New Gift from Valerie Trotman Seeks to Ease Cancer's Emotional Toll

Alex and Valerie Trotman
Alex and Valerie Trotman

A recent gift from Valerie A. Trotman will support the CCC’s PsychOncology Program. The Alexander J. and Valerie A. Trotman Cancer Support Fund will enable a wide variety of support services to those undergoing cancer treatment at Michigan. A gift from Valerie Trotman in 2006 established the Alexander J. Trotman Professorship in Leukemia Research. This story is taken from a Health System publication, Endowed Medical Professorships at the University of Michigan, which chronicles professorships in the Medical School and the generous donors who made them possible.

In 1955, Alex Trotman was a young man fresh out of a four-year stint with the Royal Air Force (RAF), living in Essex, England. Supporting a wife and two young boys, and in need of a job, he opened the local newspaper, turned to the classifieds and circled an interesting ad. Ford Motor Company, it read, was looking for trainees.

Trotman went for an interview and was hired. It was the early days of Ford of Britain — the Dearborn, Michigan-based company’s first incursion into Europe. Trotman was immediately enrolled in an intensive training program to familiarize him with all aspects of the company, from accounting to sales to the assembly line. It was a nuts-and-bolts beginning that served him — and Ford — almost unbelievably well.

Trotman went on to become Ford chairman and led the company through a restructuring that steered the automaker from huge losses to one of its most prosperous periods during the middle- to-late 1990s. He retired in 1998 after 43 years with Ford in a variety of positions throughout Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Alex Trotman was born in 1933, just outside of London, to a family of modest means. His father, an upholsterer, and his mother, a former maid in a large London home, moved their family to Edinburgh during World War II to escape the bombing of the city. Trotman received a scholarship to Boroughmuir High School. But a university education was out of the question financially, and Trotman joined the RAF where he served as a navigator, reading maps and stars, communicating with pilots – being the ultimate team player.

By the early 1960s, Trotman’s marriage had ended. At work, he met a fellow Ford employee, Valerie Edgar.

"I was hired as a junior secretary right out of school," says Valerie Edgar Trotman. "This was just at a time when these huge IBM computers were all the rage. I was seeing all these people coming in to take aptitude tests to see if they would make good computer programmers and I told my boss, 'I'm as good as they are!' " Her boss agreed and Valerie Trotman became a computer programmer in the very earliest days of the field. She found herself working product planning alongside Alex Trotman, who quickly was making a name for himself in the company.

"I remember I thought he was very full of himself at first," she recalls with a laugh, "but after a couple of years, I found he was quite interesting." The two married in 1963.

At Ford, Alex Trotman found he had a skill for what his American colleagues would later call "commonizing" -- streamlining and standardizing an entire family of cars. His success commonizing the production of the Ford Cortina brought him to the attention of Henry Ford II, who named him the first director of product planning at the newly created Ford Europe.

Britain's high taxes prompted Trotman to transfer to Ford’s Dearborn office in 1969. It was technically a professional step backward for Trotman, but the couple knew it was only temporary. "When you're young, you do brave things without thinking about it," says Valerie Trotman. "We had a two-year-old daughter, Samantha. We had to pay our own way to move here. We knew one family who lived in Ann Arbor, so we settled there."

The Trotmans found they loved the town and the University. Their second daughter, Helen, was born at University Hospital. They went to football games and made many new friends. Though Alex Trotman’s sons, Alex and John, lived in England, the family saw them regularly. "It was a very special time in our lives," Valerie Trotman says.

Trotman's position with Ford caused the family to move several times — in 1979 to England, then to Australia, then back to England; in 1989 they returned to Ann Arbor. In 1993, Trotman was named chief executive of the company; it was a critical time. Just two years prior, Ford had posted a then-record loss of $2.3 billion. Trotman directed the 1995 launch of Ford 2000, a restructuring plan that included the consolidation of the company's North American and European operations and cut billions in costs by having more cars and trucks share engines, transmissions and other parts. The result was one of the most prosperous periods in the company's history.

In 1992, Trotman was asked by a Detroit News reporter if he ever felt intimidated by the multibillion-dollar stakes he played in his work. He replied, "I personally never feel intimidated about it. I feel excited and challenged by it. Once we've done all our homework — which we do extensively — and we’ve decided to place our bet, I feel a sense of challenge. Now it's exciting. Now we‘ve got to spend that money and put that product on the street and score a victory for our company and satisfy our customers."

In his off-hours, Trotman was a devoted father who loved spending time with his wife and children. He was an avid gardener, loved repairing old clocks and had an extensive collection of them. A remarkably fit man, he thrived on exercise and activity.

In the first years following Trotman's retirement, the couple traveled extensively, bought houses in Florida and Massachusetts, and spent time in England where he served on a variety of boards and consulted for the British government.

In 2005, the Trotmans were at their vacation cottage near their sons in the English countryside when Alex Trotman said he felt uncharacteristically tired. "We were walking maybe six miles a day on the Yorkshire moors," Valerie Trotman recalls, "and I noticed that I could keep up with him."

A persistent headache caused Trotman to go to the emergency room, where he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. The cause was an undiagnosed leukemia that he likely had for only a short time.

Says his wife, "It is a sad story but we were married for 42 years and every year was great. I feel very lucky."

In the days and weeks that followed, condolences poured in from all over the world. "People I'd never met would write to me and say, 'you don't know me, and I don't think Alex would have remembered me, but when he came to our plant he really listened to me.' He got people feeling like team members."

Many people asked how they could help, and the immediate suggestion was to contribute to cancer and leukemia research. As time went on, Valerie Trotman thought about the U-M Medical School. During their years in Ann Arbor, the Trotmans had been staunch and generous supporters of the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Ford Motor Company often had matched their gifts. Valerie Trotman once donated a Christmas tree for the center’s lobby.

"Ann Arbor, the U-M and the Cancer Center were such an important part of our lives," says Valerie Trotman. "We had seen the Cancer Center develop and knew of its fabulous reputation. With Ford so close by, and the fact that so many people in the area would have heard of Alex, it seemed like the obvious thing to do."

The Alexander J. Trotman Professorship in Leukemia Research was established in 2006. Today, Moshe Talpaz, M.D., a renowned cancer researcher in the Comprehensive Cancer Center, is the Alexander J. Trotman Professor of Leukemia Research.

But the Trotman family's legacy at the University of Michigan Health System broadened recently with a new gift to the PsychOncology Program in the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Alex Trotman would have been 80 years old this year. To mark that landmark birthday, his wife established the Alexander J. and Valerie A. Trotman Cancer Support Fund which will provide psychiatric support services to patients undergoing cancer treatment at the Cancer Center, and their families.

The Cancer Center's PsychOncology staff provides services including education, support and counseling assistance to address the social, emotional and spiritual needs associated with cancer. Specialists include social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, child and family life therapists, nurses, art therapists and complementary therapy professionals.

These services are funded via philanthropy and are offered free of charge to patients undergoing cancer treatment at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

It's support like that of the Trotman family that continues to make a profound difference both in cancer research and treatment at the U-M, and in the emotional challenges faced by those fighting this disease.

Learn more about the PsychOncology Program:

Visit the PsychOncology Program website

Read Health of the Whole: Why treating the psychological, as well as physical, aspects of cancer matters

Read Better Days: PsychOncology Clinic offers patients tools for coping

Questions about the PsychOncology Program? Contact our Cancer AnswerLine™ at 800-865-1125.

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