Cancer spurs local philanthropist to share his gifts

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

What did Richard C. Colton Jr. do when he was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic squamous cell skin cancer in June 2012 and told to get his affairs in order?

This Catholic convert, New York Yankees fan, avid art patron and collector, thoroughbred horse owner and world traveler made a pact with God.

“I have more projects I would like to do,” he told God in his private conversation. “Please help me through this, and I’ll pay back a thousand-fold with good deeds. As long as you keep me alive, I’ll keep doing good in the world every way I can, without seeking credit. This, I vow to you.”

While Colton wasn’t a native – he grew up in the northeast as part of the wealthy Lykes Brothers shipping family – he adopted New Orleans as home after working in the family business, headquartered in New Orleans, more than five decades ago. The city’s culture, food and people are ingrained in him, and he refused to let his cancer diagnosis give it all up.

“I had to finish what I started in the Crescent City,” he said.

Walking miracle

As his cancer progressed, Colton made his way to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where several doctors – including Dr. Paul Spring, an oncologist; Dr. Stephen Metzinger, a plastic surgeon, and Dr. Anthony Tufaro, a surgical oncologist and reconstructive surgeon – performed three major surgeries.

In late 2016, doctors told him surgery, chemotherapy and radiation were no longer options, and he was sent to Dr. William Sharfman, who used a life-saving immunotherapy drug called Keytruda, where a person’s immune system kills cancer cells.

Colton was fortunate to have been approved for the drug therapy and also to have the finances to fly to Baltimore every three weeks, beginning in February 2017, to receive 26 treatments. The treatments proved successful, and he is considered “cancer-free.” In the course of his surgeries, doctors removed parts of his jaw.

Ever the optimist, Colton forged on “with God on my side.” He also credits his team of doctors and the support of Taryn Moller Nicoll, a biological and biographical artist who chronicled his surgeries through oil paintings, with making his “cancer journey” bearable. Colton is a benefactor of Nicoll’s artwork.

Wrote a book

Colton’s cousin-in-law and business associate Bronson Thayer gave him sage advice during his illness: “to get busy living” with the time he had left and to think about if he had “done the things you were truly put here to do.” When he recounted his cancer story to friend and author James Farwell, he suggested Colton write a book, and recommended Judy Katz and publisher New Voices Press. With Katz, he co-wrote his memoir, “No More. No Less. An Artful Cancer Journey. A Remarkable Community. A Rediscovered Purpose.”

The book, in part, is about cancer, but it also prompted Colton’s spiritual reawakening and his inspiration to accomplish more charitable works, with “God guiding these projects.” The book, he hopes, also will give others hope on their cancer journey.

“If anything, if my book can help people look at their attitudes while struggling with cancer and see what others can do, it could be a significant contribution,” Colton said.

Colton held a book signing recently at the Assembly Hall of Academy of the Sacred Heart, the first recipient of his philanthropy from his pact with God. Colton provided funds to renovate the hall, to include an art gallery and community meeting space.

Several of Nicoll’s surgery paintings and abstract sketches were displayed. Colton also has held several art exhibits of his collections – including the 2017 debut exhibit of 176 paintings called “Women of the World” – at Sacred Heart schools  nationwide. An arts awards ceremony for students is in the planning stage.

Colton said Sacred Heart found a place in his heart because his New Orleans cousins attended the school, and his strong connection with his trainer, Betsy Becker Laborde, a Sacred Heart alumna. He said the school has a “rah-rah” spirit that he admires.

“Mr. Colton’s gift was born out of his love of the arts and his altruistic spirit,” Sacred Heart Sister Melanie Guste said. “With his generous donation, Sacred Heart has enhanced its arts programming and has been able to open its doors to the wider community, thus expanding the audience which is reached by his generosity and vision for sharing performances and fine art.”

Sister Guste said the doors of the Richard C. Colton Jr. Center for Performing and Fine Arts are “rarely closed; whenever our school community is not using the space for performances, meetings or celebrations, priority is given to collaborations with other local schools and non-profits organizations whose missions align with Mr. Colton’s original vision.”

Colton also has funded two Catholic books – one written by his friend, Ernie Carrere, who spent most of his life as a monk; and another by a late close friend and fellow traveler, Dominican Father Val McInnes, who was instrumental in acquiring objects for the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Vatican Exhibit at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. Anonymously providing scholarships is also part of his philanthropy.

It was Father McInnes, friend of his aunt and uncle Jack and Libby Carrere from New Orleans, who inspired him to convert to Catholicism and presented Colton in 2007 with the Dominican Province’s St. Martin de Porres award.

Colton also donated money for the Richard C. Colton Jr. Performing & Fine Arts Center, dedicated in October 2017 at his prep school alma mater, The Gunnery in Connecticut, as well as the 32,000-square-foot Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center, which is being named the new Richard C. Colton Jr. Visual Arts Wing. He is helping fund cancer research for better immunotherapy drugs and Dr. Tufaro’s cancer-related research.

Colton’s love for fine food has created numerous friends in the local restaurant industry.

“Dick is a fixture here at Commander’s Palace, always surrounded by interesting and talented people from all walks of life,” said Lally Brennan, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace. “Dick truly encompasses the spirit of New Orleans and is admired for his joie de vivre.”

While Colton doesn’t have an exact plan for future donations, he sees the Academy of the Sacred Heart as part of that plan and will continue supporting local artists he encounters.

“There is no denying that I have become a truly different person than when I began this journey,” he wrote in the memoir. “My relationship with my family and friends, with my doctors and nurses, with my city, with art, with my faith, and most of all with myself, have all been modified in a significant fashion. … Confronted by near-certain death, I had undergone many long moments of doubt, and had ultimately found my way to a stronger place.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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