Ten dollars here. Fifty dollars there.
Since the mid-1980s, Byron and Kathy Strawn had supported the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Their gifts came regularly, and over the years they added up to $330.
Still, those modest donations offered little clue as to the generosity the Norman couple would show to OMRF upon their deaths.
Mrs. Strawn died in 2003 and Mr. Strawn died in 2004. Unbeknownst to OMRF, the couple—who had no children—made OMRF the sole beneficiary of their estate.
This month, Jim Hoover, the Strawns’ nephew and the executor of their estate, presented a $500,000 check to OMRF. This gift, along with the couple’s Norman home and some additional assets, will bring the total value of the donation to approximately $700,000. At the Strawns’ request, the money will be used to fund research on Alzheimer’s disease, which claimed Mrs. Strawn’s life.
“Everything the Strawns worked for and saved their entire life, they donated to medical research,” said Tia Jones-Bibbs, OMRF’s director of planned giving. “We at OMRF are touched and humbled by this selfless gift, which will provide key support to our scientists as they work to unravel the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Mrs. Strawn was born Iona Kathleen Blair in Purcell, Okla., in 1918. The youngest of 13 children from a farming family, she was known for her sunny disposition and vibrant personality. “Aunt Kathy was really full of life,” said Mr. Hoover.
Mr. Strawn was also born in 1918. After graduating from high school, he joined the navy, where he served as an aviation photographer. In December 1941, he was newly stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval fleet there.
“A messenger came downstairs and said the Japanese were attacking,” Mr. Strawn recalled in a 1991 interview with The Oklahoman. “He was scared to death; we couldn’t even catch him.”
Mr. Strawn was uninjured in the attack and continued to serve in the navy through World War II and after. In the late 1950s, he met Mrs. Strawn when he was stationed in Norman, and they were married in 1959. The couple lived in Norman for all 44 years of their marriage.
Following Mr. Strawn’s retirement from the navy, he worked at Tinker Air Force Base as a civil service photographer. The Strawns lived directly across the street from the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, and, according to Mr. Hoover, Mr. Strawn took a particular interest in “supervising” the museum’s construction on a daily basis from 1996 until the project’s completion in 2000.
“When the job was completed, the builders presented him with an honorary hard hat for his ‘contributions’ to the project,” recalled Mr. Hoover, smiling.
The Strawns enjoyed gardening together and traveling throughout the U.S., said Mr. Hoover. Although neither attended college, both were big OU fans.
According to Mr. Hoover, his aunt and uncle decided to leave their estate to OMRF soon after Mrs. Strawn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “They thought it was the best thing they could do,” he said. “Ultimately, they hoped their gift would help find a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
OMRF will use the funds to support research into the deadly neurodegenerative disease, which currently affects more than 4 million Americans. Led by Jordan Tang, Ph.D., OMRF researchers have identified the enzyme believed to cause the disease and have created a chemical inhibitor that stops the enzyme. Tang’s team hopes to begin testing an experimental Alzheimer’s drug in humans in the near future.
“The Strawns will live on through the medical advances their donation will make possible,” said OMRF’s Jones-Bibbs. “A gift like this creates ripples that will touch people for generations to come.
Chartered in 1946, OMRF (www.omrf.org) is a nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and curing human disease. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease. OMRF is home to Oklahoma’s only member of the National Academy of Sciences.