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connolly endowment

The Upstate Foundation announces the new Michael E. Connolly Endowed Professorship in Lung Cancer Research

Binghamton native Michael E. Connolly, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer at the age of 39. Three years later, his wife Penny and son Ryan established an endowment to fight this deadly disease. In the ensuing years, additional funds were raised and, with an infusion of funding from the Upstate Foundation and Upstate Medical University Department of Surgery, the endowment reached the $1.5 million level in August 2020 to establish the prestigious Michael E. Connolly Endowed Professorship in Lung Cancer Research.

Michael Connolly was a husband and father, volunteer coach and a star Binghamton North High School football and baseball player. During his 22-month battle with lung cancer, Michael was treated at Upstate University Hospital and responded well to a powerful drug he was receiving as part of a clinical trial. But as in nearly all cases of advanced lung cancer, the disease prevailed. He lost his battle in 2002.

Michael was a patient of Leslie J. Kohman, MD. It was Dr. Kohman who approached the Connollys with the intriguing question, “How would you like to raise a million dollars for lung cancer research?” Their answer was an immediate and resounding, “yes.” The next step was a productive partnership with the Upstate Foundation to launch a campaign for the endowment.

In 2005, Penny and Ryan established the Michael E. Connolly Endowment for Lung Cancer Research, beginning the journey of a mother and son – a high school math teacher and a high school student athlete – on a mission to raise awareness and build a $1 million endowment to fight the nation’s leading cause of cancer death.

“I’ve known Penny and Ryan for nearly two decades; their drive, determination and love of Michael has been inspiring,” said Eileen Pezzi, vice president for development, Upstate Medical University. “Within a little over three years, the Connollys, their dedicated board of directors and Upstate Foundation staff had reached their initial $500,000 goal – raised from countless hours of phone calls, personal visits and letter writing; community fundraisers, and hosting an annual Friends of Michael Golf Tournament. In 2006, the endowment was a beneficiary of the Upstate Foundation’s annual Gala. It’s been an honor to work with Penny and Ryan.”

The Connolly story touched the hearts of many. Over the next 15 years, Penny and Ryan never lost sight of their goal, garnering support from throughout the southern tier and across the country. They were honored recipients of Upstate’s 2009 President’s Award for Excellence in Philanthropic Service, Individual.

An endowed professorship is the highest academic award the University can bestow upon a faculty member, it is both an honor to the named professor and an enduring tribute to its namesake, in this case, Michael Connolly.

Ryan noted, “This is an extremely proud moment for my mother and me, and we share this excitement with our family, the members of our board who so passionately helped us launch the endowment, the countless individuals who have chosen to support our cause, and of course, the Upstate Foundation and the department of Surgery who have been with us from the beginning. We established the endowment with hope of changing the fate of a single family and to carry on my father’s legacy of selfless character and devotion to his family. Whether it be in our lifetime or our children’s, we are one giant step closer to achieving those goals.”

“Upstate has an outstanding multidisciplinary clinical program in lung cancer that includes Medical Oncology, Radiation Oncology and Thoracic Surgical Oncology,” said Robert Cooney, MD, professor and chair, department of Surgery. “We will soon begin the process to recruit a ‘top notch’ lung cancer researcher to work with our clinicians doing translational lung cancer research, high impact research that will hopefully change and improve the way we care for these patients.”

The first grant from the original Michael E. Connolly Endowment for Lung Cancer Research was awarded in March 2008 – a major milestone in lung cancer research at Upstate. Since then, the endowment has funded eight pilot research studies in the quest for a cure for lung cancer.

“The work of these investigators and their teams explored the basic mechanisms of how lung cancer forms, grows and spreads. These discoveries led to investigation of molecules that could be markers of the aggressiveness of cancers, and also targets for new drug therapies, some of which were proposed by our Upstate researchers,” said Leslie J. Kohman, MD, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery, Chief Wellness Officer, University Hospital and Director of Outreach, Upstate Cancer Center. 

Caption: Penny and Ryan Connolly raised funds for nearly 20 years to establish an endowed professorship honoring their late husband/father Michael E. Connolly.