Gene Estess, broker who gave up Wall Street to help homeless, dead at 78

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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 on April 9 at his home in Brooklyn, 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 Armonk in Westchester County and working as an options specialist at L.F. Rothschild & Co., an investment bank and brokerage that in 1977 became L.F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin.

As he recounted in interviews over the years, his life-changing moment was a 1984 encounter with a woman sprawled on the floor of Grand Central Terminal, her black poodle tied to her waist. 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 Monday in an interview. "And then on a Friday he'd give her enough money for the weekend."

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 with mental disorders and substance abuse. He also joined its board of directors.

Then, in 1987, at age 52, he quit his Wall Street job to become the social-service organization'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 Jericho Project for 18 years, retiring in 2005, a spokeswoman for the group said Monday. During his tenure, according to a timeline its 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.

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Other survivors include his children, Noah Estess, Andrea Wohl, Peter Wohl and Jen Wohl; his sister, Barbara Leber; and seven grandchildren.

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