Private Los Angeles woman, Lisa Lancaster, squirreled away life savings for charity
By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze
Posted: 10/12/13, 2:55 PM PDT | Updated: on 10/14/2013
Lisa Lancaster drove an old car and wore modest clothes to the Inglewood office where she spent two decades administering nutritional and health aid to low-income women and children.
No one guessed she had quietly amassed a small fortune by the time she died at the age of 79 in April. Or that the painfully shy woman would leave such a large chunk of her $1.5 million savings to LA BioMed, the independent nonprofit medical research facility adjacent to County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance.
A few months after her death, an estate attorney telephoned Rodney Franks, the vice president of development at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, to tell him a $500,000 check was on the way. The rest of Lancaster’s life savings would be divvied up among the California Community Foundation, Cancer Support Community at Benjamin Center and the Aplastic Anemia & MDS International Foundation.
“We were all surprised to learn that she had chosen to make such a generous gift to LA BioMed and to other nonprofit organizations dedicated to research,” Franks said. “Her generosity serves as a reminder to all of us of the difference we can make through thoughtful estate planning and giving.”
Franks said the money would go toward campus building renovations and that a room or garden would be named in her honor.
Now, Lancaster’s former co-workers are trying to understand more about the woman they worked so closely with but knew so little about.
“She was a mystery,” said Lancaster’s longtime supervisor Heidi Kent. “An enigma. Very modest. But she had been an airline stewardess at one time, and she loved to travel.”
Lancaster was often the last one to leave her South Los Angeles Health Projects office, where the federal WIC program for women and children is administered to 95,000 South Los Angeles residents from the sixth floor of a run-down office building that has a sweeping view of the service area.
The Health Projects office is actually a division of LA BioMed that oversees 11 sites providing education and services to qualifying families.
Kent hired Lancaster in 1988 because she held a master’s degree in nutrition from Cal State Los Angeles, where she enrolled after immigrating from Germany, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer helping women and children in West Africa, and working as a flight attendant.
“She was extraordinarily dedicated,” Kent said. “She had a very strong work ethic.”
Lancaster, a Los Angeles resident, was so dedicated that she got mad when Kent once asked her when she planned to retire.
“She went through the roof,” Kent said. “I think that, philosophically, she didn’t believe in retirement.”
In the office, Lancaster was notoriously private. Co-workers surmised that she didn’t have any family or children, but they knew not to ask personal questions. Still, Lancaster had a softer side, said area manager Connie King, and in those moments she revealed her love of adventure and travel.
“She went up in a hot air balloon a couple years ago, and she was all excited about it,” King said. “She had traveled through Australia and Europe. But, when she had things on her mind and didn’t feel like talking, she could be abrupt.”
Lancaster’s happiest moments at work came when she talked about the employees she supervised and mentored, many of whom began as clients before they were hired at the Health Projects office.
“She was a small person and her eyes would light up when she talked about the job and the people,” King said. “But if you asked how she was doing in a personal way, she would get mad. She once shared with me that she didn’t like to tell personal information because she’d been hurt before.”
Lancaster was estranged from her family in Germany but had close friends, some of whom had died in recent years. During her last year of work, Lancaster grew more frail as she secretly battled with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease.
Asked about the numerous doctors’ appointments that had caused her to miss work, Lancaster would become defensive. However, her passion for her work and for medical research remained strong. She and King traded conversations regularly about the latest exciting research developments.
In her last weeks, she was visibly thin and sick. She told Kent she would need some time off of work but wouldn’t say what was wrong. Later, Kent found out she had been hospitalized and knew she was dying.
“I’d asked her how long she would be out of work and she just said: ‘Oh, I’ll be out a long time,’ ” Kent said. “I got a call about three days later from human resources saying she had died.”
Reporter covering Carson, Hawthorne, Hermosa Beach and the environment. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Sandy on Twitter: @SandyMazza.