Gene Estess dies at 78; left Wall Street to help New York's homeless

Gene Estess, a broker who gave up the pay and perks of Wall Street for a second career helping New York City's homeless, has died. He was 78.

He died April 9 at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to his wife, Pat Schiff Estess. The cause was lung cancer, diagnosed about six months ago.

Raised in Illinois on the Mississippi River, Estess found himself unable to ignore the inequality on the streets of New York. He remained interested in poverty and homelessness while living in the leafy suburb of Armonk in Westchester County and working as an options specialist at L.F. Rothschild & Co., an investment bank and brokerage firm.

As he recounted in interviews over the years, his life-changing moment was a 1984 encounter with a homeless woman sprawled on the floor of Grand Central Terminal, her black poodle tied to her waist by a leash. He learned her name was Patricia and that the notepads filled with her writings were evidence of her schizophrenia.

"He would leave work and before he got on the train for Westchester he'd find her, talk to her and give her money for the next day," Pat Schiff Estess, a journalist and author, said in an interview. "And then on a Friday he'd give her enough money for the weekend so she could have food and stuff like that."

Eventually, he found help for Patricia from the Jericho Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization founded in 1983 to provide housing, job training and assistance for people suffering from mental disorders and substance abuse. He also joined its board of directors.

Just months before the Black Monday stock market crash of Oct. 19, 1987, at age 52, Estess quit his Wall Street job to become Jericho Project's second executive director, swiftly finding the professional satisfaction that had long eluded him.

"For 20-some-odd years I really didn't have a good day," he said, according to a 2003 article in the New York Times. "I didn't come home with any stories to tell or satisfaction or a feeling I'd done anything to help anybody except myself and my family."

He left behind "a nice salary" on Wall Street, though it never reached the six-figure level reported in articles through the years, his wife said.

At Jericho, his first-year salary was supposed to be $17,000, "but he didn't take it because they couldn't afford it," she said. "So for at least one year, maybe two, he didn't take any compensation."

Estess led the social service organization for 18 years, retiring in 2005. During his tenure, according to a timeline on the organization's website, the group opened Jericho House in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, which now has 56 rooms and a computer learning center, and four residences in the Bronx.

Today Jericho Project serves 1,500 adults and children, including more than 500 military veterans, with housing and services. The group says it spends $12,000 for each adult client, less than half the cost of a cot in a New York City shelter. Also, 87% of Jericho's residents with a diagnosed substance abuse problem remained sober after treatment compared with a national rate of 20% to 40%, according to the group.

Gene Martin Estess was born June 1, 1935, and raised in Rock Island, Ill. He was one of two children of Adolph Estess, owner of a department store in Moline, Ill., and the former Lillian Brady.

"Early on I was a very spoiled child," Estess told StoryCorps, a nonprofit oral history project for which his wife worked. "I grew up with a mother and father who were very generous. My father was orphaned at a young age and wanted to give me everything that he never had. My mother came from opulence — opulent for Iowa. Which gave me a slanted view of what life should be."

Estess received an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, then returned home to work for his father. In 1965 he headed to Wall Street and the promise of riches.

"I wanted the best for me and mine," he said, according to the 2003 N.Y. Times story. "I wanted what every red-blooded young man and woman wanted: a piece of the rock."

In addition to his wife, survivors include his children, Noah Estess, Andrea Wohl, Peter Wohl and Jen Wohl; seven grandchildren and a sister, Barbara Leber.

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