Gratitude and Proximity: Explaining a Big Campus Gift for Eye Research

UC Davis Health System recently received a total of $38.5 million in gifts and pledges to support the UC Davis Eye Center and the Center for Vision Science. The funds come from nonagenarian Ernest Tschannen, an engineer turned real estate investor who still walks six miles every day. The pledge includes an outright gift of $18.5 million to the UC Davis Eye Center, which will be renamed the Ernest E. Tschannen Eye Center. The remaining money will support research on the optic nerve and glaucoma. 

There are at least two noteworthy parts to this story.

The first is the common theme of gratitude we talk about often at IP, particularly when it comes to health-related philanthropy. In 2000, Tschannen noticed that his eyesight was failing him. He was referred to the UC Davis Eye Center where he underwent eye surgery 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.

These positive experiences at the Eye Center led to big philanthropic gifts for UC Davis. Tschannen gave $25 million and then an additional $1.5 million to advance research on the optic nerve and to help find a cure for glaucoma and other eye diseases. The funds helped in recruiting and hiring researchers as well.

How's many millions for gratitude? Nice, right?

Another part of this story involves Tschannen's strong ties to Sacramento. Born in 1925, Tschannen grew up in a small town in Switzerland. One of his early jobs was delivering bread after high school and guarding the Swiss border during World War II. Tschannen immigrated to Canada and then the Midwestern U.S. to pursue a career in engineering. Tschannen actually ended up making a killing in another industry, though— real estate investment— and his net worth was once estimated at $75 million.

Tschannen eventually moved to the Sacramento area, and developed strong associations in the region. Besides big support of UC Davis, he's made significant contributions to American River Parkway Foundation, Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway and other Sacramento-based organizations. The outdoors and civic space seem to be other pet causes for Tschannen, which again goes back to how critical receiving good treatment for his sight was and is.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson recently dedicated Feb. 16 as Ernest E. Tschannen Day in honor of the philanthropist's 91st birthday. Johnson said that "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." 

Finally, I should mention that Tschannen has no kids and has never married. We often talk about donors who start thinking about what kind of legacy they want to leave, and this is likely at work here, too. In Tschannen's words, “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."