When the 50th reunion of a Yale College class approaches, classmates traditionally team up to contribute to the Yale Alumni Fund, to provide an endowment for financial aid, or to meet other needs at their alma mater. But when it came time to think about how their class might mark its 50th, Edward H. Cantor, J.D., Vincent E. Teti, and John P. de Neufville, Ph.D., of the Class of 1961 had a different idea—they wanted to raise money to combat cancer.

“It’s a universal need and it’s touched everyone, particularly in our age group,” says Cantor, a retired lawyer from Orange, Conn., and all three men have indeed confronted cancer on a personal level. Both he and de Neufville, a member of the advisory board of Yale Cancer Center (YCC), recently lost their wives to the disease, and Teti, gift chairman for the class, has a family member currently fighting cancer.

After an initial meeting in early 2011, the alumni and their wives decided to devote themselves to raising funds for a 50th reunion gift to YCC. In the following months, before their June reunion, they began soliciting the roughly 850 classmates they were able to reach.

“Astoundingly,” says Cantor, “we got donations from 116 class members in a very short period of time.” Of these 116, nine were widows of class members, some of whom had died after fighting cancer, Cantor says. In the end, the class’s unique effort raised about $1.2 million for YCC.

A general fundraising effort had already begun under Teti’s leadership by the time the YCC idea was born, but when Cantor told classmates who had already made pledges about the new plan, a number increased their pledges. “There are people who doubled their pledges,” Cantor says. “There are people who have a history of giving a hundred dollars to Yale who gave five thousand for this initiative.”

Cantor wasn’t surprised that his class embraced this unique idea, because the class itself is special, he says. Yale College classes typically gather once or twice every five years, but the Class of 1961 gathers somewhere in the U.S. twice each year. “As a result we’ve developed incredibly warm feelings for each other as a class. I experienced that during my wife’s illness, and in the way my classmates and their spouses reached out to me [after her passing on July 7],” Cantor says. “We are our own community of support.”

The money raised by the class now comprise two separate funds: the Class of 1961 Yale Cancer Center Initiative, and a smaller endowment—about $175,000 at present—called the Cantor-Smith Cancer Research Fund, named by classmates in honor of Cantor and classmate DeForest W. “Frosty” Smith, for their long-standing commitment to their class and to Yale.

And the campaign is not over, says Cantor. “Even though campaigns usually stop at the time of a reunion,” he says, “this one can’t stop. It has too much momentum, and it’s too important. We’re going to continue to run with it.”

Both funds will be used at the discretion of YCC Director Thomas J. Lynch Jr., M.D., the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professor of Medicine and physician-in-chief at Smilow Cancer Hospital. An authority on lung cancer, Lynch is a pioneer in “personalized” cancer therapies, in which individual patients’ treatments are customized for maximum effectiveness by analyzing small differences in their genomes or in the genetic makeup of their tumors.

“Donors to the Class of 1961 Yale Cancer Center Initiative and the Cantor-Smith Cancer Research Endowment are playing a pivotal role in our research enterprise,” says Lynch. “Their generosity allows me to make meaningful investments in translational cancer research projects led by our exceptional faculty. That the Class intends to continue their support of Yale Cancer Center over time means each year we will conduct more research that leads to cures.”