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Utah Billionaire Gives Thought to Place in History

Utah Billionaire Gives Thought to Place in History

Posted - Sep. 7, 2003 at 9:41 p.m.



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Bruce Lindsay ReportingA man who quietly pioneered medical devices is one of Utah's most remarkable success stories. And now, he's giving thought to his place in history.

Utah is home to three of the world's billionaires, according to Forbes magazine's annual ranking. James Sorenson, a medical devices pioneer, is 177th on the list, at $2.2 billion.

As James LeVoy Sorenson shoots baskets with kids in a neighborhood center, his name is on the building. He has earned more money than fame in his 82 years. For most of his career he flew below the public radar screen.

Last year, he stepped forward more visibly to broker and help fund a settlement to the Main Street Plaza dispute. That may be part of a later-in-life, coming out. Sorenson's companies have just hired their first public relations staffer, and Sorenson now is inviting reporters and cameras to come in and talk.

James Sorenson: "Well, as I reach this stage of life, things change. Money is not what I'm about. I'm about trying to help people. And it just so happened in the process, I found a way to make money, I guess.”

Sorenson found many ways to make money. He sold pharmaceuticals until he was fired. Upjohn didn't like him making more from land deals on the side than he made from his salary.

In the 1950's with two partners, Sorenson founded a drug resale company that began marketing his first medical invention, this disposable plastic catheter. When Sorenson's partners bought him out, he purchased a company that made lingerie. Later, he returned to creating medical devices -- this time with a high tech edge.

Sorenson: “I’ve never been able to feel that I’ve done ok. I’ve always felt that I had more to do. Perhaps right now, I’ve done too much in some ways.”

Reporter: “For example?”

Sorenson: “Too much money! But it needs to be used intelligently and properly.”

Reporter: “So what do you do with it? How do you find peace with that?”

Sorenson: “Well, I'm in that effort right now. Trying to find peace with what I leave behind and how I leave behind, that it doesn't cause envy, disruption, or feelings of neglect."

Sorenson experienced all those disappointments before in a first attempt at high-profile philanthropy.

Chase Peterson, President, University of Utah, 1989: “This is the largest gift in the state of Utah for any institution, by double.”

In 1989, Sorenson gave the University Medical School 15 million dollars, with the understanding that it would be renamed, in his honor. But amid an outcry over renaming the school, the gift turned sour.

Sorenson: "So, I took back the 15 million dollars of Abbot stock that today is worth 100 million…The issue went away, finally. But I learned a lesson…I don't need my name on anything."

Sorenson's name is not on the LDS Nauvoo Temple, although he acknowledges underwriting it with more than 33 million dollars -- a small piece of one man's astounding attainment in financial success.

Sorenson: “It didn't sneak up, that's for sure. And I didn't go out and catch it. I just went out ahead of where I saw the crowd moving."

Tomorrow, on eyewitness news at 6:30, Sorenson talks about where he sees the crowd moving today, and about what he hopes will be the project to define his legacy.

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