Amid pomp and ceremony befitting the grant of more than a tenth of a billion dollars, the University of Utah broke ground on its new medical school building Wednesday, paying special tribute to Spencer Fox Eccles, the man who steered $110 million from two Eccles family foundations to kick-start the massive upgrade and for whom the School of Medicine is now named.
Having “Eccles” etched on a building is hardly new at the University of Utah, where you’d be hard pressed to go more than a minute or two walking on campus in any direction without seeing the ubiquitous surname attached to something.
But it wasn’t always so. Seventy years ago, in the fall of 1952, there was no pomp and ceremony — and certainly no buildings carrying the family name — when Spencer Fox Eccles enrolled as a freshman.
He was the first in his family line to become a Ute. His grandfather, industrialist David Eccles who became Utah’s first multimillionaire, didn’t attend any college; his father, Spencer Stoddard Eccles, didn’t go to the U., nor did his famous banking uncles George, who went to Utah State, and Marriner, whose higher education amounted to one year of junior college in his hometown of Logan (and he went on to chair the Federal Reserve).
As prominent as the Eccles name was in business and finance, there was no relationship with the state’s flagship university.
Family tradition didn’t lure Spence to the U.
Growing up in Ogden, he’d started skiing at nearby Snowbasin when he was 9 and racing by 11, first qualifying for junior nationals in Boise at age 13 in 1948. At Ogden High School he was part of two state championship ski teams.
Meanwhile, down the road in Salt Lake City, the University of Utah was building a reputation for fielding strong ski teams. In 1948, when Spence was an impressionable teenager, the United States Olympic Team was packed with skiers from the U., including Jack Reddish, Darrell “Pinkie” Robinson, Dev Jennings, Dick Movitz and Corey Engen, Spence’s coach at Snowbasin. Adding to the U. connections, one of the coaches of that ’48 U.S. team was Alf Engen, Corey’s brother, who also assisted with the Utes program.
Some seven decades later, Spence rattles off their names like he’s telling you his phone number. “Those guys were my idols,” he says. “They made a big impression on me.”
He came to the University of Utah to follow in their footsteps and ski for the Utes, or at least he hoped to. In 1952, there were no athletic scholarships for skiers and no guarantees.
Spencer paid his tuition like everyone else and moved into the University Heights student apartments on the corner of 1300 East and 100 South.
It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Eccles became a stalwart on Utah ski teams that placed sixth, seventh and seventh in the 1954, 1955 and 1956 NCAA championships (the first NCAAs were held in 1954). As a senior he was team captain, placed top 10 in slalom at nationals, and was named a collegiate All-American. (Eccles continued to ski at the highest levels after college; in 1958 he qualified as first alternate on the U.S. FIS national team; in 1960 he was a contender for the U.S. Olympic Team until a foot injury sidelined him).
As well as skiing worked out at the U., his college experience worked out equally well. In no particular order, Spence joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, found the library, secured his degree in finance with flying colors (gaining admission to graduate school at Columbia in the process), and not incidentally, as he will be the first to tell you, met the love of his life, Cleone Peterson, who became his wife.
“On my gosh, it was a great, wonderful time,” Spence says, summing up the love affair with the school that started at 18 and — as Wednesday’s groundbreaking revealed in spades — is still going strong at 88.
The first financial contribution Spence Eccles gave to his alma mater dates back to 1965, when the School of Medicine needed $150,000 to cover final costs to build a much-needed medical library. Earlier that year, Spence’s father, Spencer Stoddard Eccles, had given $100,000 to the cause, an amount deemed enough to complete the project. Within a few months, the elder Eccles passed away at the age of 71 from liver cancer.
As is so often the case, it was soon discovered that more funding was needed to finish the library. The school reached out to Spence, who was starting out in the family banking business in Boise. Spence called his mother, Hope, in Ogden, and his sister, Nancy, in California. All agreed to contribute $50,000 apiece to honor their husband and father, ensuring the completion of what was christened the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library when it opened in 1971.
The library — known as “Dad’s Library” to Spence and his family — is still there, right next door to where the new Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine headquarters will be erected.
That was just the beginning of Eccles giving at the U. — from all directions of the family tree. Millions upon millions have poured in continually from the descendants of David Eccles, capped by the current $110 million to the School of Medicine from two foundations Spence oversees: the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and the Nora Eccles Treadwell Foundation.
Would any of it have happened if 18-year-old Spence Eccles hadn’t showed up to enroll in the fall of 1952 carrying his ski boots?
That’s a question the University of Utah doesn’t care to ponder. The facts are, the U. gave Spence Eccles a place to ski, and he’s been giving back ever since.