A Tribute to Kathryn Whitney Stephens

Kathryn Whitney Stephens

Kathryn Whitney Stephens

January 16, 1949 to February 1, 2005

Written by Jan Petersen

Generous sharing was a hallmark of Kathryn Whitney Stephens’ life. So when she came into sizable assets six years ago, the decision of what to do with these funds was quite simple. She'd share them with those less fortunate, but with one significant stipulation. The funds would have to bring positive changes in the lives of those it touched by helping them become self-sufficient, productive members of society.


Kathryn Whitney Stephens


Her philanthropic generosity gave birth to The Whitney Foundation in 1999 with a mission statement based on that philosophy: sharing with others what you are given.


Kathryn's influence has been instilled in a foundation board of directors that also is diligent to her purpose and goals.


Kathryn made the clear distinction that grants would not fund direct services, but rather would support only those programs that develop self-determination and self-reliance through health, education and housing.


The foundation embodies the idea that you can give people fish to eat and they'll be back wanting more tomorrow. But teach them to fish and they'll have food for a lifetime.


Kathryn formed the foundation at a time in her life when she enjoyed good health and maintained an active lifestyle that included frequent trips to the winter ski slopes. When health concerns developed and it was learned she had leukemia it didn't compromise her resolve, only her available strength on a given day.

Sometimes she would just rest. Those she would call her couch days. She didn't see it as battling with the disease. Just simply trying to live with it. As did her friends, family and colleagues.


When the effects of leukemia became noticeable she was quick to point out a particular caution to those closest to her.

"Don't ever put in my obituary that I died after a courageous battle with leukemia. Because I don't see it that way," Kathryn insisted.

Her idea of battling leukemia was to carry on and accomplish as much each day as her body would permit. Sometimes just getting dressed would prove to be the most challenging task that day.


Kathryn Whitney Stephens


As she detailed plans for her final journey, even death would provide its own complications when word of a test drug for leukemia reached her. It came at a time when she had accepted her impending death and was preparing herself for it. Suddenly she needed to refocus her agenda after electing to apply for consideration as a candidate in this radical UCLA Medical Center study. The study would test a new drug that inhibited the cancer cells without damaging surrounding healthy tissue. In Kathryn's case it would give science valuable information about this drug and its impact on the advanced stages of leukemia.

Her death came while participating in the program. But a biopsy showed the drug had arrested the leukemia in her body. The cause of her death was from complications to her immune system, damaged by the leukemia.


Team In Training, a marathon program sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society was just one sample of the programs in which Kathryn would get involved. In a recent Hawaiian marathon for walkers, runners and bikers, Kathryn was asked if she'd be willing to participate as a patient honoree. She accepted and participated with the same generosity and enthusiasm that her lifestyle reflected.


She was always very generous in gifting personal funds to many causes. Even with her personal belongings, when she no longer had use for something she would immediately pass it along to someone else.


Being self-sufficient had always been a very key element in Kathryn's life to that point that it gave her a simple understanding of empowerment. She believed very strongly in education as a tool of empowerment. And if people could have a chance for education they'd have a better chance to stand on their own two feet in her boiled-down view of helping people out of poverty.


Of those who knew Kathryn best they spoke of a simplicity of heart, a kind of natural pure goodness that was not complicated to experience when meeting her. She had a genuine concern about people. All people.


One individual attending Kathryn's memorial service had been the recipient of eye surgery, thanks to her generosity. He underwent expensive optical surgery and only recently learned that he had Kathryn to thank for his new gift of sight. "I can see!" he blurted out at the service as a hospital staff member related the story and introduced him to those assembled. Kathryn purchased the eye surgical procedure at a Saint Agnes Medical Center fund-raising silent auction and made an anonymous gift of the certificate to the young man. She knew how critically he needed surgery and how limiting his finances were.


She also anonymously paid for a woman's master's degree in Boise, Idaho. The woman currently works in a church there and still has no idea that Kathryn was her benefactor.


Kathryn Whitney Stephens


The Whitney Foundation's areas of assistance currently are programs in Utah, California and Idaho, since these are three states that were significant in Kathryn's life. She was born in Salt Lake City and her careers have taken her to the states of Idaho and California.


The simplicity of Kathryn's beliefs were always challenged by the complexity of running a foundation. On days when the challenges of the business world would begin to dog her she could be heard uttering in frustration: "All I wanted to do was start a little foundation and give money away."


Still, she felt called to do it through a foundation. And with it she felt very committed to doing it with a board that fully understood the foundation's mission.


The Whitney Foundation has a very hands-on approach by personally meeting every grantee and by making regular visits to the projects. This was part of Kathryn's plan, to maintain a very personal approach to the business. To her it was important that The Whitney Foundation would never be permitted to be just a paperwork kind of place.


One of Kathryn's friends remarked how he has learned not just of her generosity in giving and in her simplicity of carrying out her work, but he also has learned to carry out the work in the same spirit that she always did. It's a spirit that has become contagious at The Whitney Foundation.


Kathryn will be missed for she has passed along a gift that has touched many lives.