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Originally published February 2, 2010 at 5:39 PM | Page modified February 4, 2010 at 10:47 AM

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'Buster' Alvord, UW physician and philanthropist, dies at 86

Noted neuroscientist Ellsworth C. "Buster" Alvord dies of a stroke at 86.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ellsworth C. "Buster" Alvord was a noted University of Washington physician and local philanthropist, but his real love was his vacation home on Quilcene Bay, said former Gov. Dan Evans, a longtime friend.

"He loved it up there," Evans said. "He would shuck his formal clothes and be out in Goodwill chic."

Dr. Alvord, who was head of the UW Department of Neuropathology, died Jan. 19 after a stroke at his home in Windemere. He was 86.

"He was an outstanding physician scientist, an international leader in his field," said Paul Ramsey, chief executive officer of UW Medicine and dean of the School of Medicine. "He was the most generous philanthropist in our region, and he combined an outstanding career with community responsibility and leadership."

After receiving his medical degree from Cornell University, Dr. Alvord continued his training in neurological disorders at New York Hospital, Walter Reed Hospital and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. After working at Baylor University, Dr. Alvord moved to the University of Washington in 1960 and served for more than four decades as a professor of pathology and was a pioneer in the field of neuropathology.

Dr. Alvord was recognized for his work into finding the cause of multiple sclerosis and served on the board of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In 2005, he received its lifetime achievement award.

After his retirement, Dr. Alvord continued to work on developing mathematical models for brain cancer, and Ramsey said just months before his death he planned to submit a paper on brain cancer.

"He did have an unusual career," said his daughter Katharyn Alvord Gerlich, of Seattle. She said that when she was in kindergarten the teacher asked the students what their daddies did and she said her father cut up dead people's brains. Her parents got a call from the school and said there was a problem.

The Alvords endowed chairs in neuropathology and related sciences, which constitute the Nancy and Buster Alvord Brain Tumor Center at the UW. They also contributed to two endowed chairs in the Department of Pathology and received several awards from the UW, including the Gates Volunteer Service Award in 2006. In addition, the Alvords endowed a chair in pediatric epilepsy at Seattle's Childrens hospital.

In addition to his work in medicine, Dr. Alvord was a member of the Henry Art Gallery board of trustees and on the board of the University of Puget Sound.

"Keep a third, give a third to Uncle Sam and give a third away" is the formula that guided Dr. Alvord's philanthropy. He was a trustee of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and ACT Theater for more than 40 years and belonged to several other arts, literary and environmental organizations.

In 1991 the Alvords received the Seattle-King County First Citizen award and a lifetime dedication to the arts award in 1999. They also received the Poncho founders award in 2008 and were recognized in 1995 as the outstanding philanthropic family of the year.

"I am such a great admirer of all his accomplishments," said Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony music director. "They (the Alvord family) were consistent in their support if they believed in what you were doing artistically."

He said that early in his career at the symphony, Schwarz told Dr. Alvord that he planned to invite a guest conductor, and Dr. Alvord questioned him. "He said Jerry, you're not a politician, you're an artist. Is it the right thing to do for arts? You should make the right decision." Schwarz didn't invite the guest conductor.

"He was the warmest, most wonderful supportive, brilliant, sensitive human being," Schwarz said. "To be a scientist and a doctor of his caliber and have the compassion and sensitivity is something remarkable. He was an extraordinary human being."

Added Ramsey, "The consequences of the philanthropic contributions made by Buster and Nancy Alvord and their children and grandchildren are everywhere, through UW Medicine, the University of Washington and the larger Puget Sound region, in science and medicine, in the arts and humanity, in education and other areas. They are a wonderful, devoted family, fully engaged with one another and with their community."

Son Ellsworth "Chap" Alvord said that after his father retired from the UW, the UW kept giving him a key to the lab where he continued to work, doing research models of brain tumors.

He said his father, though busy, always went to his sports games and other school events. He also loved to water ski and, when the family moved to Seattle from Texas, he insisted everyone learn to snow ski, which they did.

Evans said he loved Quilcene Bay, where he built a home 20 years ago and was almost finished with a second home there.

At his summer home "Buster was a totally different personality than the more formal one that most people knew," Evans said. "He was a gentle, marvelous, generous guy. You hate to lose a dear friend like that, but he had a marvelous, full, productive life. What Buster did will be carried on by other scientists."

In addition to his two children, Dr. Alvord is survived by his wife, Nancy, brother Robert Alvord of Washington, D.C., son Richard Alvord and daughter Jean Alvord Rhodes, both of Seattle.

A memorial service is set for March 4 at 2 p.m. at Meany Hall at the UW.

The family asks that remembrances in his name go to Harborview Medical Center's Mission of Caring Fund, in care of UW Foundation, Box 359505, Seattle, 98195 or ArtsFund, P.O. Box 19780, Seattle WA 98109, or a charity of choice.

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