BY Carolyn Hamilton

My eulogy for my husband, Jeff Hamilton, who died of pancreatic cancer last January at age 56, was a thank you note.  Almost a year later, as we publish the first year’s recipients of the Jeff Hamilton Legacy Fund Juniper Awards, I thank you, my community, for making his vision a success and an inspiration.

The legacy fund provides yearly monetary awards to local individuals in six categories, recognizing commitment, imagination, and fearlessness by supporting recipients’ limitless potential. In the beginning, the fund reflected Jeff’s desire “to do significant good after I’m gone.” But it quickly became clear this fund would turn into a community endeavor.

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When we first learned that Jeff’s cancer had metastasized, I asked him, “What do you want to do?” He said, “We don’t have a bucket list, Carolina, we’ve done it all,” but that wasn’t exactly true; we’d never built a legacy fund. It was our last project, and with the encouragement of close friends, the advice and commitment of Jeff’s colleagues and clients, the hard work of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, and the courage and creativity of our daughters, we began building. 

It is grittily surreal to watch the person you love create his own legacy fund. It means you have to presume death while simultaneously giving life to something new. It means you have to battle your impulse to freeze time, memorize the body, mind, and heart you adore, and instead hammer out details of an ambitious project. But there Jeff was, a yellow legal pad on his lap, his pen gliding along blue lines, finding a way to accomplish this last goal; and there we were, finding a way to help. 

In the last two months of his life — on the sofa, on short drives after chemotherapy, and on slow walks through downtown — Jeff led us through the process. We identified the words he lived by and wanted to celebrate in others: commitment, fearlessness, imagination. We wrote the mission, vision, and finally the rationale, which was to give MacArthur-style, no-strings-attached monetary awards that would alleviate financial limitations and enable recipients to continue boldly on their paths. We designated the categories he wanted to celebrate — music and writing, the trades, medical caregiving, community impact, art/performing arts, and winter Olympic athletes. And during the late nights, when we were all asleep, Jeff tightened the calculations necessary to make the fund permanent.

When he died, we launched the Jeff Hamilton Legacy Fund, and you, thankfully, launched with us; and together, we all launched into a space of exponential good. 

This year, we received 131 nominations for the Juniper Awards. The nominees work and create, but they also — sometimes unintentionally — inspire, contribute, and model. Jeff believed that honoring individuals would strengthen community. And in these submissions, I see he was right. Nominees impact exponentially, whether from quiet corners of their lives, or in dynamic efforts to enrich community. One recipient said she didn’t think anyone but her constituents knew what she did. I told her and the other recipients, all of whom responded with such humility and thrill at being chosen, that they are who Jeff envisioned when he likened our community to a juniper whose individual roots drive through cracks in granite making the whole tree beautiful and resilient. 

For each nominee, there is at least one additional person who took time to notice and nominate. During the nomination cycle, I read these impassioned thoughtful words, and thanked each nominator. Here are some descriptions of our astonishing community members:

Builds community through artRock of the infusion centerUses imagination to keep kids motivated and having fun • Inspires students to follow dreams • Captures the magic of mountain life • Gives with his whole heart Shows big ideas don’t flourish only in big cities • Attacked new instruments with fierce determination, full commit • Fearlessly pushes new mediums and stylesMost fearless kid I’ve ever met • Evolves, adapts • Committed to raising musicians  • Guts, perseverance, sacrifice • Behind-the-scenes hero • Reaches listeners with ideas they ponder • Outside the boxFearlessly improves the quality of young people’s lives • Committed to changing the system • Generous attitude through the battle he faces • Vision, collaborative spirit • Committed to helping athletes and artists expand skillsSings, dances, embraces patients • Overcame biggest fear • Stays late to help kids • The nurse you want by your side • Pushes the sport forward • Musically talented down to her feet • Gives until no more gas in the tank • Imagines new projects, makes them real • Embodies imagination, asking,  “What are you into?” versus “What do you do?”• Unbreakable spirit • Committed amid personal adversity • Not only saves lives, but saves patients time and money • Learned time is too precious to hold off on dreams  • Creates a safe space for sharing fears and pains • First to disasters to nourish  Finds new ways of capturing beauty Challenges the story and dares to rewrite it

For all the intention and positivity, there were those who volunteered to work. “Ambassadors” for each category spread the word about how to nominate and brought expertise in their respective fields to building consensus in the selection process. More volunteers served on the selection committee. Our daughters, Eleanore and Frances, and I did not vote or weigh in, but on Nov. 1, we witnessed 11 community members deliberate, praise nominees, and choose the first recipients. In the boardroom, I heard this question so many times: “Can’t we select three recipients per category?” Happily, unawarded nominees may be nominated again. 

For each Juniper Award there is a large and growing extended family of donors who give what they can in one dazzling donation, or generously pledge to give over five years. Jeff’s vision was to endow the fund at $1.5 million, so it could be a community benefit forever; and in our first year, we are already a third of the way there. This year, winners will receive $3,000 each. The awards will grow as the principle grows toward endowment. Because we never know if there will be local athletes named to the US Team in any given year, we gratefully accepted an anonymous donor’s offer to support all four eligible winter Olympic athletes at $5,000 each.

Of course, I’d prefer Jeff be here, doing good himself. But he is gone, and my family is reeling in and grateful for all the goodness in this process. Please watch the video our daughter Eleanore created, documenting the first year, at jeffhamiltonlegacyfund.com. And so, as we conclude this first year, and look forward to next year’s nomination cycle, I ask you to look around and notice who is rooting for our community and consider nominating them next June. In the meantime, I invite you to joyfully celebrate the 2023 Juniper

Award recipients:

Community Impact: Kathlee Martin

Medical Caregiving: Julie Morgan

Trades: Joshua Mendoza

Music: Elia Schreiber

Art & Performing Arts: Sara Mohagen

Olympic Winter Athletes: JC Schoonmaker, Cody LaPlante, Bryce Bennett, Hahna Norman

~ Carolyn Hamilton is happy to live in the mountains near warm granite and cold lakes. She loves to hike, dunk, and spend the dark hours of her day drinking coffee, or a glass of wine, and writing. She sees herself as the luckiest person in the world for all the love aimed in her direction. 

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