Forty million dollars bequeathed to the University at Buffalo medical school remains the single biggest gift in the history of the university, and one of the largest bestowed upon the Buffalo region.
But the money and its origins have always been shrouded in mystery.
The gift, revealed in 2011 following the death of the donor, came with the stipulation that his name be kept anonymous as long as his wife was still alive.
So when she passed away earlier this year, not only was his identity disclosed but so was his story: He was a small-town, Midwest doctor who was so grateful for his short time in Buffalo that he spent the rest of his life quietly amassing a fortune – only so he could give it all away to his beloved alma mater.
In fact, his gift to UB turned out to be much more than first realized.
His name was George Melvin Ellis Jr.
Born in Toledo an only child and son of a banker, his interest in medicine began at an early age when he became ill while on a family vacation in New England and a doctor making a house call diagnosed him with appendicitis.
He was so anxious to become a physician, in fact, that when it came time for college in 1942 he researched schools that offered accelerated medical programs, a common scenario during World War II when there was a need for doctors.
Ellis chose UB – and UB chose him.
“He said the greatest day of his life was the day he received the letter from UB medical school that he had been accepted,” said Herbert Joyce, a friend and retired physician.
Joyce and Ellis were classmates in the medical school – located on Main and High streets next to where the new Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences now stands – and like most they were in the Army Specialized Training Program, which paid for their education in exchange for their wartime service as physicians.
Ellis was candid, but friendly, and didn’t like to draw attention to himself, Joyce said. Their schooling was intense, and left little time for anything other than class and study and training at the hospital, but Ellis loved it.
“The clinical training was by far equal or above the training that was offered at other institutions,” said David Draper, associate vice president for advancement at UB, who got to know Ellis. Or, as Ellis often described them, "lesser institutions, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.”
He graduated with his medical degree in 1945.
Ellis was still in his early 20s, but already plotting how he would pay back UB.
A modest life
Ellis served out his military obligation at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, where he treated wounded troops returning home from the war and met Gladys Kelly, a nurse from Wilmington, Del. The two married in 1952, moved to Connersville, Ind., and set up practice in his aunt’s old home on 10th Street next to the railroad tracks.
The living room served as the waiting room, the kitchen as his office, and the dining room as an examining room, Draper recalled. Known around town as Doc Ellis, he posted office hours, but that didn’t matter. The day wasn’t over until every patient who walked through the door was treated.
“If you didn’t have any money, you were taken care of,” Draper said. “No questions asked.”
Draper first met Ellis in 2004 and over the years – which included 50-plus visits to Indiana – their courtship as donor and fundraiser turned into a friendship.
Ellis stood about 6 feet, 2 inches tall. He spoke in a gruff voice, drove the conversation and was politically conservative, Draper said. He was a voracious reader who enjoyed golfing, but disliked traveling. He kept close tabs on classmates, returned to Buffalo for his reunions and was fond of all things bison as a nod to the city. He owned Buicks and Oldsmobiles that he drove for years, and drank Buffalo Trace Bourbon from a coffee mug.
He and Kelly never had any kids.
Ellis spoke to Draper often about leaving UB everything he had, which to anyone on the outside, didn’t appear to be much. The couple lived in a mid-century, two-bedroom ranch a couple of miles from the office.
“Very, very modest,” Draper said of the Ellis home. “When I came on the scene, they still had the same furniture from when they moved into the house – exactly the same. Not pretentious. Very, very understated, almost to the point where George would not invest in some maintenance on the house because it was an expense he didn’t feel was necessary and that it was more money for the university.
“There was a theme here,” Draper said. “Every nickel is going to go back to the University at Buffalo. He talks about that throughout all of our conversations.”
But how much?
Amassing a fortune
Ellis made his fortune at the public library.
Each day, he started his rounds at the hospital by 6 a.m., then returned to his office for patient visits. Then, he would slip away and stop in at the library.
Ellis had taught himself how to invest using money his father left as an inheritance.
“George would do all of his research in the public library in Connersville,” Draper said. “He read the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, any financial publication he could get his hands on.”
Ellis identified stocks he liked, then called his broker – two brokers, actually. His portfolio included manufacturing companies and grocery store chains and banks – many banks.
He wrote down all of his investments – names of stocks, dates, prices – on a stack of index cards that he bound together with a rubber band and referred to as his brain.
“He invested heavily in orthopedic supplies, because he realized baby boomers were going to get a lot of replacement parts," Draper said. “One thing he never invested in was pharmaceuticals. He felt that the pharmaceutical industry was important for his practice, but he wasn’t enamored with their philosophy.”
UB had a sense of his wealth.
Between 1988 and 1998, Ellis set up three charitable trusts for his wife and longtime office assistant through UB, which would receive the remainder of the funds upon their deaths, explained Rodney Grabowski, vice president for university advancement.
Yet, no one from his small city knew his true net worth – and he didn’t show it.
He didn’t bank in Connersville.
His brokers weren’t in Connersville.
“They treated their wealth as if it didn’t exist,” Draper said, “because in his mind it wasn’t his money – it was for UB.”
Giving it all back
Ellis died July 21, 2010. He was 87.
A smoker in his younger years, Ellis suffered from congestive heart failure and lived in a nursing home during his last years.
Like his life, his wake and funeral service were modest. Close friends, longtime patients and fellow physicians showed up to give their condolences to Kelly. Among the mourners was a small contingent from UB, including Draper and colleague Wendy Irving, who knew the couple for years.
And as promised, Ellis kept his word to his alma mater.
In 2011, the university announced that $40 million had been endowed to the medical school by a donor who wanted to remain anonymous. It was Ellis.
In fact, by the time his estate was settled in 2013, the gift had grown to $45 million, Grabowski said.
Interest on the endowment is now spent at the discretion of the dean with the goal of providing the quality of education that Ellis was afforded.
“George was a visionary before his time,” Grabowski said. “This is what we're focusing on now. We’re talking about the university and its direction and future, but we can’t get there without people investing in us and we don’t get investment without building relationships first.”
There was more.
After Kelly died on Feb. 15 of this year at the age of 93, UB received the remainder of the funds from three trusts Ellis had previously set up – a total of $11.8 million.
His contribution to UB was now up to $56.8 million.
"It will be years, maybe even decades, before we fully realize the impact of Dr. Ellis' generosity," said Michael Cain, dean of UB Medical School, "because this is truly a gift that will keep on giving for generations."