In 1968, Bernard van der Steen, a hotel and food industry entrepreneur from California, was a patient at Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester, Saint Marys Campus. He heard a patient crying nearby and asked his nurse why the patient was upset.
When he learned the patient had cancer and could not afford her hospital bill, van der Steen — who was facing a terminal condition himself — decided to help. He established a fund that supports patients with cancer who have financial needs.
Since then, the Bernard H. van der Steen Trust has provided more than $17 million to patients with financial needs who receive treatment for cancer at Mayo Clinic's Arizona and Rochester campuses. The fund also supports cancer research. Bernard van der Steen and his wife, Iris van der Steen, are recognized as Philanthropic Partners, the highest benefactor designation at Mayo Clinic.
"My uncle always said Mayo takes care of the person first, then the medical condition," says Ben van der Steen. "He established this fund to honor the dignity of each patient and help relieve financial distress on a one-to-one basis."
Born in Holland, Bernard van der Steen immigrated to the United States as a young man in the 1920s. He became a U.S. citizen and embraced the opportunities of his adopted country. He and his wife owned several hotels in the early years of California tourism. During World War II, Van der Steen Enterprises fed tens of thousands of defense industry workers on the West Coast who built ships and planes for the allied cause.
Bernard and Iris van der Steen were loyal patients of Mayo Clinic and were devoted to the Sisters of Saint Francis, who founded Saint Marys Hospital. "They had a Franciscan chapel on the grounds of their ranch," Ben van der Steen recalls. "It was their place of respite, and they often welcomed priests and nuns to stay there."
At Saint Marys, Bernard van der Steen commissioned a sculpture that depicts St. Francis of Assisi as a vigorous young man, surrounded by the birds he loved. It is the work of the internationally recognized sculptor Charles Eugene Gagnon, who was based in Rochester. In the Peace Garden on the Saint Marys Campus, a statue of St. Clare of Assisi, the work of St. Paul artist Caprice Glaser, is dedicated to Iris van der Steen
"Mr. and Mrs. van der Steen were exceptional people," says Sister Lauren Weinandt, who knew them from their visits to Saint Marys. "They worked hard to build a successful business and used what they achieved to give back to others. Their legacy will help patients for years to come."
"Thanks to the generosity of many people, Mayo Clinic is able to assist patients who have financial concerns," says Eddie Greene, M.D., chair of the Mayo Clinic's Charity Care Committee. "The Van der Steen Trust is significant because it is the commitment of a single family, spanning multiple generations across half a century. From the letters we receive, it's clear that patients who receive support from this fund experience peace of mind that is an important part of their healing process."