Former StoryCorps Facilitator and Pat Estess and her husband Gene Estess came to the StoryBooth in Foley Square to talk about Gene’s remarkable metamorphosis over the years.
“Early on I was a very spoiled child. 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. I went (to school) with sort of an attitude. An attitude that I was better than, that I could get away with anything – and did.”
It was in Gene’s special relationship with is grandfather where his transformation began. “As a young man I was in business with my father, and my grandfather would jump into my office at will. He was someone I could share my feelings with. He became the light of my life, (and) he had a very generous soul. When his children used to come to him and say, ‘Dad, I want to go to the movies tonight and I need a nickel’ he would reach in his pocket and pull out a whole bunch of change and say ‘take what you want’. I got a flavor from him of giving and sharing. He gave to the community, he acted as their guarantor to banks. A lot of people were beholden to him. It’s not that he was the richest man in the world. It was that his word was his bond.”
Despite his grandfather’s influence, Gene still had some growing up to do. “I happened to be at the Rock Island train station with my aunt Harriet. She heard me say something derogatory to one of the red caps and said, ‘How dare you speak to another human being that way.’ Having Harriet, who I really did admire, speak to me that way in that tone of voice brought me up short and was sort of the forerunner for what I ended up being. That was certainly a turning point.”
After college and a stint working for his father, Gene moved to New York to start a career on Wall Street. He found the work unsatisfying, and with Pat’s support and encouragement began for a search for a new career path.
One day while walking through Grand Central Station he and Pat noticed a woman with a black poodle dog chained around her waist. The next night when Gene went to the station to pick up Pat, he saw the same woman. Gene introduced himself and discovered that her name was Patricia, her dog’s name was Ebony, and they were homeless. “She became such a part of my heart, she became the start of the car so to speak.” For the next few months Gene gave her enough money for housing. But the chance meeting would lead Gene to connect to the Jericho Project organization which provides permanent housing and rehabilitation for addicted men and women. The project’s mission made an impression, enough for Gene to rededicate his life to it. Gene served as its Executive Director for 20 years. On finding his calling, Gene says, “The first day it fit me like a glove. I had no background in social services, but I believed in it. I saw the efforts that went in it and saw what came out the other end, and that was people (the homeless) who really had it together.”
“I can remember coming to the kids and saying ‘I’m leaving Wall Street and I’m going into the social services.’” Out of all of them, only their youngest questioned it concerned whether or not she would be able finish college. Gene and Pat vowed she would, and Gene never looked back. Perhaps the greatest testament to Gene’s courageous change of heart and career lies within his legacy, all his children consider him an inspiration and all have chosen careers at non-profits.