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Fifty years later, the Institute remembers its first support organization

Presidents Club

Members of WASI on a tour of the Institute.

When Jonas Salk relocated to San Diego from Pittsburgh more than half a century ago, local citizens grateful for his discovery of the polio vaccine were eager to help his fledgling research enterprise succeed. During the Salk Institute's 1962 groundbreaking ceremony, Sally Cohn, wife of a prominent local rabbi who spoke at the event, approached Salk to suggest a women's auxiliary—a volunteer group that, typical of the day, would provide support through various fundraising activities and augment the seed funding from the March of Dimes. From those modest origins, a tradition of philanthropy was born, setting the stage for decades of community investment and involvement in the Salk Institute, as well as today's robust network of support activities.

Cohn's brainchild came into being on May 17, 1963, when she led the first meeting of the Women's Association for the Salk Institute (WASI), as the new organization was called. Bernice Layne Brown, wife of California governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown (and mother of the state's current governor, Jerry Brown) and Dorothy Mae Dail, wife of San Diego mayor Charles Dail, became honorary members, with Dail also serving as treasurer. In time, the group morphed into the Salk Institute Association (SIA), diversifying its membership to include men.

By its tenth anniversary, the SIA had raised nearly $250,000, providing grants to graduate students and purchasing much-needed scientific equipment. Members also conducted tours of the Institute, ran the gift shop and helped create two of Salk's longstanding traditions: High School Science Day (now named in honor of the March of Dimes, a continuing supporter) and Symphony at Salk, launched through the leadership of Betty Vale (wife of the renowned late Salk faculty member Wylie Vale). It was SIA members who served the food and wine at the inaugural Symphony at Salk. "I worked so hard, I felt I was back in college," recalls Peggy Matthews, a former retail promotions director who also headed public relations for the SIA and coordinated fashion show fundraisers.

While the opportunity to help support one of the world's great research institutions more than compensated for their hard work, SIA members also treasured the opportunity to get to know one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century, Jonas Salk. "I had the honor of going through Dr. Salk's papers after he passed away," says former SIA president Ottilie Baer. "In a building at the back of the parking lot, known as the bungalow, there were stacks and stacks of filing cabinets and drawers. We went from one room to another to make three piles: one for the Institute, one for the family and one for the university across the street."

Today, the SIA, now disbanded, remains a fond memory of an earlier time. Former SIA volunteers still gather for luncheons, where they keep up with each other and Salk news. Many continue to visit the Institute to assist with special events and architectural tours and to ensure Salk's future as Partners in Research supporters—donors who have included the Institute in their estate plans.

Their greatest legacy, however, is both less tangible and more enduring: the robust foundation they created for the ongoing philanthropic support of the Institute. Today's Campaign for Salk may be the Institute's first-ever capital campaign, but it owes an indisputable debt to that pioneering group of visionary volunteers who began meeting 50 years ago. Captivated by the idea of a revolutionary new basic science research institute, they set about providing many of the resources it needed. Subsequent fundraising successes—and the transformative discoveries they have helped facilitate—literally would not have been possible without the indispensable groundwork that the men and women of the Salk Institute Association laid for the future.