Commentary

A true friend of the program

Joe Jamail's gifts have gone to athletics, academic and medical research

Updated: June 21, 2012, 12:09 PM ET
By Carter Strickland | HornsNation

HOUSTON -- To get to Joe Jamail there is the grid of one-way streets to negotiate, 33 floors on the elevator at One Allen Center, another ride on a private elevator to the top floor, the sidestepping of opulent waiting room furnishings, complete with a water feature, a weak smile past the receptionist and then the personal assistant, a right turn down a long hall and a step through a doorway into a room banked by glass and bathed in money.

Once there, to get to Joe Jamail there is the University of Texas.

That is his passion. It's not belied, as is the case in so many, by garish displays. He's more focused than lunatic fringe. He's a trial lawyer by trade -- the best of the century according to Texas Monthly and others. Billions won. Few lost.

Lebanese by decent. Texan by birth. Longhorn by graduation. Jamail's more caustic than conservative. Not Judge Roy Bean with a sidearm, but he will shoot the finger as sure as he would the breeze.

Joe Jamail
Courtesy of Joe JamailAmong Joe Jamail (L) and his late wife Lee's charitable works are donations to UT, Rice, Texas Southern, the city of Houston and medical research.
The personal fortune, all $1.5 billion of it, hasn't changed him. Not how he acts or who he is or what he says. Just where he lays his head at night.

Jamail, 86, still peppers his words with flavor, still tells tried and true stories with drink-clinking finishes and still owes it all to Texas.

"They gave me a chance," he said.

In return Jamail has given Texas millions.

Two on-campus statues, Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center, Joe Jamail Field at Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium, Joseph D. Jamail Center for Legal Research, Lee Hage Jamail Academic Room, Joseph D. Jamail Pavilion and the centennial chair in law and advocacy chair are evidence of the gifts.

Not on daily display are the 4,000 students who have graduated or are currently enrolled at Texas because of scholarship money provided by Jamail and his late wife, Lee. Then there are the one-in-three graduate nursing students who are on Lee and Joe Jamail scholarships.

"That's a bigger reward to me than the money I give," he said.

But the amount money, because of its staggering amount and the public's need to be slack-jawed, is an unavoidable topic. It's $230 million. That's how much, over the past three decades, the Jamails have given away.

Not all of it has gone to Texas. Rice, Texas Southern, medical research, even skateboarders in Houston's derelict fourth ward, for whom he built a park, have benefitted. So too did a woman under a Houston overpass who claimed to be long-lost relative. Jamail knew she wasn't. It didn't stop him from bringing a box of $100 bills, handing them to her and every other person who lined up. When that was gone, he handed out food. When that was gone he gave her an apartment to live in.

Jamail gives because he can. He can because of Texas. So it is Texas that gets most of his attention. Not athletics. Texas.

"For every dollar we have given to athletics we have given about 27 to higher education or medical research," Jamail said.

"That's something most people don't see," said Red McCombs, a friend of Jamail's and benefactor of Texas. "We both try and support every single element of the school. And we're both overjoyed to do it."

"My kids are taken care of well and grandkids. So it's nonsense," Jamail said. "The feeling of being accepted and acknowledgement and recognition and fame, I'm vain like everybody else … the feeling of achievement that I've helped the poor or somebody in need far outweighs the money."

Money never concerned Jamail, even when he didn't have any. He has his wits and words. That's all Jamail has ever needed to succeed. Broke, he talked his way into college in Lafayette, La. Then into a transfer to Texas. Then into law school.

The Texas part was the tricky one. Jamail had been to Texas before. Hitchhiked there from College Station even. His brother had been an Aggie. The family matriarch insisted he go there. The good Catholic boy in him listened. Then the good Catholic boy in him looked around and split.

"There were no women [in College Station] then," Jamail said. "I stayed all of two days, and one night, slipped out a window and hitchhiked to Austin."

A few Fs in pre-med classes and a war suspended his education at UT, but he made it back in 1947 and through by 1950. Law school was a different matter. Those five Fs? Max Fichtenbaum, the UT registrar at the time, was not going to remove them from Jamail's record, and therefore, wouldn't get into law school.

If The University of Texas had 10 Joe Jamails or Red McCombses, we wouldn't have a care in the world. But as great as their philanthropy has been, their generosity transcends that of financial donors. They give their time, their professional expertise, and their valuable advice.

-- UT President William Powers
Call this Jamail's first and most important appeal.

He found the ear of Hanson Parlin, Dean of Arts and Sciences. Together they walked across the Drag for a Coke as Jamail told his story. Jamail later learned that Parlin had a son who had been a Marine and died in the Pacific. Jamail had been a Marine serving in the Pacific.

When they made it back to the dean's office there were five drop slips signed by Parlin and dated back to 1942. The Fs were gone.

"If you start comparing my practice of law to what I could have been -- selling bananas, you'll know why I gave money to the University of Texas," Jamail said.

What Jamail has sold in the years since is himself. His confidence. His intelligence. His charisma. It's a package deal. And it's always been worth the price.

Jamail wasn't supposed to win $11.12 billion for Pennzoil from Texaco in 1985. Nobody believed he would. He did.

Few lawyers get one product recalled in a career. Jamail forced three, the Remington 600, a Honda all-terrain three-wheeler and the prescription drug Parlodel.

"He's brilliant and you see it once you get around him," McCombs said. "You're never going to meet one like him. Just one of a kind.''

Sure there are warts. After all, it was Willie Nelson who reputedly wrote "Good Hearted Woman" about Joe's wife.

"Thanks you son of a b****," Jamail told Nelson. "Spread it all over the world that Lee's a good-hearted woman married to a good-timin' man. That's all I need in my life."

But to sit with him is to be entertained, challenged, won over and hopefully, eventually ingratiated into his company. That's the formula Jamail has used all these years.

It's turned him from the son of a successful grocer to a man whose "dear friends" number in the thousands. Denton Cooley, the first man to implant an artificial heart not only performed Jamail's heart surgery, but drove him home from the hospital. When they made it to Jamail's house, former Texas coach Darrell Royal -- another "dear friend" -- was waiting for them.

Joe Jamail, Willie Nelson
Courtesy of Joe JamailJamail counts among his "close friends" country music icon Willie Nelson.
"He has been and will be one of the best friends I could ever have," Texas athletics director DeLoss Dodds said. "He's exactly who he says he is. There are no games."

It shows. And it's clear that, while money might have greased the skids, Jamail's earnest personal qualities have allowed him to hold purchase. Those around him also hold close.

"He's become more like a family member. He's that close to Sally and me," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "I talk to him three or four nights a week. He's a friend, he's a mentor, he's a guy who I can ask any hard question and he'll give me a true and honest answer."

With Jamail there are no judgments either way. That has allowed those around him to live vicariously through his unfiltered lifestyle and, in turn, be as unfiltered as possible themselves. He's a guilty pleasure. And the perfect mouthpiece for what might not otherwise be said.

For example, Royal took him recruiting once. The kid was late and the parents were rude. When the player did show, he was chewing gum and spoke condescendingly to Royal. Finally, after some back and forth about Texas and Arkansas, and whether Jamail could get the kid into law school, Jamail had enough.

"I'm out of here coach," he stood up and said. "I can't stand this bulls***."

Jamail never could. He's point A to point B. Sure he sees the hurdles between but also knows he can flatten them.

But his career has never been about total domination.

"People keeping asking me what was my fee in Pennzoil," Jamail said. "Let me put your mind at rest, I gave Pennzoil some of the money. We didn't keep it all. But we kept a ton."

When Lee asked Joe after the Penzoil case about donating some of the estimated $345 million in fees he made from the case, Jamail said sure, give away $1 or $2 million.

"No honey, I'm talking about $100 million," Lee told him.

"Her timing was perfect,'' JamaiI said. "I gulped that drink down and said, 'OK it's your money.' So we started."

Jamail still hasn't finished. He has plans for the rest of his fortune. Texas is in them. So too are many others.

As he said to Texas law students at commencement this year, "Don't believe that accepting a license allows you to sit on you're a** and collect fees. You take an oath to help people.

"It's not a bad thing fighting for equality and helping the poor. It's not a bad thing to have on your professional tombstone: He believed in equality and he helped the poor."

It's also not a bad thing to get to Joe Jamail.

Carter Strickland | email

Reporter, HornsNation