recent. She knew she wanted to make a donation to the clinic, but she wasn’t sure if an opportunity would arise until the recent tower of patient rooms was built at Saint Marys Hospital.

“I told my friends, ‘If I can do it, that would make me so happy to name the tower after John,’ ” she said.

The donation will be made over a five-year period. Houle said she’s "determined to meet my obligation, and I’m happy to do it. It’s really a joy in my life.”

She'll make her first visit to Nasseff Tower on May 1, her 81st birthday, with family members. The Nasseff Tower sign will be unveiled that day.

“I’m just emotional over the fact, you know? I just can’t wait to see it,” Houle said. “It’ll be nice, really nice.”

Related Topics: PEOPLEMAYO CLINICEXCLUSIVE
Erich is a digital content producer at the Post Bulletin where he creates content for the Post Bulletin's digital platforms. Before he moved to Rochester, Erich worked as a sports reporter for Rivals.com covering the University of Illinois' athletic programs in Champaign, Illinois. Readers can reach Erich at 507-285-7681 or efisher@postbulletin.com.
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