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Message: James L. Sorenson dies at 86
By Joe Bauman and Brice Wallace
Deseret Morning News
Published: January 21, 2008
James LeVoy Sorenson, whose success as entrepreneur, real estate magnate and inventor of numerous medical devices made him Utah's richest man, died Sunday at a Salt Lake City hospital.
Besides his wealth and business acumen, Mr. Sorenson was renowned as a philanthropist.
Mr. Sorenson, whose wealth was estimated to be $4.5 billion last year by Forbes magazine, was 86 years old. He was listed as the 68th-richest American in September 2007.
He was the owner of Sorenson Cos., a parent company to 32 corporations in industries including medicine, bioscience, investment/development and manufacturing.
Mr. Sorenson held more than 40 medical patents in his lifetime and is perhaps best known for co-developing the first real-time computerized heart monitor. He also invented the disposable paper surgical mask, the plastic venous catheter and a blood recycling system for trauma and surgical procedures, as well as many other medical innovations.
"I think success in his mind was someone that had ideas, that had a strong work ethic and a tenacity," son James Lee Sorenson told the Deseret Morning News. "As you look at examples in the world today, those are important attributes. I think Dad was a calculated risk-taker, and successful people generally are. Successful people are generally in it for the long haul. With Dad, unlike many, he started with nothing or less than nothing and built it from the ground floor."
The younger Sorenson said his father's legacy will be as "a great American inventor, a man with a tremendous amount of innovation."
"He was one that had great tenacity in the face of conventional wisdom and common practice and stuck to his ideas and persevered and succeeded. He's been looked at as a visionary man, but I would say there was a real practical side of him, where he was able to make those visions come true by never giving up and methodically working at them and succeeding. So, from a business perspective, he was one of those very uncommon, interesting entrepreneurs who thought outside of the box and tenaciously went after what he thought was right."
Among his philanthropic endeavors is Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which is creating a worldwide, correlated genetic and genealogical database used in ancestry research. His donations have helped a Washington, D.C., university for the deaf and hearing-impaired and assisted in establishment of an outdoor performing arts pavilion in Herriman. He gave more than $30 million for restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' temple in Nauvoo, Ill.
After the tsunami of 2004 hit Thailand, he donated DNA testing kits to assist in identifying the dead, and Sorenson Genomics — one of his companies — analyzed their DNA, matching some victims with their relatives. The kits and analysis were valued at $1.5 million.
He donated land and money to help build the Sorenson Unity Center at California Avenue and 900 West, next door to the Sorenson Multicultural Center. The YMCA's Camp Rogers in the Uinta Mountains also benefited from his generosity.
He and James Lee Sorenson reached out to help Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.; together they donated $5 million to the country's largest university for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
In April 2007, he gave $6 million to the new Intermountain Medical Center, raising his contributions to Intermountain Healthcare to $22 million. He pledged $500,000 during a fundraiser for Primary Children's Medical Center in June 2007. In September 2007, the nonprofit Sorenson Legacy Foundation donated $6 million to the University of Utah, toward the James LeVoy Sorenson Center, which will be dedicated to encouraging innovation and discovery among students across Utah.
A crisis concerning the Legislature's refusal to fund some items in the state Medicaid program was averted in 2006 when Mr. Sorenson and Intermountain Healthcare donated $1 million each. The next year, the Legislature picked up the tab.
"He was interested in philanthropy and helping people — a lot of people," James Lee Sorenson said. "It was a variety of different things, and they were not necessarily things that were calculated. As he saw needs and was moved a certain direction, then he would help them in any way he could, sometimes with ideas as well as money, and with things that we probably aren't all aware of.
"He had a great love for people and a great altruistic desire for peace, particularly in the latter part of his life. The whole DNA project and his foundation and the money that's been spent there was really motivated by helping people to see how they're related, and, through that, gain a greater sense of belonging or kinship and get people thinking a little bit more about each other."
Miles White, chief executive officer of Abbott Laboratories, has characterized Mr. Sorenson as "an American original who spent his legendary career developing innovations that have greatly enhanced the quality of health care, and improved and saved lives."
"Jim Sorenson is one of the world's most prolific and productive pioneers of medical devices," White said. "His inventions had a monumental impact, and they've stood the test of time. Look in any modern operating room or intensive care unit, and you'll see enduring evidence of Jim's creative solutions to tough medical problems."
Mr. Sorenson is also known for a gift he took back in the summer of 1989.
Then-U. President Chase Peterson persuaded Mr. Sorenson to donate $15 million of Abbott Laboratories stock to the U.'s School of Medicine and promised to add Mr. Sorenson's name to the medical school. But rumblings by faculty, students and the community led to controversy over the proposed name change, and those opposed to the gift had legislation drawn up that would remove Mr. Sorenson's name from the school. Ultimately, Mr. Sorenson asked the university to return the $15 million in stock.
Mr. Sorenson also was a poet and composer of LDS hymns, publishing some of them in a book titled, "Just Love the People, the World Is our Family."
After beginning his career selling pharmaceuticals to physicians for Upjohn Co. in Salt Lake City, Mr. Sorenson started buying real estate in the Salt Lake area. In 1957 he co-founded Deseret Pharmaceutical, and the company became the foundation for the establishment of Becton Dickinson Vascular Access. In 1962, he founded Sorenson Research, which was sold to Abbott Laboratories, a Fortune 100 company, in 1980.
He founded LeVoy's, a company that made lingerie for modest women and used Tupperware-style marketing with parties hosted in homes. He also owned and developed thousands of acres of commercial, residential and agricultural properties throughout Utah.
He was elected to the national executive board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1991.
Honors Mr. Sorenson was awarded include induction into the Utah Business Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the Utah Technology Council's Hall of Fame in 2007. He was dubbed "A Giant In Our City" by the Salt Lake Chamber in 2006.
Not bad for a boy who grew up in Yuba City, Calif., where teachers thought he was mentally retarded and told his mother he would never learn to read. It was decades later that Mr. Sorenson learned his childhood disorder was dyslexia.
Mr. Sorenson, who was born in Rexburg, Idaho, and grew up in central California, is survived by Beverley Taylor Sorenson, his wife of 60 years, and two sons, six daughters, 47 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
His funeral was tentatively set for Wednesday in the LDS Cottonwood Stake Center, 1830 E. 6400 South. The time has not been finalized.
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