A wealthy real estate investor and grateful patient of the UC Davis Health System has given a $38.5 million gift for eye research and treatment, marking the biggest individual donation in the university’s history, according to officials.
Donor Ernest E. Tschannen, 91, underwent eye surgery at UC Davis after noticing in 2000 that his eyesight was failing due to glaucoma. The successful treatment prompted him to donate $25 at first to the university, he said.
He then followed it up with a $1.5 million gift, which the university used to hire a new optic nerve researcher and bolster efforts to find a cure for glaucoma. He then upped the ante with a $37 million donation, about $18.5 million of which will go directly toward to the soon-to-be-built Ernest E. Tschannen Eye Center,
“I was so impressed with the care that I received that I decided I would like to start funding a program,” said Tschannen.
Tschannen is not your typical millionaire. The soft-spoken Switzerland native lives alone in a modest Orangevale apartment, and spends most of his time taking peaceful walks around Lake Natoma. At a press conference Thursday, he spent most of his podium time commending his doctors and thanking UC Davis for giving him an opportunity to help.
The UC Davis Eye Center provides advanced specialty care to about 55,000 eye patients each year. It hosts fellowships and residency programs, and participates in national clinical trials. Researchers at the eye center collaborate with several other departments on the UC Davis campus including the school of medicine, the veterinary school and primate center, and the Center for Neuroscience.
Now in its design stage, the new center will consolidate all of the university’s eye services, which are scattered throughout multiple buildings, to a single designated location, making patient care more convenient, officials said.
The eye center is Tschannen’s most recent philanthropic endeavor, but it’s by no means his first. He has already contributed to the American River Parkway Foundation, the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway, California State University, Sacramento, and other organizations throughout Northern California and Nevada. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s declared Feb. 16 Ernest E. Tschannen Day to honor that support.
When Tschannen arrived in the United States as a young man he was “poor as a church mouse,” he said. He entered the investment business in his 50s after working for years as a mechanical engineer. He said he was “lucky to do so well.”
“I earned my money in the United States, and I want to put some money into this country,” he said. “I want to help society with funds as much as I can, because I got it from this country, and I owe to America to help wherever I can.”
Tschannen is fond of hiking, biking and kayaking. Dr. Michele Lim, the ophthalmologist who performed Tschannen’s glaucoma surgery, described him as an “adventurer” and a “world traveler.”
On Thursday, a crowd of about 50 including UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi and Vice Chancellor Julie Freischlag gathered in the Lawrence J. Ellison Ambulatory Care Center in Sacramento to honor Tschannen.
“I’ve been repeatedly and continually inspired by his devotion to helping others, and his vitality for life,” said Dr. Mark Mannis, director of the UC Davis Eye Center. “I admire him for his generosity, and for his desire to help make the world a healthier place for people with vision-related disabilities.”
Largest UC Davis donations
1. Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation: $117 million
2. Mr. Ernest E. Tschannen: $38.5 million
3. Robert and Margrit Mondavi: $36.6 million
4. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: $33.8 million
5. American Cancer Society: $23.6 million
Source: UC Davis