She is one tough mother. At least that’s how Gert Boyle, chairman of the Columbia Sportswear company, based in Portland, Ore., is known throughout the Northwest. She owes that reputation to a long-running advertising campaign featuring her as no-nonsense Ma Boyle, a relentless bulldog when it comes to making durable products.
The ads have been wildly successful, partly because Ms. Boyle really is tough. Her father, a Jewish businessman, spirited the family away from Nazi Germany in 1937, when she was 13. Widowed in 1970, at 46, and left with three kids, she took over the family’s struggling sports-apparel business, showing up at the office the day after her husband’s heart attack and death.
In short order, the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Yet with her son, Tim Boyle, the company’s chief executive, she transformed Columbia into a billion-dollar giant through what the business press has described as a miracle born of savvy, hard work, and sheer will.
Last year, Ms. Boyle, 90, showed a tender side when she pledged $100-million to the Knight Cancer Institute at the Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland. She made the gift public in an online video in which she and Dr. Brian Druker, the Knight center’s director, sip lemonade and exchange pleasantries on a cozy front porch—an atypically kitschy Gert Boyle PR moment.
The gift, her biggest ever, covers one-fifth of what the cancer center must raise to trigger the $500-million match pledged by the Nike co-founder Phil Knight and wife, Penny, the institute’s namesakes and longtime backers.
Ms. Boyle says she settled on the gift in a matter of seconds.
"It was very simple," she says. "I had a meeting with my accountant, and we came to the conclusion that, What the hell, I’m not going to live forever."
Ms. Boyle, No. 21 on the Philanthropy 50 list, sees her gift as a way to advance cancer research. But she’s also motivated by fears that her estate, once taxed after her death, would help pay for American wars. "I wanted to give it some place rather than have government buy bullets," she says. "Bullets are not going to do anybody any good. All you have to do is look at history; killing people isn’t going to do anybody any good."
Ms. Boyle’s quick decision and generosity were born partly from her longtime friendship with Dr. Druker and their shared memories of Ms. Boyle’s late sister, Hildegard Lamfrom, who died of a brain tumor in 1984. Dr. Druker met Ms. Lamfrom, a molecular biologist, when he was an undergrad at the University of California at San Diego. Over a renowned four-decade career, Ms. Lamfrom worked with several scientists who would become Nobel winners, including Francis Crick and Richard Feynman.
At UC-San Diego, she helped run the lab where Dr. Druker spent long hours. "She was kind of a lab mother," he remembers. "She was devoted to science, and she was always there to help people. If you ran into trouble with your experiments, she’d help troubleshoot them."
Weighing a career in medicine versus research, Dr. Druker sought out Ms. Lamfrom. Her advice: Go to medical school, become a physician-researcher, and use science to cure disease. Years later, Dr. Druker led the development of Gleevec, a breakthrough drug that has turned chronic myeloid leukemia, an often fatal disease, into a manageable condition for thousands of people. People magazine dubbed him the "Miracle Worker," and in 2009 he received the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, often referred to as an "American Nobel."
Dr. Druker, who did an oncology fellowship at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Institute, completed his Gleevec work at Oregon Health & Science University’s cancer center and was named its director in 2007. Soon afterward, he discovered by chance that his beloved mentor, Hildegard Lanfrom, was Gert Boyle’s sister. A friendship quickly took root.
"We immediately had this kind of kindred spirit," the doctor says. "I grew up in a Jewish family, and Gert kind of reminded me of my mother."
With Boyle’s gift, the Knight center expects to close out its $500-million challenge well ahead of its 2016 deadline. The $1-billion total will enable the center to bring as many as 30 top scientists to the university. With long-term funding secured, they will work as a team to identify ways to detect cancer early, when treatments like Gleevec work best.
Traditional funding doesn’t make such teamwork and big thinking possible, Dr. Druker says. Typically, medical researchers must chase small grants to do incremental work, he says. "That forces us, invariably, to think in small chunks, because we’re always looking at, How am I going to get my next grant?"
Gift From ‘Little Old Lady’
Ms. Boyle made her $100-million gift anonymously, which is typical for her. When she was in first grade in Germany, her father sent her to school one day with clothes for poor students, and the teacher asked her to hand them out. She remembers the awkwardness of accepting thanks from her friends, and she remains uncomfortable with the accolades often bestowed on philanthropists.
When a newspaper sniffed out Ms. Boyle as the $100-million benefactor, she came forward and backed the campaign publicly. She revels in the fact that her outing overturned a gender stereotype. "Everyone," she says, "had assumed that only a gentleman in this community would have that kind of money, not some little old lady down the street."
Her gifts to the campaign include another $2-million, and she and Dr. Druker posed for an ad, each with a Gert-like message tattooed on an arm—"one tough mother" and "one tough doctor."
The sipping-lemonade video closes with a line in keeping with Ms. Boyle’s image. As she and Dr. Druker raise a toast to the campaign, she says: "Let’s kick cancer’s ---." The last word is bleeped out, but there’s no doubt about what the indomitable Gert Boyle has said.