More than 20 years ago, Todd Davis received news that no college student wants or should receive.
He was diagnosed with a rare cancer, adenocarcinoma of unknown origin, just weeks before his 22nd birthday.
In spite of the diagnosis, Davis continued to study hard at NC State University toward his engineering degree and remained active with his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE).
Unfortunately, despite his strong will and determination, his courageous journey with cancer ended in December 1994. The day he was due to graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Environmental Engineering, his family was instead attending his funeral.
Knowing firsthand the challenges Davis faced in fighting cancer while continuing his education, his family has created an endowment at NC State to aid students facing a medical hardship that interferes with their studies. The Todd Davis Endowment is the first of its kind at the university.
For Todd’s sister, Amy Timberlake, the fund is both a tribute and a way to support students who find themselves in a similar situation.
I will never know why he had to go through that, but because of his experience, I feel very passionate about anything related to cancer. Creating the endowment fund feels purposeful and impactful, and my hope is that it will ease the financial burden for someone going through treatment.
Looking back, the endowment is really a culmination of two decades of efforts by Timberlake and her family to aid cancer research and help others.
At the time of her brother’s diagnosis, Timberlake was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill. When Davis underwent chemotherapy treatments at Rex Hospital in Raleigh each Friday, she’d make the trip from Chapel Hill to be there with him.
“That was our special time together,” she said, remembering her only sibling as a happy, funny, down-to-earth person.
After he passed away, Timberlake began participating annually in Relay for Life in his memory while she continued to work toward her degree. The American Cancer Society event involves a team of people taking turns on a 24-hour fundraising walk for cancer.
After she graduated and joined the workforce, Timberlake began to look for ways to do more.
She approached SAE about starting a scholarship in Davis’ memory, and from that discussion, an annual golf tournament fundraiser began in 2000. Each year, proceeds would go to a deserving SAE member who portrayed characteristics that Davis had demonstrated – someone who was motivated, determined, active in the fraternity and doing well in school.
As the years passed, Timberlake said, the group began donating to The V Foundation for Cancer Research – donations that, over time, exceeded $30,000.
As the golf tournament passed the 15-year mark last year, Timberlake decided that – while she recognized the good that the donated funds were doing in supporting research – she wanted to do something more direct moving forward.
“As I was writing the check for $10,000 – our largest donation – I was so proud of our efforts,” she said. “But I also wondered what this money would be used for specifically, and I realized it didn’t feel personal enough to me.”
On her commute into work every day, she began to think about what to do next. She heard a radio commercial for a program for teenagers similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and wondered if something like that existed at the college level. Davis had a wish to swim with dolphins, something he was not able to do at the time of his illness. With that idea in mind, she got in touch with NC State.
Timberlake had been raised a Wolfpack fan, and both Davis and her father received degrees from NC State. What’s more, Davis’ fraternity brothers at SAE had supported him throughout his diagnosis and tried to make life as normal as possible for him. She said NC State naturally felt like the right place to give back in her brother’s honor.
After some discussion about Timberlake’s ideas, the concept of an endowment came about instead of a onetime or annual gift.
“It’s not what I had in mind, but I realize it fulfills what I am trying to accomplish,” Timberlake said. “The endowment fund will serve a purpose, and will impact students in need of financial assistance.”
“Once it’s funded, it will last forever.”
Leah Arnett, director of Student Health Services, said the Todd Davis Endowment will be the first of its kind that deals with both academic and health needs for students at NC State.
This endowment scholarship offering could make the difference in a student getting care and continuing their studies.
The endowment still needs additional funding to be fully endowed, which can come from Timberlake’s fundraising efforts, other fundraisers, or additional donors, Arnett said.
In the meantime, Timberlake said she wants to help students right away and provided $1500 to NC State this year from the golf tournament proceeds. Arnett said that money will be placed in the Student Medical Emergency Fund and tagged to be distributed only to recipients of the scholarship.
Timberlake said she remembers her parents talking about the expense and the challenges Davis faced in fighting cancer while in school. While confidentiality laws keep her from knowing exactly who is sick, she knows other NC State students must be experiencing the same hardship.
“I am very grateful to the university for allowing me to share my personal story and work with me to create this endowment fund in memory of my brother,” Timberlake said. “This collaboration has renewed my belief that good things can come out of tragedy. I know there’s an unmet need and I’m anxious to have it fully funded to assist these students.”