A small gold-rush town, with help from neighboring
communities, raises $1 million for cancer research at UC Davis
Like most communities, Auburn, Calif., has seen its share of cancer.
But this Gold Rush-era town has done something perhaps no other similar-sized city has accomplished.
In a little less than four years, the small city has raised a million dollars for cancer research.
"What made it work was a just cause and a committed community," says Virgil Traynor, an Auburn veterinarian
who spearheaded the fund-raising effort with his good friend Dick Azevedo, an Auburn-based businessman.
"This is a first," says Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Cancer Center. "The generous people
of Auburn are a model for how fundraising can become a community effort. And they have become great friends."
Auburn is nestled in the Sierra foothills about 35 miles northeast of Sacramento. Once a mining camp
known for bear fights and public hangings, the town's Old West origins are still evident. Every April
the community welcomes the Wild West Stampede, one of California's oldest rodeos, and crowns a new Miss
Auburn Stampede. The town recently dubbed itself "the endurance capital of the world," for its role as
host to some of the world's toughest endurance events the Tevis Cup Western States Trail Ride, for example,
a 100-mile horse race from Auburn to Lake Tahoe through rugged Sierra high country, and the Western States
Endurance Run/UltraMarathon, a 100-mile run from Squaw Valley over Emigrant Pass to Auburn. About 12,500
people now live within the city limits, and about 44,000 in Auburn and the surrounding area.
The Auburn Community Cancer Endowment Fund got its start in April 2001. By August of that year, $100,000
had been raised from ten donors.
The other $900,000 came in more slowly, generated during three years of barbecues, golf tournaments,
motorcycle rallies and fun runs, as well as from continued personal donations.
It took a community with grit and stamina to raise the million dollars, but a few individuals worked
especially hard. Football Hall of Famer Jim Otto, who moved to Auburn after retiring from a storied career
with the Oakland Raiders, joined the effort after he completed treatment for prostate cancer at UC Davis
"The type of cancer I have ... ten years ago, you died," Otto says. "I'm very fortunate, and I wanted
Jim and Sally Otto hosted the first Jim Otto Celebrity Golf Classic in June 2003 at the Auburn Valley
Golf Club. Football legends like Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, Daryle Lamonica, Otis Sistrunk and more
than two dozen others participated. The event raised $150,000. The second tournament last May, featuring
another all-star guest list and also held at the Auburn Valley Country Club, raised $200,000.
Besides Otto, other big names volunteered their help: the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Auburn
Harley Davidson, Magnuson Toyota in Auburn, and the Thunder Valley Casino, operated by the United Auburn
More and more individuals in Auburn and nearby towns signed on as well. Recruits included Bart O'Brien,
superintendent of the Placer Union High School District, and Bruce Dear, Placer County Assessor.
Cancer touches everyone
As a school administrator, O'Brien works long hours. But he made time when Traynor recruited him. "My
mother is a cancer survivor," O'Brien says. "She had surgery 20 years ago, and she's 95 now. All our families
have been touched by cancer, and we can all relate to it."
Dear's mother died of cancer at an early age. He was further swayed by the range of participants he encountered
at a motorcycle club benefit for the fund.
"Seeing this long line of Harley riders, and the tremendous diversity of the people, and the idea that
they're all there raising funds to cure cancer ... That was a striking moment," Dear says.
Dear credits Traynor for keeping the ball rolling. "It's Virgil's energy, rounding the troops up, providing
leadership. That's what's made this a success."
Now that the town has reached the million-dollar mark, organizers have set a new goal: to raise the total
to $1.5 million. That will fund, in perpetuity, a faculty chair in basic cancer research at UC Davis Cancer
Center. Endowed chairs, one of the highest honors in academia, allow universities to retain or recruit
the best minds in each generation.
The endowed chair will be named in honor of the Auburn Community Cancer Endowment Fund. That, too, will
be a first. Other endowed chairs at UC Davis have been named after individuals and corporations — but
never a whole community.