There is an old English proverb, “What is bred in the bone wills out in the flesh.” For some of us, that means our past catches up with us and diverts our path from a straight line to a curved one. For others, it means that genetic predispositions come forward unexpectedly, and we have to adjust our plans and expectations to meet these new horizons. This is the story of Gordon Gund, a gifted entrepreneur whose vision and plans after Groton School, Harvard University, and four years serving as an officer on a U.S. Navy destroyer came to an abrupt halt.
As one of six children of the Cleveland banker George Gund II, Gordon Gund embarked on a finance career at the Chase Manhattan Bank after his service in the Navy and continued to ski, play ice hockey, and even fly an airplane. In 1966, he married his bride Llura (Lulie) Ambler Liggett at her family home in Florida. Their first son Grant was born in 1968, and two years later, a second son named Zachary was born. Then the unexpected happened. Gund was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, and over a short span of time, his sight began to wane. In 1970, he went totally blind.
While this might have leveled many others, Gund met the challenge head on. The very next year, he and his wife and a handful of others started the National Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation, what is today the Foundation Fighting Blindness. As chairman, Gund has made it the foundation’s mission to cure blindness by 2020. Over the past forty-three years, he has enlisted the finest minds to accelerate research to find treatments and cures for blinding retinal degenerative diseases, which affect ten million people in the US alone. Most recently, Gund pledged $50 mil- lion in a challenge grant, vowing to match every contribution over $25,000 dollar-for-dollar.
Gund is completely conversant on the medical intricacies of his foundation’s work, personally following the results of each program that they fund. Using whole genome sequencing to identify and understand the genetic causes of these diseases, they then develop gene therapies to treat them. Simultaneously, Gund’s foundation is working on stem cell, retina restoration, and replacement therapies using animal models for clinical trials. They are developing many drug therapies to stop or reverse the progression of these diseases, and there are now twenty promising human clinical trials going on in these areas. The foundation-supported research has already led to the treatments and cures for patients with some of these diseases. One example of this is a normal gene replacement therapy that has already restored sight to more than fifty children and young adults born blind from a retinal disease called Leber’s congenital amaurosis.
Beyond inspiring his quest to find a cure, Gund’s own blindness has opened up new opportunities in his life. One of his three brothers, Graham, noted that his other senses began to perk up after he lost his eyesight. Since going blind, Gund has continued to thrive as a businessman, serving as chairman and CEO of the Gund Investment Corporation as well as a director at the Kellogg Company. In 1983, he and his brother George III purchased the Cleveland Cavaliers. The family built the Gund Arena in 1994 and drafted Akron native, Lebron James in the 2003 NBA draft. He sold the team in 2005, but still retains a minority financial interest.
Most interesting, perhaps, is Gund’s emergence as an artist. Drawing upon his early days study- ing paintings and photography with his siblings as a child at the Cleveland Museum of Art and later at Harvard University, Gund became interested in sculpture. What started as a hobby with a piece of wood, a penknife, and sandpaper in his Nantucket beach house has since expanded into a collection of massive bronze works that now grace the grounds of his summer home on Nantucket as well as a number of public and private collections around the country. “While my eyes can’t see the shapes I create, I feel them over and over again with my hands, and the result is in my mind forever,” Gund has said about his artistic process.
Indeed, the results of Gordon Gund’s life and career are a credit to the man he’s become in the face of adversity. He’s applied the same kind of entrepreneurial, adventuresome spirit required to run a major corporation to the Foundation Fight- ing Blindness and his artistic enterprises. They all take great planning, incredible endurance, and masterful footwork to implement. The last- ing impact of all this is evident in his many accomplishments. His legacy speaks for itself, and Nantucket is graced with his quiet and unassuming presence in our summer community.