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Sanford Health namesake donated over $1 billion, and he still made Forbes billionaires list

T. Denny Sanford, who's given almost $1 billion to namesake Sanford Health, holds a photograph of his mother, Edith, who died when he was 4 years old and inspired him to donate to fight breast cancer. Special to Forum News Service

FARGO — T. Denny Sanford has repeatedly said that he wants to "die broke" and has given away more than $1 billion of his fortune, most notably contributing to namesake Sanford Health. But he's still wealthy enough to land on Forbes' list of billionaires.

Forbes estimates Sanford's net worth at $2.6 billion, up from $2.2 billion in March. He owns Premier Bank, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., which specializes in offering credit cards to high-risk borrowers, and is one of the biggest issuers of Visa and Mastercards.

Sanford, who grew up in St. Paul, moved to South Dakota, but also has maintained residences elsewhere, including Colorado and Arizona. He donated $400 million in 2007 to Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System in Sioux Falls, which later became Sanford Health. Sanford Health merged with MeritCare Health, based in Fargo, in 2009.

Sanford, 82, has donated almost $1 billion to Sanford Health, but has spread his philanthropy widely.

In South Dakota, he's donated to the Sanford Underground Research Center in Lead, S.D., the former Homestake Gold Mine, which is engaged in physics research involving the building blocks of matter.

Earlier this year, he donated $30 million to Dakota State University to build the Madison Cyber Labs, an initiative aimed at transforming Madison, S.D., into a cyber-security jobs magnet.

Also earlier this year, Sanford announced a $30 million donation to the San Diego Zoo, the largest single gift in the zoo's history, according to Inside Philanthropy.

Sanford also gave $30 million to the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans to establish the Horatio Alger-Denny Sanford Scholarship Program.

In a 2007 interview with Forbes, Sanford said he takes a businesslike, "highly rational" approach to his charitable giving.

"Very plainly, very succinctly, I look at life as an investor," he told Forbes. "What will give me or my community the best return?"

Sanford has said he would like to see his name associated with cures for diseases. He has donated to medical research, including a $50 million gift to the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., which was renamed the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.

Sanford also gave $30 million to the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which became the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine.

Sanford's mother, Edith, died of breast cancer when he was 4 years old. In 2009, he gave $100 million to create a foundation to fight breast cancer. Sanford medical centers have Edith Sanford Breast Centers.

He started working in his father's garment shop at the age of 8. He had a troubled childhood, but entered the University of Minnesota intending to become a doctor.

After having trouble with chemistry, however, Sanford altered course and got a degree in psychology, but entered the business world. His father died when he was 20.

While in Fargo after the Sanford and MeritCare merger took place, Sanford said he had worked in North Dakota on the railroad when he was a young man.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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