Campus News

Anonymous no longer: UB’s largest-ever donor was a country doctor

headshot of George Ellis in his army uniform, sepia tone.

George M. Ellis, MD '45, at the time of his graduation from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

By STEPHANIE UNGER

Published January 2, 2019

“He was the epitome of a true philanthropist.”
David Draper, associate vice president for advancement

In September 2011, UB announced its largest-ever gift of $40 million, designated for the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. According to the terms of that gift, the donor’s identity could be revealed only when he and his wife were deceased.

UB now can reveal the remarkable story behind this historic gift: UB’s largest donor is George Melvin Ellis Jr., who earned his medical degree at UB in 1945 and worked as a country doctor for more than 60 years, practicing out of a modest house in the rural Midwest.

During all those years, while caring for generations of families in the same small town, he also was committed to giving back to his alma mater. The value of his gift, announced anonymously after his death in 2011, was more than $40 million. (His wife, Gladys Kelly, died earlier this year.) Today, those funds, combined with other contributions and the interest on the principal of the endowed portion of gifts to the school that Ellis had previously made, now total more than $50 million.

Steadfast commitment

“In the decades since Dr. Ellis attended UB, our university and our city have undergone transformative changes,” said President Satish K. Tripathi. “But just as he remained steadfast in his commitment to give back to the university he cherished, UB has remained committed to cultivating exceptionally well-trained, civic-minded physicians — like Dr. Ellis — who are dedicated to delivering exemplary care.

“It is these future physicians who will benefit profoundly from Dr. Ellis’ tremendous legacy — and, by extension, the patients they will ultimately care for, here in Western New York and beyond.”

Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences at UB and dean of the Jacobs School, said: “This was something that George Ellis planned for close to 70 years, and it came in 2011, just after UB — with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support — had made the decision to build a new home downtown for the Jacobs School. Just knowing we had this gift invested has made all the difference in our having the confidence to plan and move forward.

“It will be years — maybe even decades — before we fully realize the impact of Dr. Ellis’ generosity because this is truly a gift that will keep on giving for generations,” Cain added. “It ensures that we can provide more scholarships to the most promising students and continue hiring top physician-scientists to teach and perform groundbreaking research in our school.”

Gladys "Kelly" Ellis and George Ellis at UB on April 21, 2004 with the late Tim Russert,.

Gladys "Kelly" Ellis and George Ellis flank Tim Russert, who gave UB's Distinguished Speakers Series lecture on April 21, 2004. The Ellises were big admirers of Russert, in large part because of his Buffalo connection.

Life-changing house call

Ellis’ dream of becoming a doctor took hold when he was 8 years old. While on a family vacation in New England, he became ill. The physician who diagnosed him with appendicitis and made sure that he was promptly treated was a general practitioner who had made a house call.

“Because of that experience, George became enamored of the skills of general practitioners,” said David Draper, 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, and he always described his medical education at UB as superior to other schools, even Ivy League schools, because of the quality of clinical training he received.

“From what he told me over the years, I would say that George’s primary motivation was to ensure that the Jacobs School continue providing its students with clinical training that is equal or superior to what he received.”

The magnitude of the donation isn’t the only factor that distinguishes what Ellis left to UB; it’s the fact that the gift was given without restrictions.

“He was the epitome of a true philanthropist,” said Draper. “His intent was that there were people other than him who could make decisions about how the money should be best utilized to further the mission of the school.”

Ellis’ gifts to the university support nearly every aspect of medical education at UB. The endowments established through Ellis’ contributions are actively managed by the University at Buffalo Foundation Inc. (UBF), whose mission is to support the activities and programs of UB.

The foundation worked with Ellis during his lifetime to set up charitable trusts, and it continues to actively administer and steward the endowments, which support, among other things, faculty recruitment, a scholarship fund for medical students and the George M. Ellis Jr. and Kelly Ellis Professorship in Family Medicine to recognize the value of the kind of medicine he practiced.

“Everything we do at UBF is for the betterment of the university,” said Gregory M. Bauer, chair of UBF’s Board of Trustees. “UBF is proud to support and promote UB’s activities and programs, made possible by gifts like this extraordinary donation from George Ellis, by assisting in the acquisition of strategic assets, managing and providing resources, and making an array of services available for the university community.”

Accelerated medical education

In 1942, at the height of World War II, Ellis, a native of Toledo, Ohio, 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. Ellis was assigned to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, where he met and began dating Gladys Kelly of Wilmington, Delaware, a nurse at the facility. They married in 1952 and she began working as his nurse.

When his military service was over, he relocated to a small town in the Midwest, where he lived and practiced until his death in 2010.

Ellis posted office hours, “but the hours didn’t really matter,” Draper recalled. “They never turned people away, even if they couldn’t pay. He was focused on the fact that his life was dedicated to the health and well-being of the community he served — he really embraced the Hippocratic Oath.”

The greatest day of his life

“George always said that the greatest day of his life was the day he received his letter of acceptance to the UB medical school,” said classmate Herbert E. Joyce, MD ’45. “He was without a doubt the most loyal to UB of anyone I have ever known.”

Joyce said he knew Ellis had some wealth because he was a savvy investor, but he never imagined he had acquired the wealth he had.

“George never changed in appearance or approach,” he said. “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.”

In the decades following their graduation from medical school, Joyce served as class chair for reunions and Ellis was class secretary. Whenever the class reunion projects fell short, Ellis would write a check for the deficit, Joyce recalled.

“He never refused me, and we never would have made it without him stepping up when he did.”

Ellis served UB in various volunteer capacities and was a long-term member of the Dean’s Advisory Council at the Jacobs School. The Ellises remained highly engaged with UB, traveling to Buffalo for all his class reunions.

“Ultimately, the amount of his gift and recognition for it was not what he focused on,” said Eric Alcott, associate vice president for advancement for health sciences and senior associate dean of medical advancement at UB, who knew Ellis for decades. “He loved UB, and from the early 1940s on, he never lost sight of his goal to give back.

“I don’t think he knew that he would be supporting the Jacobs School to the extent that he is. But his time here was an experience he cherished, and he gave back from his heart.”