Certified orthopedic nurse Deborah K. Knowles smooths a cast for a patient in 1990. / Photo courtesy WVU

$1.27M gift boosts Huggins research endowment at WVU Cancer Institute

MORGANTOWN – A Charleston man’s $1.27 million gift to the WVU Cancer Institute will help improve cancer care for future patients in memory of his late wife, certified orthopedic nurse Deborah K. Knowles.

The planned gift from William “Mickey” Knowles Jr. benefits the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment. WVU Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bob Huggins established the endowment after his mother lost her battle with colon cancer in 2003. To date, the fund has raised more than $7 million to support, among many things, clinical research trials for cancer patients in West Virginia.

“I just want to say thanks to Mickey Knowles, on behalf of his wife Deborah,” Huggins said. “He has committed $1.27 million to the Norma Mae Huggins cancer research fund that we are building here at West Virginia University for the great people in the state of West Virginia. Generosity like Mickey’s is crucial as we continue our mission to find a cure for this terrible disease.”

Deborah Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, among other health issues. She died Dec. 2, 2018, at the age of 63. As Mickey Knowles sought a way to honor his wife of 34 years, a friend suggested he look into the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment.

The fund seemed like a fitting tribute considering his respect and admiration for Huggins, his wife’s career in healthcare and the impact of cancer on his family. He also lost his father and mother to cancer.

“I’m just trying to do the right thing,” Knowles said. “I want to make a difference in somebody’s life, give somebody the chance my wife didn’t have. … I appreciate the fact that the money stays in the state. I appreciate the fact that the research happens here. Anything I can do to help change the outcome of cancer, I’m for it.”

Mickey Knowles described his wife as “a good woman” who was smart and strongly opinionated. She was inspired to become a nurse by her mother, a surgical nurse who died of cancer. Deborah Knowles worked for Dr. Luis Loimil, an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston, for more than 30 years, and her dedication to helping others heal often went above and beyond her nursing duties. Some patients even referred to her as “Dr. Debbie.”

“She lived and breathed her work,” Knowles said. “She did a lot of good for people. … Her main mission in life was to make people better.”

A retired IBEW master electrician who spent much of his career as a supplier quality engineer in the auto industry, Knowles says he was “lucky enough” to entrust his money to City Holding to make his memorial gift possible. He was “blown away” to have the opportunity to speak to Huggins following his gift, and he is committed to boosting his support to the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment in his wife’s name.

“The Norma Mae Huggins Endowment started as an amazing tribute to a woman who clearly made a meaningful impact on her friends and family. It has grown into an Endowment that supports the mission of the WVU Cancer Institute; that support allows us to push further and faster as we deliver state-of-the-art care to our patients, while innovating new ways to prevent, screen, and treat patients with cancer,” Hannah Hazard-Jenkins, M.D., director of the WVU Cancer Institute, said. “Without the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment, we would not be able to invest in the people of this state and region as we are able to do today. Mickey Knowles’ gift honoring his wife enhances the capabilities of this Endowment and thereby the care of people of West Virginia.”

Knowles hopes his wife would be proud to know that he is building upon her legacy in healthcare. In recognition of his generosity, a plaque bearing Deborah Knowles’ name will be displayed in the second-floor patient waiting area at the WVU Cancer Institute.

Knowles’ gift was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University. To learn more about making a gift to the WVU Cancer Institute, visit WVUCancer.org/Give.

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