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Record generosity: $38.5 million for UC Davis vision science

UC Davis Tschannen

Credit: Kevin Ulrich/UC Davis

Grateful patient Ernest E. Tschannen: He walks six miles every day and cherishes his time outdoors.

The UC Davis Health System today (March 10) announced receiving $38.5 million in gifts and pledges from Ernest E. Tschannen to support the UC Davis Eye Center and the Center for Vision Science. These gifts make Tschannen the largest individual donor to UC Davis in the university’s 108-year history.

"On behalf of the entire university, I would like to thank Mr. Tschannen for this tremendous gift to UC Davis," Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi said. "As UC Davis continues its quest to be a leading university for the 21st century and beyond, partnerships like the one we have with Mr. Tschannen will be critical as we work together to tackle some of the greatest challenges of our time, including finding a cure for the world's leading cause of blindness."

Julie A. Freischlag, vice chancellor for Human Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, is extremely grateful to Tschannen for his generosity.

“We are proud to have a strong partnership with such a visionary individual,” Freischlag said. “Because of the health system’s interdisciplinary approach to medicine and its position as an economic and health care leader in Northern California, Mr. Tschannen’s gifts will have a profound impact on thousands of lives in our region.”

Tschannen, a grateful patient of the UC Davis Health System, contributed a gift of $18.5 million as part of his overall gift to name the UC Davis Eye Center, which is one of the region’s most sought-after eye clinics, serving more than 55,000 patients each year with advanced specialty care.

UC Davis aspires to be transformational leader

“Our mission is to be the world's transformational leader in collaborative vision research and in developing cures for blinding eye diseases from cornea to cortex,” said Mark J. Mannis, chair of ophthalmology and vision science and director of the eye center.

“Mr. Tschannen’s gifts will allow us to realize this vision beyond anything we could have realized on our own. His generosity will fuel innovative, collaborative vision research, and allow us to provide state-of-the-art, world-class eye care and training. For that, we are eternally grateful."

Other funds will support research on the optic nerve and glaucoma — a disease that is the one of the leading causes of blindness, has no cure, and affects more than 3 million Americans, only half of whom have been diagnosed.

The gift announcement comes on the heels of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s declaration of Feb. 16 as Ernest E. Tschannen Day in Sacramento. The honor was bestowed on Tschannen’s 91st birthday and recognized his contributions to the local community. In addition to UC Davis, Tschannen has made major philanthropic commitments to the American River Parkway Foundation, Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway and other Sacramento-based organizations.

“Ernest has been an inspirational fixture in Sacramento’s nonprofit community, devoting a lifetime to helping others," Johnson said at the Feb. 16 City Council meeting. "Throughout the course of his life, he has committed a majority of his earnings to make Sacramento a city where all citizens’ basic needs are met, and he advances research and cures as much as possible."

Ernest E. Tschannen Eye Center

“I have realized great success in the United States, and so my primary goal in life now is to give back to the country that gave so much to me," Tschannen said. "I like to help whenever I can. I’m so glad I am able to do it.”

Born in 1925, Tschannen grew up in the small town of Aarwangen, Switzerland, where some of his earliest jobs included delivering bread after high school and guarding the Swiss border during World War II. Tschannen received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in Switzerland, and, in the 1950s, emigrated to Canada and then to the Midwest — first Detroit, then Minneapolis — to pursue a career as an engineer.

Tschannen, who is fluent in German, French and English, started buying investment properties as a hobby and eventually quit his job to manage his properties full time. He is now a real estate investor and owns 28 apartment complexes throughout the United States. He said he considers the Ernest E. Tschannen Eye Center a unique part of his investment portfolio.

“Even though I don’t own the building, this has become a top priority in my portfolio,” Tschannen said. “And this investment is just as important to me as my other real estate ventures because it will help advance glaucoma research, a disease that has afflicted me personally, and support two communities — UC Davis and Sacramento — which have contributed so much to my health and happiness.”

Grateful patient's first gift: $25

In 2000, Tschannen noticed his eyesight was failing. As someone who walks six miles every day and cherishes his time outdoors, losing his sight to glaucoma was a frightening prospect.

Referred by his optometrist to the UC Davis Eye Center, Tschannen underwent eye surgery by Michele Lim to improve his vision and manage his glaucoma, a disease that damages the eye's optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness when untreated

Because of his experience at the eye center, Tschannen was inspired to donate $1.5 million (after an initial donation of $25) to advance research on the optic nerve and to help find a cure for glaucoma and other eye diseases. The funds also were used to recruit and hire one of the top optic nerve researchers in the country, Nicholas Marsh-Armstrong, who will join the Center for Vision Science faculty later this month.

Driven by a desire to make an even greater impact on UC Davis and the Sacramento community, Tschannen recently signed an agreement of $37 million, including an outright commitment of $18.5 million, that upon approval from the University of California, will name the future home of the UC Davis Eye Center, which brings his lifetime giving to UC Davis Health System to more than $38.5 million.

“Across the board, I have received the best of care from all of the areas of UC Davis,” Tschannen said. “Everyone, including Dr. Reggie Low in cardiology, Dr. Faith Fitzgerald in internal medicine, and Dr. Mark Mannis and Dr. Michele Lim at the eye center, has provided me with excellent care. They work together as a team to take care of me. Not only are they brilliant scientists and clinicians, but they also are my very good friends. I come here for care, but they treat me like family.”

Tschannen’s gifts have initiated the planning process for the building of a new eye center on the health system's Sacramento campus. The UC Davis Eye Center is Northern California’s leading academic center for ophthalmic services.