Food and drug magnate helps U. build world-class pharmacy facility

Sam Skaggs » Retail legend a supporter of biomedical research
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L.S. "Sam" Skaggs really wanted to study chemistry and be a pharmacist, but war, the family business and his own entrepreneurial instincts led him in another direction. But that didn't keep him from making mighty contributions to the development of new drugs.

While building a retail food-and-drug empire from his Salt Lake City headquarters that came to be known as American Stores, Skaggs quietly funneled tens of millions of dollars to pharmaceutical research and education, gifts that helped build the University of Utah's pharmacy programs.

That legacy will reach a critical milestone today when the U. breaks ground on a new 150,000-square-foot pharmacy building, expected to cement the school's reputation as an epicenter of pharmaceutical research and Skaggs' reputation as one of the nation's top philanthropists.

The Skaggs family, through its foundation and Sam's personal fortune, gave $30 million toward the $69 million project.

"Growing up, his job was to sweep floors and make ice cream, but he would migrate back and watch the pharmacists compound medicines," said his daughter, Claudia Skaggs Luttrell, an officer in the family's ALSAM Foundation.

Sam Skaggs, who rarely gave media interviews during his years in business, is the grandson of a Baptist preacher and grew up in Yakima, Wash., and Idaho, working in his dad's drug stores. He dropped out of Westminster College to serve in Europe during World War II. His father, also named L.S., launched the famous PayLess drug store chain, which Sam Skaggs took over at age 26, following the elder Skaggs' death from a stroke in 1950.

During the war, Skaggs witnessed the compassion and generosity of Roman Catholic chaplains, resulting ultimately in his conversion. He never completed college, but holds several honorary doctorates.

"Dad is an insatiable reader. He had stacks of books by his bed," Luttrell said. "His philanthropy began early. He saw the kindness and goodness that came through during the throes of war. When he started in business, he always gave."

The new building will be erected just south of the College of Pharmacy's current home, built with Skaggs money in 1965 and named for the senoir L.S. Skaggs. Before that, the college, founded in 1946, operated out of the women's gymnasium. Its faculty and researchers have since spread out into six buildings in four academic departments exploring all aspects of drugs, from discovery to development to delivery to testing to economics. The college takes in 60 new doctoral candidates a year.

"The research here is very intensive -- you can't turn it on and off. It's generated a world-class faculty. Bringing us all back together will allow us to reformulate as an academic community. There is a likelihood to go to No. 1," said John Mauger, the college's long-time dean. With $23 million annually in National Institutes of Health grants, the U. is the nation's second most active recipient of federal money for pharmaceutical research, behind only University of California, San Francisco.

The new building is designed to re-establish a hub for the college to foster "a culture of collaboration." The college has strong research affiliations with engineers, chemists, biologists, even economists. The new structure will dwarf the old one, connecting with it via a four-story wedge-shaped atrium called the Translational Center. Collectively, the complex will be called the Skaggs Pharmacy Institute and is expected to be completed by December 2011.

"Our research translates into new medicines and new medical technologies, really good breakthrough science. The secret is having people together in interdisciplinary groups," Mauger said. "We hire faculty across the disciplinary lines. Dr. [Lorris] Betz [senior vice president for health sciences] has been great in encouraging collaborations. That is his mantra. It's not just a quip, it's real."

Skaggs family wealth has supported Roman Catholic enterprises, education and biomedical research, rivaling the philanthropy of other famous Utah families, such as the Huntsmans, Sorensons and Eccles. Other major beneficiaries include Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

"Dad gives from the heart. He doesn't seek publicity," Luttrell said. "He sees a need and he fulfills it, like the soup kitchen and the homeless shelter."

Skaggs Pharmacy Institute

The University of Utah's College of Pharmacy will honor Utah philanthropist and business leader Sam Skaggs today when ground is broken on a 150,000-square-foot research center named after Skaggs. The ceremony will be held in the L.S. Skaggs Hall Auditorium at 10 a.m.

Skaggs and his family's foundation gave $30 million toward the $69 million project, expected to be complete by the end of 2011. Since the 1960s, the family has given millions to support scholarships, pharmaceutical research, Catholic education, and the U., including gifts to build the current pharmacy building, the biology building and the Moran Eye Center.