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John and Jill Freidenrich: 'A richness beyond all riches'

Hands-on philanthropy in art, medicine and education yields many happy returns

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 49, Jill Freidenrich yearned to connect with another woman who had had the disease. She did not know of a single person.

At that time, in 1991, most breast cancer patients dared not speak openly about it. Cancer was too scary, too hush-hush. One day Freidenrich got a call from a stranger, the friend of a friend, who had been through it.

"She said, 'Jill, I want you to know I'm going to be your buddy through the next six weeks (of chemotherapy) and for the rest of our lives,'" Freidenrich recalled. "So this stranger became my buddy and is one of my closest friends now.

"It was the impetus for me to realize that everybody needs a buddy going through the journey of breast cancer."

That realization sparked the creation of Breast Cancer Connections (formerly the Community Breast Health Project), a Palo Alto support network for people with breast cancer, which has helped many thousands of patients and their families since 1993.

Breast Cancer Connections is one of countless causes that Jill and her husband, John Freidenrich, have created and supported with their time and money throughout their nearly 46-year marriage.

"A very good friend, who has passed away, once said to me, 'Find something you're passionate about and give as much as you can to that, and you will feel a richness beyond all riches,'" Jill said.

"It's a great luxury to be able to give, especially while we're still here, because we can see the difference it makes."

John Freidenrich is a Palo Alto boy, having attended Walter Hays Elementary, Jordan Middle School and Palo Alto High.

He remembers riding his bicycle to the Fine Arts Theater on California Avenue (now a runner's clothing store) to attend the 11-cent matinee.

"It would end with Hopalong Cassidy going over a cliff, and you'd have to come back the next day to see what happened," he recalled.

After high school John stayed local, graduating from Stanford University and its law school and joining his father in a Palo Alto law practice. He and a colleague, Leo Ware, soon broke off to form a new firm, Ware and Freidenrich, catering to the business, legal and financing needs of start-up companies.

The firm, now part of the global law giant DLA Piper, and John's later career in venture capital and investment management, paralleled the now-storied rise of Silicon Valley.

"My father used to say -- in a nice way -- that I was the luckiest guy he ever knew," John said. "Our timing was very fortunate."

The successes have made it possible for the couple to give back, which they've done with energy and passion.

Much of their largesse is directed at Stanford, where both were students at the time they met off campus in San Francisco.

John has chaired the university's board of trustees, countless committees, and currently chairs the Medical Center Campaign Council of the $4.3 billion Stanford Challenge fundraising effort. Jill has helped bring art to many indoor and outdoor venues at Stanford, including the hospitals and clinics, and sits on the director's advisory council of the Cantor Art Center.

The couple's donations to art at Stanford are reflected in the Freidenrich Family Gallery at the Cantor Art Center.

And in 2006 they committed $25 million for the Jill and John Freidenrich Center for Translational Research, aimed at translating basic discoveries into improved patient care.

The fact that Stanford is blessed with a lot of land creates unusual opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration, John said.

"It's wonderful. Obviously there's been a lot of building and growth, but the rest of us will be great beneficiaries of what's going on."

Editor's note: John and Jill Freidenrich were unavailable for a video interview.

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