As they listened one winter night in 2008 to friends such as Judy 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 for Phil and Marilyn Wehrheim. Today, the Wehrheims, longtime supporters of Rochester area charities and foundations, are strengthening the research efforts of the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center with a $1.5 million commitment to fund the Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim Professorship.
The gift is being given to support 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 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 keep 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 is not the first gift that the Wehrheims have given to the Wilmot Cancer Center. Just months after that initial gathering at the Linehan home, Bob Kessler, Philip and Marilyn’s attorney and 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. A number of donations were made that evening to significantly close the gap, capped by a $250,000 commitment from the Wehrheims.
“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 something that literally saves lives,” Philip said.
Professorships are awarded to faculty who are viewed as having demonstrated exceptional vision and services critical to the missions of their fields and institutions and 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.
“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,” Philip 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.”
“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. “We need more scientists and more research discoveries, and we need to keep good talent in Rochester.”