George Vanderheiden was a humble man — not one to talk about his achievements (there were many), not even with his closest confidantes.
"You’d never know what he accomplished,” recalls Bruce Bartlett, Vanderheiden’s cousin, though they were as close as brothers. “The only way I’d find out anything was because his mother would tell my mother, who would tell me. Trying to get it from George was like pulling teeth.”
Vanderheiden died last October from a rare form of pancreatic cancer — one that is currently untreatable and for which not even clinical trials offered hope. In the wake of that loss, Bartlett and his wife, Patricia, chose to honor their cousin’s life with a gift to fuel pioneering work that could save countless lives.
Their $3 million benefaction establishes the George A. Vanderheiden Endowed Chair in Cancer Immunological Research at the Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies, or CAMI. CAMI is the University of Arizona Health Sciences’ nascent biomedical research hub, charged with tackling some of the world’s most intractable diseases. Its pioneering roadmap has the potential to make cancer, the second-leading cause of death worldwide, not just treatable but curable. And that’s an investment that longtime fund manager Vanderheiden would no doubt deem blue chip.
The promise of precision medicine
“Giving is personal,” Patricia Bartlett says, reflecting on the origins of her and Bruce’s philanthropy at UArizona. The couple began supporting education after their son, Benjamin Bartlett, graduated from the university in 2010. It was through early conversations exploring the dearth of medical diagnoses for youth with learning and attention differences that the Bartletts first connected with Michael Dake, senior vice president of UArizona Health Sciences, who is leading the development of CAMI. Sadly, the Barletts’ connection to CAMI’s work was personal even before Vanderheiden’s illness and death.
Bruce’s father and one of his brothers died of cancer. Patricia’s brother, also deceased, received hormone therapy that dramatically improved his quality of life in his final years. Hormone treatments alter the cellular processes of disease and are one class of the molecular therapies at the heart of CAMI’s mission, built on growing evidence that cell- and gene-based interventions capitalizing on the body’s innate systems offer the best measures for fighting disease.
Immunotherapy, CAMI’s other focus, is one of today’s most promising approaches to cancer treatment — one with the potential to bypass the side effects of even gold-standard interventions that too often compromise long-term health and wellness. Classic immunotherapies such as vaccines are already being tested for certain cancers, and CAMI scientists could one day identify biomarkers that help determine highly precise molecular and immunotherapy interventions tailored to individual patients’ unique biological makeups and needs.
A commitment to giving back
The Bartletts, like Vanderheiden, didn’t grow up with money. In college, Bruce Bartlett and Vanderheiden advertised in the town paper to paint, wash windows and do other odd jobs for extra cash. Bruce got through college on student loans, as did Patricia, who worked her way through school as a waitress. The two became teachers — as did Patricia’s best friend, Sharon, who made a fourth for double-dating and eventually became Vanderheiden’s wife.
Each couple had three children, and many summers were spent with all of them together at the Vanderheidens’ house on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. And the families shared a close-held belief that shaped their trajectories, as well as the lives of many more.
“Since there is nothing we can take with us from this life,” Vanderheiden once said, “we should try to leave behind as much as possible. Those who have been successful have an even greater responsibility to make an impact with our time, talents and resources.”
Vanderheiden took that responsibility seriously. His wife recalls that he would read a newspaper story about someone in need and just send them money, especially if doing so helped a child. Vanderheiden’s passion for pickleball, sparked during winters in Arizona, gave rise to courts across their New Hampshire hometown of Wolfeboro. And regional charter schools are $14 million stronger thanks to the Vanderheidens’ commitment to education.
The causes they supported reveal a generosity and compassion moved by so much need in the world: mortgage-free homes for families of fallen military service members and first responders, adaptive sports for people with disabilities, safety and wellness programs for pregnant women struggling with addiction, youth education-to-employment programs in Kenya. The list goes on, and these are only the Vanderheidens’ direct acts of philanthropy.
“In an indirect way, he probably helped a few million people with their retirement and quality of life,” Bruce Bartlett notes. It’s an idea also expressed by one of Vanderheiden’s colleagues in reply to an article celebrating his legendary work: “We all want to leave a legacy. George probably had a family and an amazing personal legacy, but he also has a legacy for thousands of people he will never meet.
”Indeed, it’s impossible to know how many lives have been touched by the ripples of Vanderheiden’s investing acumen. How many families, confident in the health of their growing savings, could pay for their kids to go to college? How many food banks, animal shelters and fraternal orders of police benefited with small-scale donations from households he’d helped make financially secure? How do we tally the magnitude of that impact over a 30-year career and moving forward?
A final gift
Two months before his death, Vanderheiden wrote to Bruce and Patricia about his decision to forgo another round of chemotherapy. The treatment, which had proved ineffective, damaged organs, fogged his brain and wracked his body with pain, chills, cramps, fatigue and a host of other ailments — the very complications of treatment that might someday be eradicated by research under the CAMI chair that now bears his name.
“My appetite has returned, and food is now enjoyable again,” Vanderheiden shared. “I am no longer staring down a dark rabbit hole, but instead I’m looking with joy at the blue waters of Lake Winnie. I am not saying stupid things and forgetting friends’ names, but instead staring into their eyes and seeing caring. This clarity of thought reminds me that people are far more important than any other thing in your life.”
It was one last gift of the mentoring that came naturally to Vanderheiden: sharing what he was learning and, in the process, giving the people he loved a small shelter of peace against the loss they were facing. That letter also included a challenge to himself — a kind of echo rippling forward from the beginning of his life some 76 years before.
Vanderheiden’s father was serving in World War II on USS Eagle 56 when the patrol boat was sunk off the coast of Maine on April 23, 1945. He never got to hold George, his newborn son.
“My daughter will give birth to her fourth child in a short time, and I want to go out not fighting one of life’s curses, but holding a new life in my arms,” Vanderheiden wrote to Bruce and Patricia in closing his letter. “That is my new goal.”
Vanderheiden met the goal he’d set for himself. Before his death, he held his 3-week-old namesake, Georgia.