By David Rogers. July 13, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC – It is unlikely that H. Lee Moffitt’s mother (an innkeeper) or father (welding teacher) ever imagined that their son would grow up to be one of the most powerful figures in Florida government. And certainly they had no idea that he would become the catalyst for developing the fastest growing, National Cancer Institute (NCI) comprehensive cancer center in the United States.
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
Today, Lee Moffitt is retired from elected government service. He is a seasonal resident of the High Country’s Diamond Creek and is married to Dianne Davant, the daughter of Harriet and the late Dr. Charles Davant, as well as sister of Blowing Rock-based Dr. Charles “Bunky” Davant III.
While Moffitt is no longer Speaker of the House in the Florida state legislature, he continues what has become a lifelong passion: finding better ways to treat cancer victims and, hopefully, one day to find a cure.
As a state legislator for 10 years, Moffitt focused on a wide variety of pressing issues: reapportionment, growth management, transportation funding, protection of ground water, judicial reform, reforms to the correctional system, educational enhancement, wetlands protection, privacy protection and control of healthcare costs. But creating a comprehensive cancer center that now bears his name on the campus of the University of South Florida is arguably his trademark.
Over slightly more than 30 years, the Moffitt Cancer Center has quickly emerged as one of the leading NCI cancer centers in the United States. Moffitt himself is quick to deflect the spotlight, noting that it has been the work of an incredible team of collaborators.
Ranked the sixth best comprehensive cancer center in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute is in fact the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida — which also makes it the de facto #1 cancer center in the state.
Today it is so acidic that people are locked in their corners and fail to reach out and show statesmanship and compromise.
Moffitt sat down with Blowing Rock News recently, along with now full-time Blowing Rock resident, Ted Couch, who was one of the founding members of the Moffitt Cancer Center’s board of directors and the first supporter to endow a research chair for the center. Our conversation primarily focused on the Moffitt Cancer Center, but in the process broached a range of subjects.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): (Smiling) Let’s start with an easy question. As a former political figure of some note, what do you think of the current political environment?
Lee Moffitt (laughing, with Ted Couch): Well, things have changed. In my years in the Florida legislature, it was far more collegial than it is today. We had the normal philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats, but the collegial atmosphere we had does not exist today. That’s one of the reasons that very little is being accomplished and the process is so ugly.
When you look at the demographics of Florida, North Florida is South Alabama, South Mississippi; South Florida is largely Hispanic, with a lot of Cuban influence; many retirees have migrated from all over the United States. It is a very diverse population. In years not so long ago we were able to meld the diverse interests and get things done. Today it is so acidic that people are locked in their corners and fail to reach out and show some statesmanship and compromise. Compromise seems to be a thing of the past.
BRN (Chuckling): Ok, that’s enough for the EASY questions! Last year the Moffitt Cancer Center celebrated a 30-year anniversary. Way back when, why a cancer center and why you?
LM: The first answer is easier than you might think. Back in the 1980s, Florida had the 2nd highest incidence of cancer in the nation. The numbers were staggering. From 1961 to 1981, the incidence of cancer in Florida increased 70%. Just about everyone knew somebody who had experienced cancer in one form or another.
Go back just a handful of years, when I ran for the legislature, three good friends were actively involved in my first election campaign. One was my campaign treasurer whom I had known for many years. He was a CPA. Another was a dear friend who had worked with me on the Board of Directors of Big Brothers. He became the first black judge in Hillsborough County — a wonderful man. The third was my legislative aide, a young lady from Mississippi. She was a gospel singing piano player. A lovely, sweet young woman. One had lung cancer, one had leukemia, and one had breast cancer. Each of them had to reach out of the state of Florida to get the care they needed. All of them ended up dying within a couple of years — and all were in their early 30s. Their deaths hit me pretty hard. Real hard, actually.
I was in the legislature and I decided that one of the things that I wanted to try and accomplish while in the legislature was to see that Florida had a cancer center as good or better than any other in the United States.
I didn’t want anyone to have to travel out of state for the best treatments. I was fortunate enough, after several years of trying, to get some money out of the legislature. We had a lot of opposition from various interest groups that didn’t want the competition. But finally, after five or six years, we got the money to build the first building — $75 million.
Given Florida’s history with cancer, we were really getting started at the right place at the right time. There was a dramatic human need. We saw our first patient a little more than 30 years ago. Since then we have become the 3rd largest cancer center in the United States and a major research hub.
A lot has changed in the treatment of cancer over that 30 years and we have contributed to the improvements in care.
I pinch myself to think that I was ever able to accomplish that.
BRN: Where did you grow up?
LM: Born and raised in Tampa. Went to high school in Tampa, college at the University of South Florida, and to law school in Alabama. I hung out my shingle and started practicing law in Tampa. After four years of practicing law, I decided to run for the legislature and won my first race by the skin of my teeth.
BRN: What was it that prompted to you to get into government service?
LM: After law school and while studying for the bar, I had an opportunity to be an aide to a state senator in Florida, Louis de Parte, who became my mentor. While practicing law, I became involved in politics. I worked on the campaign of Governor Leroy Collins. My undergraduate degree was in political science, so it was natural that I would someday reach out to elected government service.
After several Tampa veterans retired, I decided to run for the legislature and was elected in 1974. I served for 10 years, retiring voluntarily in 1984. I was Speaker of the House in 1982, 1983, and 1984.
BRN: How was the actual experience of being in public office compare to what you expected it to be?
LM: It was way beyond anything I had expected. To become Speaker out of 120 members of the legislature was…well, I pinch myself to think that I was ever able to accomplish that.
I suspect it is the same in many states, if not all, but in Florida the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate are actually more powerful, politically, than the Governor. I had a pretty good idea several years in advance that I was going to be Speaker of the House, so as my power increased during my last four years in the legislature I was able accomplish quite a bit because of my increased power and influence. That’s the big reason I was able to pull a rabbit out of the hat and get the funding to build the cancer center. The beauty of the funding mechanism was that the money came from the tax on cigarette sales in Florida.
I did not want the cancer center named after me…It was all part of a ruse.
BRN: What was it like having the center named after you?
LM: I did not want the cancer center to be named after me. The first attempt to name the center was when I was presiding over the House – and I ruled the amendment out of order. I thanked the members for the gesture, but admonished them that I did not want this. That didn’t seem to stop them. To be clear, I have always felt uncomfortable with that. I was never looking for any kind of memorial to myself. All I was doing was trying to create a cancer center because three close friends and many others had died from cancer, Florida had the highest death rate from cancer in the nation, and we had very few treatment options in the entire state.
My colleagues created a plan to sneak through a bill the last week of the session. They did it when I was off the floor and down at the Governor’s office. It was all part of a ruse. I was presiding over the House in those final days of the session and we were putting together a final budget so that we could adjourn on time. We were negotiating between the House and the Governor’s office and the Senate. I was called down to the Governor’s office supposedly to put together the final numbers. So I turned over the gavel to a colleague in the legislature and went down to the Governor’s office not knowing that it was all part of a plot to get me out of the House chambers. They put a little amendment on a bill, passed it out of the House, and hand-delivered it to the Senate, which passed the bill the same day. It was on the Governor’s desk for his signature the next morning and I didn’t even know about it until after the governor had signed the bill and it became law. (Laughing) I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Ted Couch (TC): But you know what? It was a testimony to your tenacity. Those individuals recognized the incredible path that you took over seven years to get this done.
BRN: Tell me about your relationship with Ted Couch. How did that start?
LM: My mother was an innkeeper at a Holiday Inn in Tampa and Ted was good friends with a man that owned two Holiday Inns in Tampa. Marty (Couch) and Ted were intimately involved in the construction of the second Inn. Through another wonderful man by the name of George Cortner, Ted and I met and became good friends ever since then. It’s been over 40 years, maybe even 50.
TC: A testament to our mutual tenacity!
LM: Or your tenacity in putting up with me all these years!
Actually, few people ever do anything of consequence alone. You always have support. But as we were fighting to get the cancer center started, one of the people that I turned to, to help me during this period of time, was Ted. He has been as integral to the development and success of the cancer center as any human being, including myself. He has been generous not only financially, but with his time and friendship.
Ted was a founding member of the board, and from 1993 to 2001, he was chairman of our board. I don’t believe there is anything that the cancer center has done in the last 30 years in which Ted has not been involved in one way or another. Both Ted and Marty.
My relationship with Ted is one of the reasons I am back up here in Blowing Rock and in this area. My mother and father were both born in North Carolina. As a child, I remember we used to come up to the mountains. We would ride the Parkway and visit the beauty of this area. Ted and Marty ended up buying a cabin up here on Foggy Hollow and I would come up and visit. They decided to build a new house, so I bought their old house. We were two doors away from each other for several years.
Few people ever do anything of consequence alone.
BRN: So how about that other Blowing Rock connection of yours, your wife?
LM: While I was in Blowing Rock, I met Dianne Davant at Westglow Resort. We started dating and ended up getting married. Of course, as everyone knows, the Davant family is legendary here in Blowing Rock.
Harriet and Dr. Charles are my mother- and father-in-law. I think everyone in town knows my brother-in-law, Dr. Bunky Davant. God save him or God save me! (laughing)
But what a wonderful and lovely family. There is no more gracious Southern lady than Harriet Davant. She has no equal. She is a fountain of information and stories about Blowing Rock and this region.
BRN: Turning back to the Moffitt Cancer Center, that was a pretty ambitious undertaking, aiming to become a Comprehensive Cancer Center designation. Beyond the state legislature, wasn’t that a pretty big fundraising mission?
TC: Lee taught me how to give.
LM: Maybe it was more like extortion!
TC: He taught me that I could give even what I didn’t have! He did it by convincing me that I could do it on the installment plan. And, by the way, it worked out.
LM: I needed to show strong community support in the early years of the cancer center. So who else could I turn to other than Ted? I told him that I needed him and his partner George Cortner to make a contribution to the cancer center, to help me get the ball rolling. I told Ted that I wanted a million dollars. After he picked himself up off the floor…
TC: Because I am 39 at this time, you have to remember. I didn’t even know that a million dollars existed.
LM: If you put up $600,000, then the state would match it up to a million dollars. Really, because of Ted we were able to create a foundation and raise a lot of money over the years.
Every year since our doors opened we have gone back to the legislature and because of our incredible reputation it has seen fit over the years to give us chunks of money so that we could grow to meet Florida’s needs. We are now way beyond that first healthcare facility. We have over two million square feet of hospital, research and faculty space. We train more oncologists, nurses and researchers than all of the 12 universities in Florida combined. We have become the third largest cancer center in the U.S. We have research and training partnerships with cancer centers around the world, from Puerto Rico to China. Patients come from over 120 countries.
We are the youngest cancer center to achieve such high rankings.
BRN: Didn’t we see some rankings of hospitals last year?
LM: Probably, yes. U.S. News and World Report ranks hospitals after polling all of the cancer doctors across the United States. We were ranked #1 in Florida and #1 across the entire Southeast U.S., and #6 nationwide. We are the youngest cancer center to achieve such high rankings.
BRN: Who is ahead of you?
LM: That is another interesting story. #1 is MD Anderson in Texas, which is the largest. #2 is Sloan Kettering in New York. Both highly respected centers.
Way back when I was a young lawyer with no knowledge whatsoever about cancer centers, I visited the best cancer centers around the country. Of course, my path led me to MD Anderson, whose founder was a wonderful man by the name of R. Lee Clark. He was a surgeon and the doctor who wrote the National Cancer Act for Richard Nixon.
For whatever reason, Dr. Clark and I became good friends. He took me under his wing and said, ‘Lee, I am going to tell you all of the things that I did wrong so that you don’t make the same mistakes that I did as you create the cancer center in Florida. In fact,’ he added, ‘if you follow what I tell you then your cancer center will be even better than the one that I created here in Houston.’
I took copious notes and followed his lead over the years as we developed. His influence enabled us to go from the embryonic stage to the center that we are today. His guidance and kindness, to a large extent, are why we are as prominent and successful as we are today.
But of course, we were also the beneficiary of some very strategic hires, researchers and doctors who contributed mightily to the acclaim and success that we achieved over the years, in so short a time.
Our doctors, researchers and administrative staff members came from some of the greatest institutions around the country. The community and the state embraced us, so it has really been a remarkable journey.
We are bursting at the seams.
BRN: Like a lot of things in life and business, then, it all comes down to the people.
LM: Of course, and it has been very collegial. We have board members who have served over 20 years. They gladly contribute their time and resources to endless meetings, and not just board meetings. There are committee meetings and community outreach all over the state. These are prominent and successful business people who have developed some of the largest corporations in the U.S. They have invested their energy, talent and money into the development of the cancer center.
BRN: Successful non-profits always seem to be growing and have a need for funding. What is the latest capital campaign about?
LM: Well, we are bursting at the seams. We badly need more beds and more research space. We badly need more physician office space. We have announced an $800 million long-term growth project. The foundation will raise $500 million, and we believe the state will, over the next two or three years, provide us with another $300 million. So we are on the verge of being able to double in size. And we are looking at multiple locations so that we can better serve Florida and, in particular, the west coast of Florida.
BRN: Just in the last couple of days I have heard about some new developments in treating cancer. It was something about turning blood into living drugs. Something called CAR-T?
LM: That probably has at least a little bit to do with us. The Moffitt Cancer Center has been a leader in new ways to treat cancer. We are so far ahead of where we were 20 years ago. People are being saved today who, a few years ago, would have had no hope.
Most recently our researchers have collaborated with a pharmaceutical company and developed CAR-T therapy where we take the T-cells, or immune cells, out of your body, re-engineer them so that they will be fortified to better fight cancer. Once re-engineered, we put them back in the body and they are better able to go find and kill the cancer that is in the body.
It seeks out and kills the cancer cells.
BRN: That’s what I read about. It actually goes out and attacks the tumors.
LM: It does. Once you re-engineer and re-insert it back into the body, it seeks out and kills the cancer cells. It really is revolutionary, because up until recent years you cut it out or you radiate the hell out of it, or you poison it with chemotherapy. All of those treatments are very invasive. It is tough to fight cancer, even today. But with this new technology, things will hopefully change for some cancers. At least with the blood disorders we are able to introduce a whole new way of treatment. It has caught the attention of doctors not just in the U.S., but around the world.
BRN: What other new initiatives do you have?
LM: Something that Ted is involved in — like he has been for every other part of the center — is we have created a subsidiary called M2Gen. Moffitt’s second generation. Ted is chairman of the board of M2Gen.
TC: What we do with M2Gen is ask each cancer patient to agree by signed consent to allow us to follow them for life. We take blood and tumor samples and put them in a depository. We now have more than 170,000 samples, which, I believe, is the largest such tumor bank in the world.
BRN: Now what do you do with these samples? What is the objective?
LM: Take breast cancer as an example. We want to find why some women with various types of breast cancer react positively to certain kinds of treatments, but why other women don’t. Why some respond because of their genetics or cell structure and be cured and others fail. So someday in the future, when a woman comes in and is diagnosed with breast cancer, once we determine what kind of breast cancer she has, we will treat with a therapy that is unique to her and has been successful in someone who looks like her genetically and in cell structure.
We’re doing this with all kinds of cancers. This will be a tool, hopefully, for doctors all over the world to be able to learn how to treat people, because what you do at the beginning, right when someone is first diagnosed with cancer is critical. If you don’t get them off to the right start, the chances of success are not as good. Because of this huge amount of data and our being able to utilize this data in positive ways, we increase the probability of better outcomes.
TC: You need a lot of data in order to achieve that. We have other NCI centers from all over the country partnering with us — feeding us this information, into this growing data bank.
Pharmaceutical companies are interested because they will try to tailor-make drugs. It is a huge undertaking. It requires a lot of money to do the data analysis on all of these tumors and blood samples. But we think it is going to revolutionize the way people are diagnosed and in the early treatment of their cancers.
There are currently 17 National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated centers consenting and depositing data into M2Gen. Their researchers are able to tap into this data for further cancer research.
LM: The NCI grades all of the cancer centers and they are the ones who give various centers “Comprehensive Cancer Center” status. That is the gold standard. We are the only one in Florida that has that status. There are 48 in the U.S. and about a third have joined with us in providing data.
We are trying to break down those walls.
BRN: It sounds like there is a lot of collaboration in the field rather than competition.
LM: Well, we are trying to break down those walls. There is still a lot of competition. There is still a lot of institutional jealousy. So far we have worked to break down a lot of those walls to hopefully make people cooperate and collaborate more than they have in the past.
TC: They believe in the mission – and that is important.
BRN: What is your capital goal for M2Gen and is it a for-profit company?
TC: $70 million, initially, and yes it is a for-profit subsidiary of the Moffitt Center. It is majority owned by the Moffitt Center, but recently Ohio State University joined us in part ownership.
BRN: Where does the revenue come from?
TC: From the drug companies who are benefiting from our research. That is what has kept us going lately. Prior to that, the Moffitt Center funded it, to the tune of about $20 million. This new capital raise will reimburse Moffitt (since it is a non-profit) as well as raise an additional $50 million that will push us along faster. It will help us gather the data, as well as use the data.
LM: To gather the data, it costs roughly $3,000 per patient. Each of those cancer centers are gathering the data, and we are reimbursing them $3,000 per patient, which is their cost. But you see, we need thousands and thousands and thousands of patient information. The more consents, the better quality of data.
BRN: So M2Gen is paying for procurement of the data, then the drug companies are paying for access to the collected data and whatever analytics you can provide, enabling faster drug discovery.
TC: Yes, the drug company payments have allowed us to expand, but we are not expanding rapidly enough. That is why the capital raise is necessary.
BRN: There seem to be a lot of people in the High Country with either direct or indirect ties to the Moffitt Cancer Center. In preparing for this interview, I read where Dr. Frank Borkowski was one of the first chairmen of your board of directors. That was back in the mid-1980s. He later became Chancellor of Appalachian State University and he and Kay are still living in the Boone area.
LM: Yes, Frank was our second chairman, from 1988 to 1993, when Ted became chairman. Actually, there is a lot that ties the Moffitt Center to the Blowing Rock area and the region around it. Obviously, Ted and Marty are here. The Davant family is here. Bob Griese, the former Hall of Fame Miami Dolphins NFL quarterback is chairman of our national Board of Advisors. He and his wife Shay live at Elk River. Mike and Alice Jackson have become huge supporters. Mike is CEO of AutoNation and has a summer home at Diamond Creek.
There are a lot of folks up here who have either been patients, or their family members have been patients, or they have been contributors to the Moffitt Cancer Center. Wayne Huizenga, who has a seasonal home in the High Country has been a contributor. Wayne and Marty built Diamond Creek. Marty was on our board of advisors for years, but sadly passed away from cancer last year.
Wayne Huizenga, Jr. lives up here, too, and he is on the Board of Governors for the state university system of Florida. He has been very supportive in his role as a member of the Board of Governors. Another long time board member up here is Clint Brown, who lives in the Tynecastle development. He has been a mentor of mine over the years. He was general counsel to Bob Martinez when Martinez was Governor of Florida. Clint was very involved in the Board of Regents for the university system in Florida, and a very prominent Tampa attorney. So there are a lot of people with ties to Blowing Rock and the High Country who are or have been involved with the Moffit Cancer Center.
BRN: Well, Lee and Ted, thank-you both for taking the time to speak with us today. Congratulations on your success to date, but just as important, please know that our best prayers and wishes are with you in your on-going fight against cancer.