'Somebody Has To Do It' 

The Bequest of Mary and Bob Loken for Stem Cell Research

Bob Loken, a consummate fisherman, grew up on the waters of Puget Sound off the Washington coast. By the late ’80s, he was a retired bell diver for the Navy and a Coast Guard Auxiliary veteran, having taken on a second career rescuing people in distress at sea.

“He was a real Norwegian bachelor sailor,” recalls Dale Flexner, a long-time friend. “He loved to read, especially about maritime history, because he was a seaman at heart. He was as quiet and gentle as could be.”

Bob also owned and operated a pool maintenance business. One day, he made a maintenance call at a house rented by a woman named Mary Hall.

Mary was just the opposite of Bob. The daughter and granddaughter of railroad men, she had grown up in the Midwest. After earning her undergraduate degree in nutrition, she came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the ’60s and again in the ’70s to pursue advanced degrees in public health.

Mary started her own consulting company after working in several government agencies across the country. She focused on helping small business owners understand how to run their operations more efficiently.

“She was strong-willed and extremely principled,” adds Bill. “And she did not pull punches.” “She once told some Catholic sisters who ran a hospital that, thanks to the people they had put in charge, the hospital was not only financially bankrupt, but also morally bankrupt. The sisters later admitted she was right.”

Bob and Mary quickly discovered that they shared a strong, hands-on commitment to environmental causes. A cup of coffee and conversation became several cups and several conversations. Soon they got married, bought a house on Puget Sound and spent summers on Bob’s 36-foot trawler.

“OK. THAT’S IT.”

Every summer for the next fifteen years, they took the trawler to Alaska, where they caught and froze a year’s supply of fish. In the summer of 2003, Mary couldn’t make the trip because of back trouble, so Bill made the trip with Bob instead.

Two years later, Bob was admitted to the hospital with serious heart problems. Fortunately, he recovered and went into rehab. Just as he was ready to return home, however, Mary’s back pain became so excruciating that she was admitted to the hospital, herself. The diagnosis stunned everyone.

“It was adrenocortical carcinoma. Untreatable. Inoperable,” says Bill. “She just said, ‘OK. That’s it.’

The next few weeks were a frenzy of activity. Mary wanted to settle how she and Bob would dispose of their assets after both of them had died. Mary decided they should create a trust where half their estate would go to an environmental cause. To everyone’s surprise, the couple decided the other half would go to the UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine to fund stem cell research.

“She had been really irritated by the politics of stem cell research,” Dale recalls.

Four years earlier, federal funds were prohibited from being used to create new embryonic stem cell lines, limiting regenerative medicine research to a handful of existing cell lines. Only a few scientists were able to move their work forward by tapping into a very limited pool of private funding. The Lokens decided to contribute some of their assets to that pool.

“Mary’s attitude was, ‘We’re going to have stem cell research if I have anything to do with it,’” recalls Dale. “She was very adamant about this. She said that somebody had to do it.”

A month after their will was signed, and just six weeks after her diagnosis, Mary died.

For the next three years, Bob lived as a widower. Every day, he would call the Flexners to chat for a while.

One day in July 2008, the Flexners didn’t hear from Bob. Concerned, they asked paramedics to go to the house. Inside, they found Bob in his bed overlooking the Puget Sound. He had died in his sleep.

A month later, the Flexners and other friends rented a water taxi and sprinkled the ashes of Bob and Mary into the waters of their beloved Puget Sound.

THE FAITH OF GIFTS

The Mary Davis and Robert Beager Loken Stem Cell Research Fund is a bequest of more than $1.2 million for stem cell research at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. Terry Magnuson, PhD, vice dean for research and founding chair of the Department of Genetics, says the bequest will help UNC build its regenerative medicine program.

“This bequest will help recruit new faculty in the fields of human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells,” says Magnuson. “These two areas will add important depth to our existing stem cell programs.”

“While the field of regenerative medicine is still young, we’re already beginning to bring it all back into the clinical setting to help solve real medical problems for real people,” Magnuson says. “Phase I clinical trials are now being done in California. We look forward to the day when UNC will be able to follow suit.”

When that day comes, the Lokens’ bequest will be counted as one very important factor in UNC’s success.

“They wanted to do make this bequest for stem cell research,” Dale concludes, “because it was a fruitful area for the future of humankind that was in danger of not being pursued. I know Bob and Mary would have been pleased at the impact of their act of faith.”

Brenda Denzler

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