Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim Professorship Supports Cancer Research

photo of Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim

Craig Jordan, Ph.D., (left) with Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim.

Little did Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim know that winter night in 2008 at the Naples, Florida home of Judy Linehan, just how soon, and how deeply, they would be involved in supporting the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center. But as they listened to friends such as Linehan describe the devastation cancer had brought to her family, and Michael Donnelly share his incredible story of surviving pancreatic cancer thanks to the physicians and researchers at the Wilmot Cancer Center, the seeds of giving were sown.

Today, the Wehrheims, longtime supporters of Rochester area charities and foundations, are strengthening the research efforts of the Wilmot Cancer Center with a $1.5 million gift to fund the Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim Professorship. The gift is being given to support the work of Craig Jordan, Ph.D., Director of Hematological Translational Research for the Wilmot Cancer Center. Jordan is a nationally recognized leader in cancer stem cell research and his lab is making breakthroughs in understanding and eradicating those cells that give rise to cancer. The focus of his research is on innovative therapies for leukemia and other hematologic malignancies.

“This community has been very good to us personally and we just felt we wanted to give back,” said Marilyn, a Rochester native who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Social Work at the University of Rochester. “We were looking for something to benefit the community and we chose the Wilmot Cancer Center. Cancer has taken a lot of our friends. We wanted to support talented researchers in our community.”

“The gift has allowed us to broaden our traditional giving pattern and at the same time create something with lasting effect,” explained Philip, a local businessman, who earlier in his career worked with B. Thomas Golisano to build Paychex. “I like the idea that the gift will be used to establish a professorship that will help fund cancer research into the future. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving.”

“As traditional sources of funding diminish, the generous philanthropy of private individuals will become increasingly important to continue the leading edge work of cancer researchers like Craig Jordan and others at our cancer center,” said Richard I. Fisher, Director of the Wilmot Cancer Center and Vice President of the University of Rochester Medical Center. “The gift that Phil and Marilyn have made will have far reaching effects on our research and our ongoing mission of finding a cure for cancer.”

The Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim Professorship was not the first gift that the Wehrheim’s have given to the Wilmot Cancer Center. Just months after that initial meeting at the Linehan home, Bob Kessler, Phil and Marilyn’s attorney and current chair of the Wilmot Center’s National Advisory Board, invited them to attend the 2008 Discovery Ball, an annual fundraiser for the center.

Once again, the Wehrheims were moved by some of the wonderful stories that the Wilmot Cancer Center made possible, particularly the personal account of University of Rochester President Joel Seligman, who shared the story of his successful battle with lymphoma. At the time, construction of the new Wilmot Cancer Center facility was just days from completion and a special, comprehensive campaign to fund the building and essential research was approximately $3.5 million short of its $42.5 million goal.

Kessler recalls the excitement of that evening, as generous gifts by the Wilmot family and Seligman spurred a flurry of gifts and commitments from Discovery Ball attendees that brought the campaign even closer to the goal.

“Marilyn is a pistol, and she started poking Phil and telling him to make up the difference,” Kessler said. “As the gifts kept coming in and the difference was around $250,000, Phil said ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’” When the Wehrheim’s made their gift Seligman picked up Marilyn and spun her around the dance floor, Kessler recalled.

Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim

Donors Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim

“They (the Wehrheims) are very, very good people who want to help others,” said Kessler, a close friend. “They traditionally have given in a very quiet way to the charities they support. I know that they know a lot of people – close friends – with cancer. To me they are a great example of giving back to the community where you’ve earned your wealth.”

“We’ve given to other organizations in the community but this represented an opportunity to support one that literally saves lives,” Phil said. “We were invited to the Ball and they were a little short of their goal that night. Marilyn and I had talked about what we could do for the center and we thought that was a good place to start.”

Professorships are awarded to faculty who are viewed as having demonstrated exceptional vision and services critical to the missions of their fields and institutions. These awards are one of the highest honors bestowed by the academic community. Jordan’s research has the potential to lead to tremendous advancements in the treatment of the most challenging and fatal cancers. His experience in translational research also helps bridge the gap between the research laboratory and clinical care, helping to more rapidly move therapies from the research lab to actual use with cancer patients.

The Wehrheims had met several times previously with Fisher, and learned about the importance of professorships in supporting top scientists who are on the leading edge of cancer research. They later met with Jordan and toured his lab.

“He was very affable, very nice, and very bright,” recalled Marilyn, whose career in social work included service with the Monroe County Department of Social Services and the Hillside Children’s Center.

“The thing that struck me was that in response to our questions about his research – and we asked plenty – he was able to take the mystery out of his work,” Phil recalled. “His research is very complicated and all of my questions were answered clearly and to the point. We were able to learn a lot just because of his ability to explain it in a logical way.”

“This kind of gift is the single most powerful way to support the strength of an academic institution and advances in research,” said Jordan. “The generosity and wisdom of Mr. and Mrs. Wehrheim in making this commitment is truly outstanding.”

“I think the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Wilmot Cancer Center are making great strides in fighting this horrible disease of cancer,” Marilyn said.

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