When there were tough issues to resolve involving strong personalities and complicated transactions, Shan Mullin was the person you wanted at the table.
The former longtime chair of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center board of trustees, who died Wednesday at 83, went to that table again and again for the Hutch and for dozens of other community groups in Seattle and Washington state. During his tenure at the Hutch, from 1994 to 2005, few achievements reflect his skill as a community-builder than the role he played in helping create Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“A lot of the success of the Hutch over the time I was there, especially when forming SCCA, was due to his guidance,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Emeritus Dr. Lee Hartwell, who became Hutch president in 1997. “Shan was just a rock of wisdom and stability.”
A partner at the venerable Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, Mullin represented corporate clients in complicated domestic and international business transactions for more than 45 years, amassing professional accolades that included alumni and citizen of the year awards from his alma mater, the University of Washington School of Law. (With an undergraduate business degree, he was a Dawg all the way.)
He also brought something else to the table — a big heart and an even bigger vision.
“He was a high-powered attorney, a senior person in one of the most esteemed law firms in the region. But beyond all of that, he was just one of the most even, thoughtful, caring human beings I’ve known,” said SCCA Executive Vice President Norm Hubbard, who joined SCCA at its beginning. “He had this really great vision for the Hutch and UW and Children’s and SCCA all working together for the benefit of the community, and he always kept sight of that.”
The idea of aligning top researchers and oncologists from three top institutions to deliver cutting-edge clinical care may seem both necessary and obvious today, with the SCCA/UW Medical Center ranked in the top five in the United States for adult cancer care and No. 1 in Washington state.
Twenty years ago, it was not obvious, and it was not easy. There were no real models to turn to. The Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center came closest, but it was just organizing at the time, too.
Mullin chaired a committee of trustees and directors from Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and Children’s to serve as a sounding board for key issues. He also cemented community support for a successful deal, said Peggy Means, former longtime Fred Hutch chief operating officer.
“His strong belief that world-class cancer care was essential for Seattle, together with his thoughtful leadership, were strong motivators for all of the partners,” Means said. “He helped ensure that institutional biases and other impediments did not prevent the parties from achieving their vision of a world-class cancer center.”
Dr. Mark Groudine, a molecular biologist at Fred Hutch since 1976 and longtime special advisor to the director's office, agreed.
"Shan was among the most humble, unpretentious people I’ve met, particularly for someone of his professional and community standing," Groudine said. "When confronted with difficult issues, his goal was to reach solutions by making sure that everyone involved understood each other’s points of view."
Rich Jones joined the Fred Hutch board a year after Mullin and served with him on the SCCA-forming committee. Jones recounted some of the challenges encountered in turning an idea that had been tossed around for decades into a reality. Just coming up with a name took six months.
In all the debates, Jones never heard Mullin raise his voice.
“We developed very trusting relationships. We could disagree without being disagreeable,” said Mullins. “Shan kept the focus: Why are we here again? We’re a world-class cancer center. Why do we want to do this? We want to do this for our patients and future patients so they get the best care possible.”
Mullin went on to serve on the SCCA board, both as a member and its chair.
“It’s a little like having children,” said Jones, a retired certified public accountant who, inspired by Mullin, also went on to serve on both the SCCA and UW Medicine boards and devotes his time to community service. “You don’t just help create it, you nurture it.”
Shepherding the creation of SCCA, however challenging, was “probably the thing Mullin was most proud of,” Jones said.
Mullin came from a family tradition of public service. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Jack D. Mullin, in becoming chairman of United Way of King County. His grandfather had served on the Bellingham City Council and as that city’s mayor.
In addition to serving on the boards of Fred Hutch, SCCA, UW Medicine and United Way, Mullin volunteered his time on the boards of dozens of other community organizations, including the Alki Foundation and the Norman Archibald Charitable Foundation. Among his many honors was the National Association of Corporate Directors National Nonprofit Director of the Year Award in 2009. He was devoted to education, as is his wife, Lee, and chaired the Alliance for Education.
Mullin also was devoted to his family, raising four children with Lee, who worked as a nurse.
“They were clearly life partners,” said Jones. “She’s a wonderful person, also. They had a wonderful family.”
How Mullin combined family, work, friendships and a deep involvement in the larger community left those who knew him in awe.
“What a great role model for a professional person — someone who’s involved in the community for the right reasons,” said Jones. “Not for ego — just a desire to help your community, to help others. He made everybody’s life better. He made us all better people.”
Mullin often helped in quiet ways.
Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Fred Hutch executive vice president and deputy director and SCCA president and director from its founding until 2016, recalled how Mullin would attend scientific retreats to hear faculty and staff discuss clinical care and research.
“They weren’t board meetings or discussions. They didn’t require a board presence,” Appelbaum said. “Shan would go the extra mile to be at these all-day retreats to show board support and interest. He didn’t want to show interest and support just for the leaders but for the physicians, nurses and data managers.”
Mullin continued showing that support to the end. Slowed by a stroke and more recently diagnosed with leukemia, Mullin and his wife had moved to Horizon House, a Seattle continuing care community. Appelbaum was there a week ago to give a talk on the Hutch. Once again, Mullin went the extra mile.
“He and [his wife] Lee came down,” Appelbaum said. “I got a chance to give him a hug and tell him how much we appreciate all he’s done for us. For me, it was a little gift to get to see him one last time. It was an honor to know Shan for so many years.”
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.