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80 years: Austin's Hormel Institute has focused on community and cancer research

Intitute's mission started with food research and has transform into an innovator in cancer research.

 Hormel Institute Anniversary Celebration
Debbie Retterath, the 2017 Paint the Town Pink Ambassador, speaks during the 80th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, June 24, 2022, at The Hormel Institute - University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center in Austin, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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Austin — As an Adams native, Debbie Retterath said she and family members drove by the Hormel Institute countless times without knowing how it would touch her life.

“This is truly Mower County’s best kept secret,” she said of the research facility at 801 16th Ave. NE in Austin, which is known for innovative cancer research.

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As a cancer survivor, she now seeks to raise awareness of what happens at the institute as she also raises funds for its work.

Austin Mayor Steve King said Retterath was not alone in not knowing groundbreaking cancer research has been happening for decades in Austin.

 Hormel Institute Anniversary Celebration
Austin Mayor Steve King delivers remarks during the 80th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, June 24, 2022, at The Hormel Institute - University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center in Austin, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“This has an impact around the world. … I think folks are walking this earth today that have no idea (of how the institute has touched them),” he said. “These are cancer survivors who have had treatments that are successful. They have no clue of what is going on here.”

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The Hormel Institute is marking its 80 anniversary, and a celebration attended by nearly 250 dignitaries and supporters Friday afternoon highlighted the growing awareness and support in the local community, as well as the research community.

Hormel Foods CEO Jim Snee said when he arrived in Austin in 1992 the institute’s function was somewhat of a mystery.

 Hormel Institute Anniversary Celebration
Jim Snee, CEO, President and Chairman of the Board, Hormel Foods speaks during the 80th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, June 24, 2022, at The Hormel Institute - University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“Everyone knew what it was, but no one knew what it did,” he said.

The Hormel Foundation receives dividends from Hormel Foods, which the foundation later contributes to community organizations, with the largest percentage supporting the Hormel Institute’s research.

Snee said awareness of the institute’s mission grew with its expansions in 2008 and 2016, which increased the number of labs in the facility to 42 and helped fuel its continued research collaborations within the University of Minnesota system, with Mayo Clinic and with a variety of other partners.

“From its first home in the horse stables of the Hormel family, our 80-year shared history has been critical in advancing cancer research, especially in its origins and evolutions,” said Kathleen Schmidlkofer, president and CEO of the University of Minnesota Foundation.

Snee said Jay C. Hormel, son of Hormel Foods founder George Hormel, started the single lab on the Hormel estate in an effort to benefit food safety and preservation research. That eventually grew into other medical research as a way of helping others.

“Back in 1940, as a 48-year-old, Jay Hormel said ‘Business does not exist apart from humanity. Business is not just a vehicle for just getting. Business is also a vehicle for giving,’” Snee said.

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 Hormel Institute Anniversary Celebration
Ambassadors from Paint the Town Pink present a check to Dr. Robert Clarke, Executive Director of The Hormel Institute during the 80th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, June 24, 2022, at The Hormel Institute - University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Robert Clarke, executive director of the Hormel Institute, said the research effort has grown, along with community support. The institute’s community connections were highlighted throughout Friday’s event.

From starting with a performance by the Austin High School marching band to ending with a celebration of all who have been involved in helping fund and raise awareness of the research, the event saluted the community as much as it did the institute’s eight decades.

“Everybody in this community helps everybody out,” said Jeremy Olson of the Paint the Town Pink campaign.

Clarke said the work is not done, but he thinks there is a potential transition in sight with continued support.

“We’re on a continued trajectory of progress,” he said, later adding he expects to see a cure for cancer in the next 80 years, which could transform the institute's mission before it celebrates its 160th year.

“We’ll be doing something else,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be, but it will be here. It will be world class, and it will still be changing people’s lives.”

 Hormel Institute Anniversary Celebration
Dr. Robert Clarke delivers closing remarks during the 80th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, June 24, 2022, at The Hormel Institute - University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center in Austin, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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