Many accolades describe the late Paul Sandoval, the former Democratic state senator from Denver and iconic political figure who died two years ago of pancreatic cancer: he was considered the “godfather of Colorado politics,” known for making or breaking a political career with his blessing alone. He was a family man, a devoted husband, loving father and grandfather; a strong proponent for education in the local community; a successful small businessman, or as he often referred to himself, “just a tamale maker.”
But as friends gathered at the Brown Palace Hotel on May 8 to hear about the establishment of a scholarship in Sandoval’s name at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, they learned about other facets of their beloved hero. Dr. Colin Weeks, Sandoval’s physician at CU, spoke about one of Sandoval’s legacies — the importance of living a purposeful life.
Friends from the political, business, academic and medical communities listened as Weeks called Sandoval a “humble pioneer” in CU’s fight to achieve better success and outcomes of this disease. Sandoval extolled support and strength to his family and friends throughout his medical ordeal, Weeks recounted, as he described some of the ups and downs of his patient’s treatment: the optimism of Sandoval when he began early on to respond to the drug therapy; and the subsequent disappointment when symptoms associated with the disease later developed and weakened the patient.
In his final weeks, Sandoval decided that he wanted to live out the rest of his life in a dignified way, to be with family and friends and let the disease take its course. “It takes courage to deal with this disease, to say my life is what it is and I’ll appreciate it for what it is,” Weeks recalled.
The scholarship established in his name will go to a graduate student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where Sandoval received treatment. Either one $20,000 or two $10,000 scholarships are expected to be awarded each academic year.
With this new scholarship in place, Paula Sandoval told the gathering at the Brown Palace, the next generation of physicians and scientists will be able to continue their work combatting the disease. The recipient of the first scholarship, it was announced that evening, was going to a CU physician whose project targets the specific gene known to drive growth of pancreatic cancer cells. Her work would be directed towards developing therapy for that cancer.
Such studies, Weeks explained, could have national and international impact. As part of Sandoval’s legacy, “our approach to pancreatic cancer at the University of Colorado will be heightened,” Weeks said. Hopefully in five to six years, he added, “we’ll have really impacted the outcome of our patients.”
“When you hear about pancreatic cancer, it’s like a death sentence,” Paula Sandoval explained. “Usually you hear that you should get your affairs together. Survival level is in single digits,” she lamented.
As the family considered where Paul could get the best level of care, they came to the conclusion that the CU Cancer Center — which they called a “world class facility” in their home state — was the best choice. “It’s so important to support the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center,” Paula implored.
“We wanted a scholarship in Paul’s name to carry on research to give people hope who are diagnosed in the future with pancreatic cancer,” Paula added.
Gov. John Hickenlooper added some levity to the occasion when he recalled how he first met Sandoval during his 2003 run-off election for mayor, back when he was a relative newcomer to the political scene better known for his brew pub in Lodo. Sandoval, meanwhile, was a legendary politico in Denver, with “this crap little office in the back of La Casita… “ Hickenlooper recalled. “I marched in there and kept thinking, this is the nexus of northwest Denver politics? This is where it happens? This is where careers and campaigns have been planned?”
“Sitting there,” Hickenlooper continued, “… that little windowless office is how it should be… Not a fancy office. Creating a war space for politics and for people to care about building their communities…
That’s what Paul did, he opened doors to communities.”
“…And he showed us how to find common cause between our opponents,” the governor added. “[He was] a great builder of coalitions through collaboration and artful compromise.”
Hickenlooper also talked about his late friend’s vast and formidable network of friends back in the day.
“In a funny way, Paul was Facebook and Twitter before they existed,” Hickenlooper said. “He was an influencer.”
“This is really a very fitting way to honor Paul and fight this dreaded disease,” stated Bruce Benson, president of CU.
A painting of the late Paul Sandoval is exhibited at the reception to raise funds for the CU Cancer Center scholarship which was established in his name.