Amador County residents launch a foundation to fund cancer research

Photo of young girls playing the fiddle © Robert Gorman
Aside from providing a good time, the Spaghetti Western netted $18,000 — money the foundation intends to donate to UC Davis Cancer Center.

In 1973, John and Helen Landgraf established an endowed cancer research fund at UC Davis in memory of their daughter, Christine. Now their other daughter, Cathy, is broadening the impact of what her parents started by involving her community in the cause.

Amador County, where the Landgraf family spent their summers, is now the base for the Amador Cancer Research Foundation. Since it began in 2007, the organization has become known for energetic fundraising events. Its first “Spaghetti Western” was held at Cooper Vineyards in Plymouth last September. More than 450 people showed up – and seriously kicked up their heels.

“It was truly a great party,” says foundation board director Cathy Landgraf about the event, which featured barbecued tri-tip and live country-western music and was emceed by Sacramento television broadcaster Walt Gray.

Aside from providing a good time, the event netted $18,000 — money the foundation intends to donate to UC Davis Cancer Center. But the foundation plans to give the center far more than that. “We want to get to $1 million plus,” says Landgraf.

Community-directed fundraising

A million dollars may seem pie in the sky for a small community during tough economic times, but there are reasons for Landgraf’s optimism. Their community-directed fundraising model — unique to UC Davis — truly works. A similar group in nearby Placer County, the Auburn Community Cancer Endowment Fund, succeeded in raising $1.5 million to establish an endowed chair in basic cancer research at UC Davis. Another group in Roseville, called the Placer Breast Cancer Endowment, was formed with the goal of amassing $1.5 million toward an endowed breast-cancer research chair, and they are already nearly halfway there.

Photo Dr. Pan © UC Regents“The Landgraf grant has been very important to my research in developing small molecules that work like ‘smart missiles’ targeting cancer stem cells — the few cells where it is believed most cancers originate and possibly the reason why some of them can be so hard to cure. I am deeply honored by their belief in and support for my efforts.”
— Researcher Chiong-xian Pan

“Even with the strong track record in other communities, I wasn’t really sure we could do this,” says Landgraf of her thoughts right before launching the foundation. She changed her mind at their first meeting. “We have such a good group and so many good ideas,” she says. “And we got great inspiration from Dr. deVere White (director of the cancer center) and Dr. Meyers (UC Davis executive associate dean). It was at that point that I knew we could have a big impact, and I haven’t doubted that since. That initial big thinking and incentive is still with us today.”

The Amador foundation is further along in making an impact than the $41,000 raised to date suggests. That’s because of its connection to the Christine and Helen S. Landgraf Memorial Research Fund, which is named for Christine and her mother, who also had cancer. Nearly 40 UC Davis researchers so far have received $5,000 awards for promising projects, including the search for molecular-targeted anti-cancer drugs, genetic abnormalities in pancreatic cancer, improved prevention outreach for women and the role of the immune system in leukemia and lymphoma. The most recent recipient was Chiong-xian Pan, an assistant professor of hematology and oncology, whose work focuses on the molecular foundations of cancer.

“The Landgraf grant has been very important to my research in developing small molecules that work like ‘smart missiles’ targeting cancer stem cells — the few cells where it is believed most cancers originate and possibly the reason why some of them can be so hard to cure,” Pan says. “I am deeply honored by their belief in and support for my efforts.”

Because it is part of a far larger pool of money invested by the university, the Landraf fund has grown steadily over the years. As a result, Landgraf wants to double the annual research award to $10,000. “I’d like to do that immediately,” she says.

Photo of Landgraf Foundation members © UC Regents
Board of Directors (left to right)back row: Brenda Ristrom, John Mills, Gary Little, Loren Fasmer; middle row: Jago Landgraf, Hal Jones, Marylou Fasmer; front row: Shirley Jones, Frankie the dog, Cathy Landgraf (not present: Stephen Honeychurch)

“I can do this”

Raising funds for cancer research is always a challenge, says Ann Pridgen, development officer for the cancer center. The Amador group, however, has a lot of enthusiasm on its side, and Pridgen doesn’t think the economic climate will stop people from giving.

“When people can’t control the big things, they want something good to happen for something that is really meaningful to them. They say to themselves, ‘I can’t do anything about the stock market, but I can do this,’” says Pridgen.

Landgraf has had to learn to live with something she wasn’t able to control — the death of her sister at age 27.

“It took a while for me to get my feet back on the ground,” Landgraf says. “Christine was such a unique, loving, gifted person,” she adds, her voice trailing off.

Talented like her mother, who was an accomplished painter, Christine was on track for a career in the arts. While studying art at Sacramento State, she learned she was seriously ill. Back then, in 1965, Hodgkin’s disease was much less treatable than it is today — or than it was just a few years later. Landgraf’s brother was diagnosed with the disease five years after Christine, but survived. To hear her sister tell it, Christine didn’t let Hodgkin’s get her down. If anything, it intensified her unconventional personality.

“Christine was connected to a different source than the normal, run-of-the-mill person,” recalls Landgraf, who adds that Christine had an irrepressible spirit. “In her short life, Christine deeply touched many people — you were fortunate to be a part of her world. That is why now, I know, it is not a coincidence this fund has done so much and so many good people are involved in it.”

Spaghetti Western ad - click on photo for more information
Next Spaghetti Western is scheduled for Sep. 19, click here for more information. 

The sisters were also friends and, for a while, business partners. They opened one of Sacramento’s first hip clothing boutiques. The store lasted only a couple of years. Sadly, Christine lived just a few years after that. A heartbreaking situation was made worse by doctors who seemed to lack compassion.

“It was harsh,” Landgraf says. “The doctors told her she had only a year to live. They were really blunt. She actually lived another seven years.”

Landgraf says that the lack of sensitive care that her sister endured helps motivate her to carry on the Landgraf fund, which is one of the oldest endowments for UC Davis Health System.

“I know that at UC Davis the healing part of cancer care is important,” she says, referring to the work of Fred Meyers, a specialist in hospice and palliative care and close friend of Landgraf’s parents. “That’s one of the things that drives me. I want to support that so that no one will have to go through what my sister went through.”

Important work — and a lot of fun

In addition to the family’s continued dedication to the foundation — Landgraf’s brother, John, his wife, Ann, and their daughter, Jago, are integral to the organization — it now represents something much broader: a community’s effort to combat cancer. All board members have personal connections to the disease.

Synthesis magazine

Photo Synthesis cover © UC RegentsSynthesis covers the latest in cancer treatment, research and patient care programs from UC Davis Cancer Center. The current issue features new insights on sex hormones and cancer, how bone enzymes could be a key to tracking prostate cancer treatments, an innovative program to support women through the first months after a breast-cancer diagnosis, and more. To request a copy, e-mail

Board member Gary Little — a real estate broker and owner of the St. George Hotel in Volcano — became involved after making the move from Sacramento to Amador County a couple of years ago. He is helping the group seek corporate donations. He also held one of the foundation’s most creative fundraising events — a “Count the Georges” contest to guess the number of dollar bills stuck to the ceiling of the St. George Hotel bar. Over Fourth-of-July weekend, he held a high-end collectables sale that coincided with Volcano’s popular Cannonball Run, a vintage car show and parade.

“I am so grateful for the board members,” says Landgraf, who runs a successful landscaping business in addition to leading the foundation. “They all have such busy lives but still give their time, talent and money toward this cause. We work hard together, have a great time and drink excellent Amador County wine.”

Their next chance to have a great time will be in September, when they hold another Spaghetti Western and announce the new research award recipient. After that, Landgraf is considering a print sale and exhibit of her mother’s original oil and watercolor paintings, which date back to the 1940s and colorfully represent Amador’s most historic and beautiful scenes, especially the Shenandoah Valley.

Ralph deVere White, who attends many of the group’s events and is one of their biggest supporters, is confident of their continued success.

“The Amador foundation’s dedicated volunteer leaders are proof that there is great power in bringing together friends, neighbors and the community in the shared cause of advancing cancer research,” he says. “We are inspired by and grateful for their hard work, personal commitment and financial generosity, and we know they will reach their goal.”