George Ellis Jr., and his wife Kelly, remained anonymous donors until recently. Learn about this amazingly generous couple who gave UB its largest gift ever.
Until recently, the details were as sketchy as they were remarkable.
Upon his death in 2010, a doctor who had practiced out of a modest house in the rural Midwest for more than 50 years donated $40 million to the University at Buffalo—the largest gift ever received by the university. He directed the gift to his beloved alma mater, the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Today, combined with earlier donations and interest income on those contributions, it is worth nearly $57 million and supports, among other things, faculty recruitment, a scholarship fund for medical students, and the George M. Ellis Jr. and Kelly Ellis Professorship in Family Medicine.
Little has been known about the donor, George M. Ellis Jr. (MD ’45), because he wanted to remain anonymous until both he and his wife, Kelly, had passed away. With her death last year, UB is finally able to tell the story of this profound act of generosity.
George Ellis was born in 1922 in Toledo, Ohio. His dream of becoming a physician took hold when he was 8 years old, while on a family vacation in New England. He fell ill and was diagnosed with appendicitis by a doctor who made a house call.
“Because of that experience, George became enamored of the skills of general practitioners,” says David Draper (BA ’85), associate vice president for advancement at UB, who knew Ellis for many years. “He was very proud of the fact that he was a clinician.”
In 1942, at the height of World War II, Ellis was awarded early admission to the Jacobs School after only three years of college. Due to the war and the need for physicians, many medical schools around the country offered accelerated medical education programs such as UB’s, where students graduated in three years.
The war ended in August 1945, six weeks after Ellis began his internship. Injured troops returning home required medical care, so Ellis was assigned to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. While at the VA, he met and began dating Gladys Kelly of Wilmington, Del., a nurse at the facility.
George always said that the greatest day of his life was the day he received his letter of acceptance to the UB medical school."
-Classmate Herbert E. Joyce (MD ’45)
When his military service ended, Ellis relocated to Connersville, Ind., where he set up practice in his aunt’s former home. In 1951, he and Kelly married (at which point she took the name Kelly Ellis), and she began working as his nurse. Together, they saw patients out of that home for more than five decades.
They posted office hours, “but the hours didn’t really matter,” Draper says. “They never turned people away, even if they couldn’t pay. George’s life was dedicated to the health and well-being of the community he served. He really embraced the Hippocratic Oath.”
Despite his busy practice, Ellis remained highly engaged with his alma mater. “George was the glue that kept the Class of 1945 together,” notes Draper. “He remembered every one of his classmates and was in regular communication with many of them throughout his professional life and well into retirement.” Ellis also served in various volunteer capacities, was a long-time member of the Dean’s Advisory Council for the Jacobs School, and made it to every single class reunion until 2010, when he was too ill to attend.
For many decades, he served as class secretary for reunions while his classmate Herbert E. Joyce (MD ’45) served as class chair. “My job was to stimulate giving for class reunion projects, but my totals always fell short,” recalls Joyce. “As a last resort, I would go to George, and he always said: ‘How much do you need?’—and then he’d write out a check for the deficit, usually a few thousand dollars. He never refused me.”
Joyce says he knew Ellis had some wealth because he was a savvy investor, but he never imagined he had acquired the assets he had. “George never changed,” he says, “in appearance or approach. He was always very friendly and very humble. He did not want his name mentioned or any accolades. Above everything was his love for the UB medical school.”
Story by Stephanie Unger