"Awe-inspiring" gift to University of Massachusetts eclipses all previous individual donations

Framingham couple tops their own previous $5 million gift, resulting in $21 million pledge to name UMass Medical School research building for UMMS Chancellor Aaron Lazare

October 24, 2001

Boston, Mass. - In a surprise announcement made at a celebration dinner for the new research laboratory building on the Worcester campus of the University of Massachusetts, Framingham entrepreneur Jack Blais and his wife Shelley pledged an additional $15 million -- for a total charitable commitment of $21 million to the University of Massachusetts -- the largest gift from an individual in the history of the University of Massachusetts. Mr. Blais, the founder of an optical coating corporation that was purchased by Corning last year, initially matched the pledge of $5 million to UMass Medical School made by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO: last night at the Worcester Centrum Centre, where more than 500 faculty, staff, researchers and friends of the University of Massachusetts Medical School had gathered to celebrate the completion of the new UMMS research laboratory building, Jack Blais asked to say a few words.

"My wife, Shelly and I have been so impressed with the accomplishments at UMass under the leadership of Dean Aaron Lazare, but we thought the only thing 'wrong' with this beautiful new research building was that it didn't have a name. We want this building to have a name: the Aaron Lazare Medical Research Building. I think we all agree that is the only name that should be on that building."

On Friday, October 19, at a special convocation honoring Dr. Lazare's tenth anniversary as Chancellor of the UMass Worcester campus, the Blaises announced a surprise $1 million gift to UMass in honor of Dr. Lazare.

"Jack and Shelly Blais are perhaps the most remarkable people I have ever met," said Dr. Lazare. "They have over the past year embraced the medical school community and deeply involved themselves in the future direction of this campus. Their generosity and their dedication to our mission of curing disease through medical research will have an impact for generations to come. This has been an unforgettable week in the history of the University of Massachusetts." The Blaises were initially introduced to UMMS by 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. 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. The announcement of the Blaises' gift came on an evening that focused on the Medical School's research goals as well as its achievements. The new $100 million research laboratory building on the Worcester campus was dedicated on Friday, October 19. The 360,000-square-foot glass and steel building, which now anchors the 67-acre medical school campus, 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.

A mechanical engineer who built his fortune by turning concepts into reality, Mr. Blais pledged with his first million-dollar gift in December 2000 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 put his money where his mouth is: soon after writing the million-dollar check, he pledged $2 million more over the next two years. At a kick off for the capital campaign in May, he made an additional $2 million surprise gift, saying, "The more I see of UMass, the more impressed I am," said Mr. Blais, "and the more I want to do to help UMass."