A Heartening Reunion and Gift
Date: June 15, 2013
When Mike Huff was 9 and his older brother 11, they began their “mowing careers” to boost the family’s strained finances. “We’d start at sun-up and quit at dark,” recalls Huff, one of nine children, “until we had enough money to buy a riding lawn mower with lights on it, so we could work even later.” Eventually, those funds bought two sets of bunk beds for the brothers and a piano for the five sisters.
Over time, Huff drew from that experience to launch his career as co-founder of NN Ball & Roller Inc., now the largest independent manufacturer of precision steel ball bearings and rollers in the world. Along with Huff’s innate work ethic came a penchant to give back. And so begins a wonderful story of philanthropy to Johns Hopkins cardiovascular research.
For years, Huff had suffered from symptoms caused by cardiac hypertrophy, a heart disease in which the muscle wall becomes very thick. In 1995, when Huff—then 47—arrived at The Johns Hopkins Hospital from his native Tennessee, he was short of breath and his blood pressure was soaring. But so were his hopes. Now he’d found his way to Johns Hopkins cardiologist and researcher David Kass.
From that first day, the interactions between Kass, Huff and his wife, Janet, would turn out to be “life-changing,” says Janet. “Dr. Kass greeted us with a big smile, filled with compassion. We were worried and out of our element, but he spoke to us at length in language we could understand.”
Kass told them that Huff qualified for a study designed to see if a pacemaker would help those with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle that reduces one’s ability to exercise and can even lead to sudden death.
Huff agreed to take part in the study, and while he was recovering from the pacemaker procedure, Kass discovered that Huff’s potassium levels kept coming back low. The culprit turned out to be hyperaldosteronism, a condition in which the adrenal glands produce too much of the hormone aldosterone. Between treatment for that discovery and the pacemaker, Huff was on a better road. “To this day,” says Janet, “I believe Dr. Kass saved Mike’s life.”
Following his hospital stay, Huff and his wife returned home, and his heart has remained fairly robust ever since. Over the years, the Huffs, now retired and living in Florida, lost touch with Kass. But as the couple began thinking about their estate—counting their blessings—Kass quickly came to mind. They wanted to reciprocate his kindness by supporting his research.
Development officer Shannon Wollman, with Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Office of Planned Giving, recalls the Huffs’ warmth and resolve to give back in an impactful way. Eager to reconnect, the Huffs set up a phone call with Kass. They shared their plans to leave a generous bequest to the Heart and Vascular Institute, half of which would establish the permanently endowed David Kass Cardiovascular Research Fund. The other half goes to more immediate support in Kass’ lab and after Kass retires the research of his successor. “It was an amazing call,” recalls Wollman. “Everyone was crying.”
“I was very surprised,” says Kass. “It’s a marvelous thing to do,” especially now, he adds, when federal funds for NIH studies are drying up. Ultimately, says Kass, “this is an endowment for the future. To fund early, new ideas is incredibly important.”
An in-person reunion followed in Palm Beach last January, where the Huffs made their donation official. The couple has also begun making smaller but significant gifts toward Kass’ current work. “The Huffs are the most remarkable, warm, funny and down-to-earth couple I’ve ever met,” says Kass. “Their gift will have a profound impact.”