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Legacy Society Members Len & Cathleen Grabowski

A Lifetime Love of Service

Donors Len and Cathleen Grabowski
The December 2017 Thomas Fire and January 2018 Montecito mudslides were catastrophic events in Santa Barbara that caused many residents to reflect on the fragility of life.  Retired Sansum Clinic physician Dr. Len Grabowski and his wife Cathleen were happy to be alive after a high-pressure gas line exploded and the resulting fire burned their Montecito foothills home of 28 years to the ground.  The couple was thankful they had stayed with friends that fateful evening, and avoided the trauma of witnessing the debris flow. The Grabowskis’ longtime neighbors who had stayed in their home jumped from second-floor windows to escape; other neighbors lost loved ones.  “We were devastated,” shares Cathleen, but then we realized how many died. You can’t be oblivious to how fortunate we were. “We were lucky compared to so many people,” adds Len. “For us, it was all just material things.”  Even with their belongings reduced to ash, they rejoiced when they learned their family cat was spared, discovered by rescuers along with a prized orchid and photo boxes, which were protected inside in a small, backyard woodworking shed.

The couple needed to find a new place to live, but leaving the area was never a consideration.  Their roots ran too deep after more than 50 years in the place they built their careers and raised their children.  “It’s hard to go someplace else from here,” admits Cathleen.  A devotion to their hometown and to Sansum Clinic was the driving force behind their decision to join Legacy Society.  “We decided to allocate a portion of our estate to Sansum Clinic,” explains Len. “We wanted to honor important experiences that we’ve had during our life that either sustained us or changed us in the right direction.” 

The Grabowskis met in Chicago where they both attended pharmacy school. Len then pursued his medical education at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. The Vietnam War halted the trajectory of his physician career when Len signed up with the Navy. His first assignment in 1968 was Moffett Naval Air Station. The couple and their young son moved to Mountain View, California where Len treated dependents of service members. 

Len Grabowski in uniform
Len in uniform at Moffett Naval Air Station

Len’s first wartime role was relatively easy until he shipped off to Okinawa where he provided medical care for the third Marine Corps division. Cathleen ultimately joined him overseas, setting up their home across from the launching ground for giant B-52 bombers headed to Vietnam. Once back in the States, Len completed his residency at the University of California at Davis. He brought his family to Santa Barbara in 1973 to join a growing internal medicine department at Sansum Clinic, then housed in the small brick outpost on Pueblo Street across from Cottage Hospital. “We were the Mayo Clinic of the west,” describes Len. “Patients would come from all over the western U.S. for this excellent care. They would spend several days getting a litany of exams and tests, and do this every year.”

After Cathleen joined the Sansum Pharmacy, the Grabowskis worked one floor apart in the same building for more than twenty years. They knew many of the same employees, doctors and patients, and their work and home lives became intertwined.  “It was the golden age of medicine in a way, a happy place to be,” Len remarks. “With some patients, it felt like I was visiting with a friend each time they came in.”  In the 80s, Len became certified in the emerging field of geriatrics, by the American Board of Internal Medicine. “The patient population of my practice then was already heading that way,” says Len. “I liked trying to develop confidence and come up with a reasonable game plan,  so patients understood what was happening. I still like that. In the real world, I am a fix-it guy.  I like starting with a problem and then having to figure out how to fix it.” 

Len Grabowski with orchid
Len tending to his orchid

Cathleen departed Sansum Clinic to serve as a pharmacist with nonprofit Direct Relief for two decades. Len cared for Sansum Clinic patients for 34 years until his retirement in 2007, working alongside other longtime physicians like his partner George Messerlian, MD, James McNamara, MD and Sansum Clinic CEO and Chief Medical Officer Kurt N. Ransohoff, MD, FACP (all who are Legacy Society members).

This new season of life gave Len and Cathleen more time for hobbies, and an increased passion for serving their community. They have generously given their time and talents to Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, The Boys & Girls Club, Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara.  They say their generosity was inspired by their simple upbringings,  scholarships which provided higher education and career opportunities they were lucky enough to receive. A first-hand, intimate knowledge of the nonprofit world helped them understand the power of collective giving. “It was a real lightning bolt for us,” affirms Cathleen. “Once we knew our kids would have enough when we are gone, and that we could designate a portion of our estate for things that were a big deal in our lives, that felt great!”

If you would like information about the Sansum Clinic Legacy Society, please contact:
Dru A. Hartley
Director of Philanthropy
(805) 681-7726