In three years, John Thomas's Celebration Gala has raised more than $300,000 for cancer education and outreach
John Thomas is a Sacramento developer, professional sports team owner and philanthropist. When he isn't urging his soccer team, the California Cougars, to maintain a strong offense on the field, he's helping another group gear up its offense: UC Davis Cancer Center's physician-scientists and researchers.
Thomas, who owns Regent Development, Inc., a Sacramento-based real estate development company, has hosted the Cancer Center's annual Celebration Gala for the last three years. Under his leadership, the black-tie benefit has raised more than $300,000 for the Cancer Center.
The last gala featured CNN talk-show host Larry King, whose celebrity drew record attendance and propelled the fund raiser to the front page of the Sacramento Bee's Scene section and the local evening news.
"Cancer patients throughout the Central Valley and inland Northern California benefit every day from the programs and services made possible by the gala," said Ralph deVere White, director of the Cancer Center. "We have John Thomas to thank. We are enormously grateful for his uncommon generosity and altruism, his deep commitment to advancing cancer care and his successful leadership of the gala."
Thomas is no stranger to success. Regent Development's portfolio includes the UC Davis Medical Center's Oak Park Research Building. The company is also playing a major role in Stockton's downtown renaissance, which includes a new hotel and the Stockton Event Center, a 10,000-seat sports and entertainment complex that the Cougars call home.
Wherever he can, Thomas gives back. He was a longtime youth soccer coach, has been involved with the River Oak Children's Spring Ball for many years and is a veteran guest at Sacramento charity events.
In 2002, he took over as chair of the gala after attending several UC Davis Cancer Center events.
"I wanted to create something that people look forward to," Thomas said. "And I knew that if we were going to take on our signature on it."
This year that signature included an appearance by Emmyaward winning talk show host Larry King. Thomas met King through a close friend, Wendy Walker, who is the senior executive producer of Larry King Live in Los Angeles. King's appearance as guest speaker at the gala was a coup both for Sacramento and the Cancer Center.
From determining the venue to securing sponsorships, an event like the Celebration Gala is a time-intensive endeavor one that would consume Cancer Center staff if Thomas hadn't stepped in to spearhead the effort. He has significantly minimized the Cancer Center's fund-raising burden so staff can concentrate on their patient-care, research and teaching missions.
Thomas' gala design includes an organization plan that each year rotates his Regent Development colleagues as event chairs to keep the celebration fresh and to avoid burning out volunteers. The practice is a model for other businesses wanting to support a community resource without draining their own resources, Thomas said.
Thomas also wants to broaden the Cancer Center's base of support by opening the gala to a new generation of supporters. He hopes to one day double the size of the celebration, making it a 900-person event, and to build and strengthen connections among community members and the Cancer Center.
Those connections are critical to the Cancer Center's ability to continue to discover, develop and deliver novel cancer interventions.
"If UC Davis Cancer Center is to fulfill its mission, it has to have public support," said deVere White. "Supporters like John are absolutely vital."
For his part, Thomas has two basic goals: "I want the community to know about the incredible talent at UC Davis Cancer Center," he said.
"And I want people to come away from the gala every year thinking, 'What a great party.'"