News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 9, 2014

Guiding Star: Inspired by family, Terre Haute native rallies famous names to fund cancer research

Famous people filled the Riviera Country Club, a scenic golf resort in affluent Pacific Palisades, Calif.

A city block away, Sunset Boulevard runs toward the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Monica Mountains overlook it all. Inside the Riviera, during a 2009 fundraising dinner, Terre Haute attorney Tony Tanoos found himself surrounded by a who’s who of celebrities — actors such as Ray Romano, Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle and others, and golfing greats like Gary Player, Johnny Miller and Rocco Mediate. Soon, the crowd of notables heard the words of main speaker Lisa Paulsen, the president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

Her nonprofit organization raises funds for nearly 200 charitable causes, especially cancer research programs. That list includes Stand Up To Cancer, an initiative designed to generate resources to fast-track new therapies to patients. Paulsen and her EIF staff co-founded Stand Up To Cancer in 2008. Ovarian cancer claimed her mother’s life in 2008. Paulsen’s dad died of lung cancer in 2003.

“They were kind of like my North Star,” Paulsen said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles last month. “I was really lucky to come from such an amazing family.”

Paulsen tells a compelling story. Terre Haute plays a huge role in it. It’s where Paulsen and her sister, Lori, grew up. It’s where her late parents, Kenneth and Norma Coleman lived and passed away. It’s the home of a medical treatment facility, the Coleman Cancer Center, named in honor of Kenneth, a Tribune-Star printer for 37 years, and Norma, a clerk for 30 years at the Vigo County Public Library. Norma was battling her cancer when the center was dedicated in 2007, and the newspaper captured the moment on its front page, “which was a thrill to her,” Paulsen said.

As Paulsen explained her life’s mission at that 2009 golf fundraiser in California, the audience at the Riviera five years ago listened intently. Tanoos, a friend of Paulsen invited to the event, glanced at one of the stars, Romano, who sat silent and enthralled, like the others.

“These people weren’t saying a word. You could hear a pin drop. Even Joe Pesci, who was talking all the time, he was quiet and just listening,” Tanoos recalled. “All these stars and golf pros, they were just spellbound.”

By enlisting the support of some of the world’s most recognizable faces, Paulsen and the EIF have raised $262 million for Stand Up To Cancer and its effort to bring breakthrough research to people afflicted by the disease. “What she’s done to further along cancer research is just incredible,” Tanoos said. That quest is the fruit of Paulsen’s promise to her parents that “we won’t stop until we remove cancer from our lives.”

Fittingly, Paulsen’s high school alma mater will present her an honor named for the North Star. She’ll receive the Polaris Award from Terre Haute North Vigo during a 6 p.m. dinner and ceremony Friday at Stables Steakhouse. The Polaris is given annually to distinguished North alums. Paulsen, a 1973 grad, joins Terre Haute federal judge Craig McKee (Class of ’75) and Mayor Duke Bennett (Class of ’78) as the 2014 recipients.

Paulsen left Terre Haute at age 19 after a year as an Indiana State University student, moving to Texas and then California. “I had wanderlust back then,” she recalled. “I think I was enamored with California. It was a stop-gap then. I hadn’t intended to stay, but I fell in love with it, and it feels like home.” She earned a communications degree from UCLA in 1984 and immediately took an entry-level job in development at EIF.

The foundation represents a slice of motion-picture industry history. Hollywood icons Samuel Goldwyn, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Jimmy Stewart and others established the EIF in 1942. Six years after getting her foot in the door with that first EIF job, she became its president. Since then, the foundation has raised more than $800 million for a variety of charitable causes.

Giving and community service were part of Paulsen’s upbringing, with her mom’s participation in library events and her dad’s volunteerism as scoutmaster of a local Boy Scouts troop. “I grew up in a very philanthropic family,” Paulsen said. “It’s kind of in our blood.” Her parents’ guidance “provided me with the moral compass I would need in Hollywood,” she added.

Armed with that footing, Paulsen and the EIF have teamed with a cavalcade of entertainers. Name one and she probably knows that person.

“I haven’t worked with the Rolling Stones,” she said, “but just about everyone else.” Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capeshaw helped the foundation start the Women’s Cancer Research Fund in 2003. The EIF co-founded the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance with news anchor Katie Couric and Lilly Tartikoff, women who lost husbands to cancer. EIF helped actress Charlize Theron create an AIDS clinic for teens in remote South Africa. In 2010, the foundation used its fundraising expertise to steer the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon, produced by MTV and George Clooney. That two-hour special generated $67 million for earthquake disaster relief.

And then there’s Stand Up To Cancer.

The idea came up during a dinner conversation in 2008 between Paulsen, Couric and then-NBC president Jeff Zucker. “Katie said we should really try to ‘roadblock’ a cancer special” on network TV, Paulsen recalled. A roadblock involves a program broadcast simultaneously on the major networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox.

“Lisa went back to Hollywood and doggedly pursued the idea with the networks and the other women who co-founded Stand Up To Cancer with us,” Couric recalled in an email interview with the Tribune-Star. “She was strategic, persistent and tenacious, albeit in a lovely way.”

The “Stand Up To Cancer” production happened that fall, on Sept. 5, raising more than $100 million from its airing.

Couric, who anchored the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” from 2006 to 2011, saw her husband, Jay Monahan, die of colon cancer in 1998. He was just 42. Her drive to raise research funds and cancer awareness, alongside Paulsen and others, is beyond a passion. “Outside of raising my two daughters, the work Lisa and I and our colleagues have done together in the fight against colon cancer through EIF’s [National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance] and in all cancers through Stand Up are the achievements of which I’m most proud.”

She and Paulsen feel a kinship through personal loss.

“I think there is a particular bond among people who have cared for someone they love deeply, and experienced a sense of powerlessness that ensues when you lose that person to the disease,” Couric explained. “Lisa was already very committed to the fight against cancer, but the close proximity in which she lost both her parents, and the experience of taking care of her mother in particular, only deepened her resolve to galvanize the whole entertainment industry to save lives.”

Couric sees a reflection of Terre Haute in Paulsen. “Lisa grew up in a tight-knit community where people really take care of each other,” Couric said, “and that sense of caring and willingness to do anything for anyone is still at the core of how she interacts with everyone she comes into contact with.”

Today, Paulsen — who has a husband, Ed, and two grown children, Trent and Chelsea — lives a literal stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean along Formosa Beach, south of L.A. “I get the most amazing sunsets,” she said. The mix of diverse opinions, cultures and people fascinate her. And, “it’s almost always sunny,” Paulsen added. She misses the change of seasons, though, and thinks of herself as a Hoosier and a Hautean.

“When I say, ‘I’m going home,’ I really mean Terre Haute,” Paulsen said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Big night

Terre Haute North Vigo High School’s 2014 Polaris Awards dinner is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday in Stables Steakhouse on Poplar Street in Terre Haute. Recipients will be Duke Bennett, Craig McKee and Lisa Paulsen. Alumni interested in attending or sponsoring the event should contact the school at 812-462-4312.

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