Former pauper donates millions to local causes
James Leos may be a multimillionaire who lives in a mansion, but he knows what it’s like to be poor, to be sick, to ache for loved ones who died too soon.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Tucsonans – some with two legs, others with four – have been helped over the years by the pauper-turned-philanthropist whose personal hardships have fueled a desire to share his wealth.
While not as well-known as local megadonors like Jim Click or Don Diamond, Leos, 43, has quietly given millions to the University of Arizona Cancer Center, UA’s surgery department, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona and an array of other causes.
Not bad for a guy who grew up on welfare and still buys his blue jeans at thrift stores.
“He gives because his heart is really in it,” said Ethan Smith Cox of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, where Leos is a major supporter of several initiatives, from the foundation’s food pantry to its AIDS prevention programs.
“I would say he’s helped hundreds, if not thousands, of people,” Cox said.
“He’s one of these guys who travels under the radar doing good.”
Leos, now a highly successful financial planner, had an inauspicious start in life.
He was born into poverty in Globe, grew up near Show Low and got his first taste of capitalism at age 7, when he knocked on the door of a nun who was looking for help running a farm.
“She wanted to hire a high school kid but I promised her I’d take good care of her animals and she gave me the job,” Leos said.
In high school, he excelled in math and science. After graduation, he used his savings to buy a car that he drove to Tucson and promptly sold to cover the rent on a studio apartment not far from the university.
In a stroke of “dumb luck,” Leos landed work as an administrative assistant at UA, which allowed him to study at its business school with tuition waivers.
He graduated in 1992, started work in the finance field and has been giving away big chunks of his wealth ever since.
Leos’ latest gift is a $1 million pledge to the UA’s LGBT Institute, money that will be used for education and research on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.
It’s not the first time Leos has given to that cause, but the magnitude of his recent donation left program officials breathless.
“A gift of this size in this area of study is practically unheard of,” said Susan Stryker, director of the LGBT Institute, in a university announcement.
Because of Leos, UA is poised to become a national leader in research on gender identity and sexual orientation, Stryker said.
“There are only a few comparable research institutes in the entire country and thanks to Jim’s support, we’re now better funded than the vast majority of them,” she said.
The institute is also on track to receive several million more when Leos dies through a trust he set up.
Leos, who is gay, has a number of deeply personal reasons for promoting such research.
His father, who was bisexual, took his life about a decade ago, he said, and in 2002, his sister, a lesbian, died in his arms of organ failure at age 34.
Other family tragedies have spurred similar gifts.
Leos started donating to UA’s cancer center, for example, when a beloved cousin, Monica Armenta – former assistant to ex-UA basketball coach Lute Olson – was diagnosed with brain cancer that killed her in 2009 at age 40.
“I like to think I am harnessing their energy to do something good,” Leos said of deceased loved ones.
His combined donations to UA’s cancer center and its surgery department “are valued in the millions,” the recent announcement said.
A UA official in charge of soliciting money from the wealthy said donors like Leos are the backbone of the university’s private fundraising efforts.
“We have a number of individuals who are not looking for name recognition who give us six- and seven-figure gifts,” said Jim Moore, president and CEO of the UA Foundation.
Like Leos, many “are driven by their passion for a cause,” Moore said.
These days there’s something else driving Leos: a sense of his own mortality.
He’s had cancerous tumors removed from his esophagus, he said, and has symptoms of a leukemialike condition from radiation treatments.
He’s counting on the same gumption that got him off welfare to get him through this.
“I’m a fighter,” said Leos, who has a 21-year-old son.
“I plan to be around for a long time giving money away.”
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4138.
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