Volunteer leader cherishes life-changing UC relationships

Tom Carleton’s ongoing UC experience is delivering tremendous value to him and his wife, but more importantly to future generations of Bearcats.

Authentic leaders will freely admit that becoming a champion for great causes doesn’t happen solely through their own efforts, and Tom Carleton is no exception.

Carleton understands the good fortune and great people that have surrounded and supported him since the day over 35 years ago he decided to become a UC student. And he credits a pair of UC family members for shaping his opportunity to lift others as they travel their own Bearcat journeys. One was a professor who helped orient his personal life and professional self, the other a fellow alumni volunteer leader who offered Tom wise counsel and a tremendous example. As such, this is the story of the power of the relationships that organically develop throughout the UC community.

Like many teens of similar upbringings, Carleton thought his ideal college destination would be somewhere affordable but not too close to home. Hence, from Ashtabula in the extreme northeast corner of Ohio to the University of Cincinnati in the opposite corner.

“A high school friend who was two years older than me became the drum major for the Bearcat Band,” Tom recalls. “I took a few trips down to see him even before I was really thinking about college. I had a lot of fun, and as my time approached, UC met my qualifications of being in-state but far away — and it just felt right to me.”

As my time approached, UC met my qualifications of being in-state but far away — and it just felt right to me.

Tom Carleton, A&S '91

That gut feeling would alter his life completely. He would soon wind up in the same communications major and “Careers in Communications” class as Cincinnati native Christine Crosier, under the tutelage of young professor Lisa Newman. Each woman would become an enduring figure in Tom’s life — Lisa as a sterling example of what a college professor should be and a future inspiration to help others, and Chris as his wife and partner in his energizing work in his adopted hometown.

Chris graduated with her communications degree in 1990, Tom followed a year later. He worked for a while in the food service industry, most notably for Nabisco and Rubbermaid, before pursuing his true calling. One of Tom’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers had contracted chronic lymphocytic leukemia and the Carletons began volunteering with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) in Cincinnati to fund-raise and assist the family with their financial challenges. He then realized that more truly meaningful career work beckoned him — “something bigger than me, that would help humankind” — and that he’d already come to know and deeply respect LLS’s work.

“It was an easy choice, because LLS funds research, patient services, advocacy efforts — they cover the spectrum,” Tom says. “Then one evening as we were volunteering at an LLS event at the aquarium, I caught up with the executive director in the freight elevator and asked him, ‘How do I become employed with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society? I’m really enjoying volunteering but I need a bit more.’"

New vocation becomes UC volunteerism springboard

Carleton would be richly rewarded for seizing that 2006 moment. He was initially tasked with participating in an LLS event which was very successful, he had a tremendous experience in the process (“I saw how good people are”), and soon he joined the LLS staff. In that first year he managed “Light The Night,” the annual LLS community gathering that honors those touched by blood cancers.

“One of the first people they sent me to see was this guy at Great American Insurance who was a huge LLS advocate, as he had lost his mother-in-law to lymphoma,” Tom says. “The VP, Internal Audit, a pretty stern dude, and I’d be lying if I said the situation wasn’t a little intimidating.”

Tom with Bob and Kim Dobbs

Tom Carleton (right) treasures his relationship with Bob and Kim Dobbs and the lifelong impact it will have on Tom and the UC community.

The guy’s name was Bob Dobbs, and he and his wife, Kim, were destined to become the “other” UC pillar, along with Lisa Newman, in the Carletons’ life journey, providing perspective and mentorship in general but especially around their shared love for their alma mater and compulsion to act on its behalf.

“I don’t know if he was wearing a UC shirt or if I was, but we started talking about UC, and began a friendship that I will cherish forever. I mean, when my dad passed in 2016, Bob Dobbs was the guy I turned to.”

And when Bob passed at Christmastime the following year, ironically from blood cancer-related complications, the Carletons were devastated, as was the UC community as a whole. Yet Dobbs left a profound legacy with endless ripple effects, including many Bearcat brothers and sisters for whom Bob had become an exemplar around how love for UC could exquisitely manifest itself through volunteer leadership.

“He recognized my passion for the university and talked to me a lot about volunteering,” says Tom. “Bob and Kim are a huge reason that Chris and I do much of what we do at UC now.”

Beyond their colleges and Bearcats athletics, the UC Alumni Association was a logical place for each man to funnel his energy. When you’re so passionate about your alma mater, you naturally want to help spread that love among your fellow alumni and facilitate the overall advancement of, and support for, the university. Dobbs’ influence is felt throughout the Alumni Association and UC Foundation from his years of extraordinary service; UCAA’s revered service award is named for him. Two years ago, Kim, who was then wrapping up her stint as a co-chair of UC’s Bicentennial, knew where to look when the call went out for prospective new Foundation trustees.

“I felt Tom would greatly enhance an already awesome board,” Kim says. “He always has UC’s best interests in mind to elevate our university, and I knew his relationship-building and fundraising work at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society could be helpful as we move forward in our current campaign and beyond.”

Board service elevates UC passion

Innately driven to enhance the connection between alumni and their university, Carleton feels he’s precisely where he’s supposed to be right now, and he’s thriving on the energy of the team and the task. This spring, he and Chris hosted a reception for the board’s executive committee and the 2021 and 2022 class of new trustees — a warm welcome and exclamation point on the return to in-person gatherings for a group dependent on camaraderie and trust.

“We had to do the virtual thing for most of my first two years, and it was fine, but our first in-person meeting was this April and it was fantastic,” Tom says. “The energy was amazing. And our committee is great. It was so easy to slide in with [Alumni Engagement Committee chair] Ruthie Keefe and [Chief Alumni Officer] Jen Heisey, two people I know extremely well. Ironically, Ruthie had been the LLS board president just prior to my starting there, and Jen and I had worked together during my previous UCAA service. It’s just been a blessing to come back to this part of the university and be involved at a somewhat higher level and do what we can to make a difference.”

He feels particularly good about how the UC Alumni Celebration has innovatively recognized its group of honorees the past two springs through dynamic downtown murals, and a recent project in which a growing sample of UC’s “Notable Alumni” are captured on a new website.

“Learning about these dedicated alumni who pioneered brilliant breakthroughs and achieved so much gives you a whole new appreciation for the university and the type of people UC has produced over the years,” Tom says.

Learning about these dedicated alumni who pioneered brilliant breakthroughs and achieved so much gives you a whole new appreciation for the university...

Tom Carleton, A&S '91

Typically, such passion for your school also wants to be expressed through tangible support, however you can lend it. For many years, Tom and Chris found themselves back in their friend Lisa Newman’s classroom as alumni, acting on Newman’s open invitation to share career lessons they’d learned — he as a nonprofit executive, she as a partner at Truepoint Wealth Counsel in her Wealth Advisor role — with each new cohort of Communications-major Bearcats. One such visit a decade ago proved transformational.

Called to support other Bearcats’ dreams

Tom and Chris with Lisa Newman at an event

Tom and Chris Carleton will forever be grateful to their communications professor, Lisa Newman (center), for shaping their careers as professionals and UC philanthropists.

“We’ll never forget it,” Tom remembers. “In the back of the room was some guy in a suit — seemingly not a student, but you never know. A week or so later we get a call from Rob Cardosi, who at the time was a UC Foundation development officer for Arts and Sciences. He said he’d heard us talk to Lisa’s students. It was the guy in the suit!

“Rob said it really seemed like we care a lot for Lisa and we said absolutely, because we see how she touches people. I’d been running the intern program at LLS which included many of her students, and it was evident how much she was impacting their lives. Eventually Rob asked what we thought about creating a communications scholarship and naming it for her.”

The light went on — with full wattage: Tom and Chris could see a new way to make a big difference — honoring their former professor while providing the means to help others learn from her. They did their homework, seeking to ensure that the new scholarship’s requirements would meet Newman’s standards (with Lisa’s help), then crafting an opportunity for the next generation of UC communications majors to explore their potential.

The Carletons have gotten to know all but one of the subsequent Newman Scholars. Recently, Chris has been mentoring one of them whose mother is a single mom in Toledo.

“Kenzie says she struggles when she goes home because she feels guilty when it’s time to come back to Cincinnati,” Tom says. “But she has the willpower to be the first person in her family to go to school and get her degree. For us, these kinds of relationships are priceless. We were lucky to be able to go to school with no problems and leave with just a bit of debt. Now we want to do our part so if young people like Kenzie want to go to school, they can.”

Appreciating how all the pieces fit

Starting the Lisa H. Newman Scholarship is a significant, but far from the only, example of how the Carletons have been creative in converting their desires into financial support for fellow Bearcats. And while his passion reaches across the entire UC landscape, the executive director of LLS’s Ohio River Valley Region is notably enthusiastic around where his professional work intersects with the university’s.

“I’m really excited about the direction of UC Health and, in particular, to get Dr. John Byrd to come here,” Tom says, referring to last year’s appointment of the new chair of UC’s Department of Internal Medicine. “He’s one of the smartest, most highly respected doctors in my world of blood cancer. World renowned. To bring him here is a stake-in-the-ground moment.”

Tom Carleton sees a very personal twist to what has happened in his lifelong relationship with UC. He and Chris learned early in their marriage that they couldn’t have children. “Everyone around us seemed to be starting families, so that was a hard thing to go through,” he admits. But it would prove to be a sign that a different kind of family plan would unfold for them. Through their commitment, philanthropy and hands-on involvement, it seems they were meant to “have children” in a different way — through uplifting so many lives within their expansive UC family that, in truth, they’ll never know the full, ongoing result of their vision and generosity. That’s something to which Lisa Newman and the Dobbses can relate, and it’s at the heart of why any authentic volunteer leader gets so involved in the first place.

“Tom is all in as a Bearcat,” says Kim Dobbs. “An avid ambassador for everything UC, with a positive attitude, generous heart and undying love for his alma mater.”

“We feel UC has given us so much and really made us the people we are today,” says Tom. “We’re so humbled to be able to give back to the university, whether it’s time, talent or treasure. However we can make an impact — that’s what we want to do.”

This story is part of a series of profiles of members of the University of Cincinnati Foundation’s Alumni Engagement Committee, composed of volunteers who help guide the UC Alumni Association’s efforts within the framework of the Foundation’s larger advancement mission on behalf of the UC community.

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