September 9, 2021

Gift creates directorship in translational vision research

Marlene and Spencer Hays’ longtime support of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute includes the recent commitment to establish the Marlene & Spencer Hays Directorship in Translational Vision Research.

Spencer Hays started his career selling Bibles door to door for the Southwestern Co. during summer vacations in college, and later rose to become its president and board chairman.

Along the way, Hays and his wife, Marlene, who grew up in small towns in Oklahoma and Texas, amassed a vast art collection focused largely on the paintings of the Nabis, a French post-impressionist group, a collection they donated to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Marlene and Spencer Hays’ longtime support of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute includes the recent commitment to establish the Marlene & Spencer Hays Directorship in Translational Vision Research.

It seemed especially poignant when Spencer Hays, who got so much pleasure from viewing the couple’s art, began to experience serious vision problems. He underwent cataract surgery in New York in 2007. The outcome was not optimal.

After consulting specialists in New York and Baltimore without significant improvement, Spencer sought out the Vanderbilt Eye Institute (VEI) and Paul Sternberg Jr., MD, George Weeks Hale Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and chair of the department.

“When Spencer began to experience vision problems in 2007, he came to see Dr. Sternberg at Vanderbilt after specialists everywhere weren’t able to improve his sight,” Marlene Hays recalled. “Dr. Sternberg was able to significantly improve Spencer’s vision, allowing him to continue to enjoy the things in his life that brought him joy — including our art collection.”

Tonia Rex, PhD

In appreciation, Marlene and Spencer Hays made their first gift to VEI in 2014. Following Spencer’s death in 2017, Marlene led the creation of the Marlene and Spencer Hays Foundation, and in 2020 the foundation made a commitment to establish the Marlene & Spencer Hays Directorship in Translational Vision Research.

Tonia Rex, PhD, professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and associate vice chair for Translational Research at VEI, has been named to the directorship. The accompanying endowment will support her research efforts.

Rex is a visual system neuroscientist with training in retinal gene therapy. Her laboratory studies mechanisms and neuroprotective strategies in complex neurodegenerations of the visual system including glaucoma and trauma.

“We’re such visual creatures,” Rex said. “Losing your vision drastically affects your quality of life. You lose the ability to see your loved ones and interact with your surroundings.”

Part of her research involves trying to understand why neurons die in glaucoma or in neurotrauma. “It’s the neurons that convert the light signal into an electrical signal and communicate this information to the brain, resulting in sight. If we lose them, they’re not regenerated. They’re just gone. We need to keep them alive and functional so we can retain sight,” she said.

But complex neurodegeneration doesn’t have a specific genetic component, she said. So, in addition to trying to understand what is happening in the development of glaucoma, she is also trying to identify therapeutic targets, including how gene therapy might help restore vision and how it can best be delivered to the eye.

“The Marlene & Spencer Hays Foundation is a very special foundation to be associated with,” Rex said. “They have a very thoughtful and specific approach for where they want their funds to go, and they’ve been very intentional about that. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I have been chosen as one of the ways they’re meeting their goals. It’s additional motivation for me, to do the best I can in my research, because I’m representing them as well, and I want to do my work with the same level of integrity in which they’ve lived their lives,” she said.

Sternberg said his friendship with Hays was “an absolute gift. Spencer was a truly extraordinary man. Not only was he brilliant and visionary, but he cared deeply for everyone around him, including the many lives he touched through his businesses. Spencer was innately generous. I am deeply touched that the Hays Foundation chose to endow a directorship at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute to honor his legacy.”

Suzanne Moore, foundation trustee and a VEI Advisory Board member who was instrumental in securing the directorship gift, worked with Hays for 15 years.

“Spencer felt a real gratitude and appreciation for Paul Sternberg and the work he was doing. He realized how important research is for finding the answers to eye problems from trauma and disease,” Moore said.

“Preserving eyesight was very important to Spencer following his experience, and we are so glad that we could take this important step with the Eye Institute,” she said.

“While our friendship with Paul and members of his staff may have led to the beginning of the relationship, it will continue long after we both are gone.”

Marlene Hays said her husband would be pleased to know that a gift from their foundation will help others who experience vision loss.

“His grandmother, Granny Mary, who raised him, had a huge impact on his life. As a small boy, he saw her, with very limited resources, always having something to help others,” she said.

“Spencer would be so pleased to know that funds from the Marlene and Spencer Hays Foundation will go to support vision-sparing care at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute,” Hays said. “By supporting the work of Dr. Rex, we hope that we can extend that help to others who fight to retain their vision.”