ROCHESTER, Minn. — When Michael Sullivan decided to raise money for Mayo Clinic by auctioning off a vintage John Deere tractor, he expected to raise between $25,000 and $30,000. Instead, he garnered nearly $500,000.

Sullivan, a 33 year-old Hamilton, Ill., resident, enlisted his family's auctioneering business to collect bidders for a 1972 John Deere tractor. The cause was personal: Sullivan credits Mayo Clinic for saving his life as he underwent treatment for a rare form of leukemia.

Dan Sullivan, Michael's father, quickly realized this auction would be unlike any they'd held in their 40 years of doing business. Before Dan — or one of his brothers — picked up the microphone on Aug. 22 to take the first bid on the tractor, the family had already raised $250,000 from donors.

The Sullivan family raised $406,000 for Mayo Clinic by auctioning off a 1972 John Deere tractor. Contributed / Sullivan Auctioneers
The Sullivan family raised $406,000 for Mayo Clinic by auctioning off a 1972 John Deere tractor. Contributed / Sullivan Auctioneers

That wasn't their last surprise of the day.

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Like usual, with the tractor on the block, the auctioneers rattled off prices in their typical cadence, and the John Deere sold to the highest bidder. Then came the twist: the winning bidder donated the tractor back to the Sullivans and committed to send the money to Mayo Clinic.

Stunned, the auctioneers restarted the process, bouncing back and forth to bidders as the tractor's price tag went higher.

A second bidder emerged victorious, offering up $100,000. However, but this person too returned the tractor to the family and donated the six-figure bid to Mayo Clinic.

Auctioneers were floored. But started a third round of bidding.

By the time the John Deere sold a third time, settling in with its final owners, the family had raised $406,000 for Mayo Clinic. That number has climbed near $500,000 as checks continue to come in.

"It just blows our minds," Dan said. "To come together and care that much, we're just so excited about it."

Jon & Marcia Kinzenbaw of Kinze Mfg., Williamsburg, Iowa, standing in front of the John Deere 4020 tractor they purchased.
Jon & Marcia Kinzenbaw of Kinze Mfg., Williamsburg, Iowa, standing in front of the John Deere 4020 tractor they purchased.

A sudden illness

While the auction itself was a joyous event, the journey to get there was a difficult one for Michael and his family.

In August 2020, Michael began to feel ill. His lymph nodes were swollen, he developed a fever and grew sluggish. The family all thought the same thing: COVID-19.

However, a few hospital visits later, the doctors delivered a devastating diagnosis. Sullivan was living with a rare disease called acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Quickly, he scheduled an appointment at Mayo Clinic. Doctors started Michael on chemotherapy and prepared him for a bone marrow transplant.

It's a sometimes difficult process to find a donor match — the patient and donor's protein markers found in most cells in the body must align.

Doctors first looked for a donor within Michael's family, testing his two sisters. Initially, Mayo Clinic doctors determined the sisters weren't a close enough match to transplant with him, so they turned to the worldwide tissue donor registry. A match wasn't waiting on that list either.

"We were pretty devastated," Dan said, recalling how the family was desperately wondering what the next steps were to save Michael, whose prognosis was grim.

Ultimately, Mayo doctors opted to use Michael's 23-year-old sister, Gracie, as a donor. She wasn't a perfect match, but the clock was ticking, and she was the closest doctors could find. Around Christmas in 2020, she received shots on four consecutive days that helped stems cells migrate into her bloodstream, and on the fifth day, doctors collected a blood sample packed with her marrow.

"It was so easy on her," said Dan. "The opportunity to be a donor, it's not hard. There are no biopsies. There's no heavy, big needles or anything like that."

Bone marrow donors typically resume normal tasks within a few days after donation, according to Mayo Clinic.

The auction of a lifetime

As Michael continued to thrive after his transplant, the family planned an auction to give back to Mayo Clinic.

By the time the sun rose on Aug. 22, they had already raised ten times more than they aimed to.

After the two winning bidders made the unprecedented move of donating the tractor back to the family, the Sullivans knew they were in the midst of something special.

Jim Sullivan auctions off the 4020 John Deere with brothers Dan and John Sullivan taking bids. Contributed / Dan Sullivan
Jim Sullivan auctions off the 4020 John Deere with brothers Dan and John Sullivan taking bids. Contributed / Dan Sullivan

"Everything played out. It was just a really nice event. A big crowd. We never would have believed it when we started, that we'd be raising half a million dollars for Mayo Clinic," Dan said.

The day was packed with guest speakers, such as Rochester's own Greg Peterson, known as "Machinery Pete."

"Thinking about individuals being able to save another family or a person is really powerful," Peterson said in an interview with Dan Sullivan on his Machinery Pete YouTube channel leading up to the auction.

The family also received materials from Be the Match — a company specializing in helping patients in need of bone marrow transplants — to sign up attendees at the auction who wish to be bone marrow donors.

"Now it's about the next person," Dan said. "It's about the chance that you could get a phone call and save somebody's life."