$2 Million Surprise Gift Announced at UMass Medical School Gala

Framingham couple tops their own previous $3 million gift, resulting in $5 million, largest-ever private gift to UMMS

WORCESTER, Mass - First it was $1 million. Then $2 million more. Then, in a surprise announcement made at Saturday night's black-tie dinner to launch the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Campaign for Research, Framingham entrepreneur Jack Blais and his wife Shelley pledged an additional $2 million to fund pediatric cancer research at the University, for a total pledge of $5 million. Mr. Blais, the founder of an optical coating corporation that was recently purchased by Corning, said he wants to match the pledge made by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, making the Blais gift the single largest private gift ever given to the Medical School to date.

"Once again, Jack and Shelley Blais have astounded us with their generosity and dedication to our mission of curing disease through medical research," said Aaron Lazare, Chancellor and Dean of the Medical School. "They've taken the spirit of our capital campaign to heart and are an inspiration to others. They made the evening truly a night to remember." The Massachusetts AFL-CIO vowed in 1999 to raise $5 million over five years through the annual Walk to Cure Cancer, the third of which will be held on Labor Day, Monday, September 3. Anna Pierce, who has worked to raise funds to support cancer research at UMass Medical School since her daughter Ali's death from liver cancer, was visibly moved by the announcement Saturday night. It was the courageous story of Ali and her father, John, which originally drew the Blaises to support research at UMass Medical School. Ali, a high school freshman, succumbed to cancer in 1996; her father died of a heart attack less than a year later while training for a marathon he was planning to run in order to raise money for the endowment fund created in her memory. Ali's cousin, Lisa Ling, of the daytime talk show The View, was the evening's master of ceremonies, along with Peter Mehegan of WCVB TV's Chronicle, and had recently run the Boston Marathon in memory of her cousin and uncle.

The announcement of the Blaises' additional gift followed an inspirational evening that focused on the Medical School's research goals as well as its achievements. The gift will support pediatric cancer research in the new $100 million research laboratory building, currently under construction on the Worcester campus. The glass and steel building, which now anchors the 67-acre campus on Belmont Street and is due to open in August, will accelerate the growth of the Medical School's research endeavors and secure Worcester's place as the center of biomedical advances in the region.

At the gala, Campaign for Research Chair Nancy Edman Feldman, of West Newton, announced that $22 million has been raised toward the campaign goal of $38 million. The Blaises' latest gift brings the total raised to $24 million, or 63% of the goal.

A mechanical engineer who built his fortune by turning concepts into reality, Mr. Blais pledged with his first million-dollar gift in December to help the Medical School raise the $5 million needed to construct, outfit and recruit researchers to new laboratories for Peter E. Newburger, MD, professor of pediatrics and molecular genetics & microbiology, who oversaw Ali Pierce's treatment. But instead of simply encouraging friends and colleagues to contribute, Mr. Blais is putting his money where his mouth is: soon after writing the million-dollar check, he pledged $2 million more over the next two years. Saturday's outright gift of an additional $2 million was a surprise to the Medical School. "The more I see of UMass, the more impressed I am," said Mr. Blais, "and the more I want to do to help UMass find a cure for pediatric cancer."