The seeds of Joe and Lee Hage Jamail's philanthropic leanings were planted during the dark days of the Great Depression.
By Chris Comer
Wizards grace most of the flat surfaces in Joe Jamail’s imposing office high atop One Allen Center in downtown Houston, gifts from people whose lives the wildly successful personal injury lawyer has touched during his fifty-year career. A “war room” down the hall is packed floor to ceiling with memorabilia from past crusades, photos of celebrities and powerbrokers (friends and adversaries alike), and tokens commemorating the many worthy causes Jamail and his wife, Lee, have supported over the years.
The Jamails are billionaires thanks to Joe’s winning combination of skill, smarts, tenacity, passion, “simple meanness” and a “big mouth.” He is, quite simply, a wizard when it comes to making his client’s case. In 1985, Jamail orchestrated the largest jury award ($11 billion) in U.S. history on behalf of the Pennzoil Company, which had sued Texaco for sabotaging Pennzoil’s agreement to merge with the Getty Oil Company. He received a substantial percentage of that award as his legal fee. But the cases that mean the most to this lawyer known as “the king of torts” are those he has fought and won on behalf of society’s most vulnerable.
He describes a boyhood day eating a pre-dawn breakfast with his father at the counter of a cafeteria near Houston’s Farmers Market during the Great Depression. It’s a Saturday tradition for father and son. After breakfast with his buddies, Jamail Senior will buy produce to stock his successful chain of grocery stores. Young Joe will help haul packages to earn spending money.
On this particular Saturday, the eight-year-old Joe notices a long line of men three abreast winding around the corner on a street near the Farmers Market. After his father explains that the men are unemployed and hoping for handouts of food to feed their families, Joe cries all the way home.
“We had food,” Jamail explained. “I grew up rich. I never experienced deprivation.” Later, when he was old enough to understand the socioeconomic forces at play during the Depression, he got angry. “These were honorable people who were starving.”
And he stays angry, which may account for why he continues to launch himself like a pit bull at “anybody who thinks it’s okay to prey on the needy,” long after others of his years and means have retired from the fray.
Jamail learned growing up that “you have to stand up to a bully or he’ll never leave you alone.” As a youth shorter than his classmates, that meant putting marbles in a sock and decking the schoolyard bully, who never tormented Joe again. Jamail’s been doing the socially acceptable equivalent in courtrooms ever since.
“The people who dedicate their lives—the staff, doctors, nurses, and scientists—those are the ones who are truly giving.”
This seemingly boundless concern for society’s victims is, according to Jamail, a legacy from his parents. It’s a trait he shares with his wife, “a truly moral, compassionate person.” Which explains the Jamails’ philanthropic history over their 55 years together. They’ve contributed to causes ranging from the arts to cancer treatment, and have given “many millions of dollars” to a number of University of Texas components, including UT Austin, Jamail’s alma mater. “If it weren’t for UT System, I’d be selling bananas,” he joked.
The Jamails first became interested in UTMB when they got to know the “giant of a man” who used to pass by their house during his frequent walks on Galveston’s west beach. Dr. Truman Blocker, former president of the university, impressed the Jamails with his innovative treatment of burns, his expertise in the field of triage medicine, and his deep commitment to future generations of physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, and biomedical scientists.
In 1995, the Jamails made possible the first freestanding student center on a health center campus. Named in honor of Mrs. Jamail, who currently serves as a member of UTMB’s Development Board, the Lee Hage Jamail Student Center provides UTMB medical, nursing, allied health, and graduate students with a place to study, socialize, and “fuel” themselves (at Joe’s Café, naturally).
This year, thanks to that long-ago relationship with Blocker and the groundbreaking efforts of Dr. David Herndon—a world-renowned expert on the treatment of severe burns—to advance Blocker’s pioneering work, the couple gave $1 million to establish the Joseph D. and Lee Hage Jamail Fund for Burn Research and Education at UTMB. The Jamails’ support will allow Herndon, UTMB professor of surgery, Jesse H. Jones Distinguished Chair in Burn Surgery, and chief of staff at Shriners Hospital for Children–Galveston, to recruit and retain some of the best medical scientists in the field.
“The Jamails lead by example, which means a great deal to us and to those whose lives depend upon our ability to conduct and provide world-class research, treatment, and education,” said Herndon.
In the decades since the worst industrial accident in United States history—when two freighters hauling ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in the Texas City harbor in 1947, killing 600 people and injuring 2,000 more—UTMB faculty have worked to ease the suffering caused by burns. In 1966, Galveston became the site of the first Shriners Burns Hospital in the world. Since then, the collaboration between UTMB, faculty from which staff the burns hospital, and the Shriners organization has led to significant improvements in burn care—such as the breakthrough invention of pressure garments to reduce scarring, and innovative approaches to nutrition to promote healing—and has dramatically improved survival rates, especially among children.
“Throughout their lives and in countless ways, Joe and Lee Jamail have made a tremendous difference to Galveston, Houston, Texas, and the nation,” said UTMB President John D. Stobo. “They have set a high standard of philanthropy and service for others to follow, and we’re honored by their generous contribution to burns research. Their support of UTMB Burn Services and the UTMB faculty who serve as its medical and research staff will improve the lives of families around the world for generations to come.”
“The Jamails lead by example, which means a great deal to us and to those whose lives depend upon our ability to conduct and provide world-class research, treatment, and education.”
Jamail has made it clear that as far as he’s concerned he’s “just giving money,” which pleases him much more than making it. “The people who dedicate their lives—the staff, doctors, nurses, and scientists—those are the ones who are truly giving.” However, to his way of thinking, universities such as UTMB and philanthropists like himself and Lee each have a role to play in shaping and securing the future. “What is civilization about if we don’t pass on what we know by way of knowledge or what we have by way of wealth?” And the reason the Jamails have chosen to support UTMB is simple. According to Joe, it’s “the best teaching program in the country.”
When Joe Jamail talks about growing up surrounded by a large and loving family—with a father who expected the world of him and a mother who provided unstinting encouragement—he jokes that “everybody was a Jamail…or wanted to be one.” He and Lee aspire to set a similar example for their sons and grandchildren. They’re well on their way.