By Mike Hembree
Greenville businessman and philanthropist Jerry Dempsey, who died March 12, left positive handprints across the Upstate – from the arts to medicine to religion, but his impact will forever remain personal to Lisa Smith.
Smith, a Travelers Rest resident, was diagnosed with adenoid cystic cancer, a rare form of the disease, in 2015. Doctors at Duke University Hospital said treatment for the cancer, which started in her jaw and spread to her lungs, would be difficult and gave her six months to live.
The Rare Tumor Center of Prisma Health-Upstate’s Cancer Institute placed Smith in a new clinical trial, and the treatments significantly shrank her lung tumors and have prolonged her life.
A $1 million contribution from Dempsey and his wife, Harriet, was the seed money for the Rare Tumor Center.
“The act he did impacted my family tremendously,” Smith said. “Something that mattered to him changed our lives without him even knowing us. That’s powerful.”
Smith said she met Dempsey at a fundraising event, where he told her, “I’ve seen your scans and they look really good.” From that point forward, she called him “Doctor” Dempsey. “And that made him smile,” she said.
Dr. Jeff Edenfield, the center’s medical director, said Dempsey’s goal “was to help people with an unmet need and to try to help the Greenville Cancer Institute grow in distinction and become a standard of excellence in that area. I don’t think I thought as big as Mr. Dempsey. That’s why he was good to be around.”
He said Dempsey was hands-on throughout the process of launching the Rare Tumor Center and helping it advance. “His point was that he was willing to use his resources, but he wanted to know that it’s working and helping,” Edenfield said.
Dempsey, 86, was a chairman of the Prisma Health-Upstate (then Greenville Hospital System) board and served in similar capacities across a spectrum of organizations. He was heavily involved in the Greenville arts community and was a former president of the Greenville Symphony board.
“He was a fixture and a leader, and he will be really missed,” said Mary Louise Mims, a member of the symphony’s endowment board. “His knowledge helped the symphony in so many ways, and he was always there to help and to enjoy the performances. He prized the symphony and looked after it as you would expect a fine leader to do.”
Mike Riordan, co-CEO of Prisma Health, said Dempsey was instrumental in a wide span of growth in the hospital system, including the addition of hospitals in Laurens and Oconee counties and the corporate changes that led to the formation of Prisma Health.
“During Jerry Dempsey’s leadership on the Greenville Health System Board of Trustees and as its chair, GHS experienced extraordinary growth in its clinical and academic programs,” Riordan said. “That included the development of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine-Greenville and landmark partnerships with academic partners.”
The Dempseys created the Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Research Conference, which is hosted annually by Prisma Health and Clemson University. The conference brings together health care providers and engineering and bioengineering faculty.
Dr. Jerry Youkey, founding dean of the USC School of Medicine in Greenville, called Dempsey “one of the most remarkable men I’ve known. His wisdom and insight as a leader and champion of education meant a great deal to me. Our school is better because of his enthusiastic support.”
A 1954 Clemson graduate, Dempsey grew up in Landrum, the son of textile workers. The family’s four-room house had no indoor plumbing or heat.
He worked at Borg-Warner, where he eventually became president and chief operating officer. He later served as chairman of Chemical Waste Management and chairman of PPG Industries Inc. He retired from PPG in 1997 and moved to Greenville.
Dempsey was a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board of the Clemson School of Engineering and chaired the university’s President’s Advisory Council.
A memorial service for Dempsey was held March 15 at Greenville’s First Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder and active member.