THI History : Lee and Joe Jamail – Friends and Benefactors

If you’ve taken the elevator to or from the fifth floor of the Cooley Building at the Texas Heart Institute, you’ve surely noticed the imposing bronze statue of Joe Jamail at the end of the elevator lobby. Have you ever wondered just who Joe Jamail is, and what he did to merit such a tribute?

In fact, the entire fifth floor of the Cooley Building is named for Joseph Jamail and his wife, Lee, who contributed $10 million to THI in 1998—the largest private donation in the institution’s history—not only as seed money to construct and equip the new building and its state-of-the-art cardiovascular research laboratories and to support operations but also to assist indigent patients.

The Jamails made their gift in honor of Denton Cooley, who had operated on Joe earlier that year at no charge. The note accompanying the donation said, “Denton: This is what you get for not sending me a damn bill!” A few years later, in a more heartfelt manner, Joe Jamail inscribed Dr. Cooley’s copy of his autobiography, Lawyer: My Trials and Jubilations, “For my very dear friend – you are not only the very best heart surgeon ever, you saved me. I can’t explain my gratitude.”

Known as the “King of Torts,” Joe Jamail was colorful, audacious, larger than life, and considered one of the best personal injury lawyers who ever practiced—if not the best, winning more than 500 lawsuits and $13 billion in judgments and settlements over the course of his career. With his down-home Texas drawl and straight talk, he won juries over by transforming complicated, potentially boring legal cases into a simple, dramatic morality play with victims (his clients) and villains (the other guys). As he described himself in his autobiography, “I happen to have a giant ego, an admission that will not shock my close friends or critics. I am not uncomfortable in saying that, because the ego of a man often gets great things done. The trick is to learn to contain one’s ego, not conceal it.”

Those who knew him saw more than a big ego. His good friend Darrell Royal, one-time head football coach of The University of Texas Longhorns, wrote that “There isn’t anyone out there who is [Joe’s] equal for unselfishness and compassion. He has amassed considerable wealth, and entirely from his own talents and labors, [yet] few have shared the fruits of their labors so generously or joyfully.”

Although Lee Jamail is not memorialized in bronze alongside her husband, she was a compassionate force in her own right. After Joe won a massive settlement, Lee told him that they needed to start giving substantial sums away. Said Joe, “I thought she meant a million dollars. She said, ‘No, Joe, I mean a hundred million.’ ” Over the years, Joe and Lee gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to schools, museums, hospitals, and parks across Texas.

Beyond a successful, life-saving heart operation, the mutual Houston roots shared by Joe Jamail and Denton Cooley also play a part in the Jamails’ generosity toward THI. As Joe noted, “I was born here like Dr. Cooley, and it is especially satisfying for Lee and me to honor our good friend. Our community is blessed to have him live and practice his artful medicine here in our city. This exceptional and sensitive man deserves every conceivable honor. We believe he is the best heart surgeon in the world. And we are proud to be his friends.”

And that is how one earns a statue.


Feature Photo: Celebrating Dr. Cooley’s 90th birthday. L-R, James Willerson, Denton Cooley, Joe Jamail, and Joseph Coselli.