A decade ago, Maxine Adler brought her cat Du Bee to the University of California, Davis, veterinary hospital for treatment of his cancer. The cat later died, but his very large legacy lives on.
Adler was killed by a hit-and-run driver two years ago as she crossed a street near her home in Florida. But before she died, she bequeathed more than $7.6 million in her pet's memory to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Now that Adler's estate is fully settled, Du Bee's name is being used to lure top scientists and graces a prestigious endowed fund for cancer research. Any breakthrough treatments discovered as a result of Adler's bequest will carry the cat's moniker.
Adler's gift is one of the largest single donations in the veterinary school's history, said Tom Venturino, the institution's assistant dean of development. "We've had others in the $10 million range, but this is right up there," Venturino said.
The woman behind the donation was a force of nature, said Kelly Nimtz, a retired UC Davis executive who got to know Adler over a period of nearly two decades.
"She was larger than life," said Nimtz, Venturino's predecessor. "Once you met Maxine, you never forgot her."
Adler, who was born in Brooklyn and retained her New York accent long after moving away, lived a lavish life with her husband, John, a Hungarian immigrant who came to America penniless and worked his way to the top of a computer company in Milpitas.
The couple had homes in California and Florida, and traveled the world on yachts and private planes. They invested in fine wines, lived in gated communities and drove fancy cars. They had no children, but were generous to friends and causes they supported.
After they divorced in 2001, Maxine Adler bought a house in the Bay Area and toggled back and forth between there and a home in Boca Raton, Fla.
"She was very petite, very fit and stylish," recalled Cathy Gillum, a neighbor of Adler's in Los Gatos. "She sparkled."
Adler ran 30 marathons during her lifetime, and regularly climbed Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, friends said.
"Her favorite thing to do was to walk," said a Boca Raton neighbor, Gail Poon. "She walked for miles every day."
Her cars were fast and sporty, said Nimtz. Once, he said, she treated Bennie Osburn, a former veterinary school dean, to a wild ride in her gray Porsche, followed by a caviar lunch. At one typically staid university event, she showed up in glittery sunglasses and "skin-tight, leopard-skin pants," Nimtz recalled.
Adler cared for feral cats in Boca Raton, Poon said, and always had at least one pet feline she transported back and forth to California.
"Maxine had about seven different cats during the time that I knew her, and she spared them no concern or expense," said Nimtz.
Her first donation to UC Davis came nearly 20 years ago, in the form of a $250 check following a phone consultation with a veterinarian in training.
"She called because one of her cats had a behavior problem, clawing the couch or spraying the furniture or something," Nimtz said. "Apparently her cat's behavior improved so much after the resident talked to her that she decided to send us a check."
Du Bee entered the picture about 10 years ago, when Adler brought him to the vet school for treatment of his cancer. Adler had a special bond with the multicolored cat, who she said was a stray that had wandered onto her boat.
The feline's cancer ultimately proved fatal, but Adler was appreciative of the care he received, said Nimtz.
In 2004, she donated $1 million to support cancer research at the school's Center for Companion Animal Health. The fund provides annual research awards to the faculty and residents whose work advances cancer treatment, prevention and diagnosis.
Adler, who normally spent summers in the Bay Area, was stuck in Florida in late July 2009 tending to a plumbing leak in her home, neighbors said. News reports said she was crossing a busy street near her home one afternoon when a driver struck her, then fled.
The driver was caught and charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Adler was 70 years old.
Months passed before UC Davis learned she had left more than $7.6 million to the veterinary school. The five funds Adler established are being disbursed, and "will go on in perpetuity," Venturino said.
Among them is the Du Bee Cancer Research Award Endowed Fund, which annually will give out a Du Bee Award to researchers who make breakthroughs in cancer treatment for companion animals. Any cancer drug discovered with these funds is to have Du Bee in its name.
Adler's estate also established two endowed chairs to help the university lure researchers in animal oncology and genetics. Other endowed funds in Adler's name will support a graduate fellowship and research designed to improve conditions at animal shelters.
"This is a very competitive world," Nimtz said. "If you want the best feline researchers, you have to be able to guarantee them a resource base that would exceed what they might have anywhere else. You want the stars, and thanks to Maxine and her generosity, we will be able to attract them."