George Esseff, Sr., Estimates he had probably heard the story of the rich young man and Jesus Christ “more than a hundred times” when he and his family went to Mass one Sunday morning in the early 1980s.
But on that particular Sunday, the Gospel passage struck a chord. It motivated Esseff, then a successful and wealthy Titanium entrepreneur, to divest himself of his wealth and devote his time and resources to alleviating poverty and suffering around the world.
Since its founding almost 40 years ago, the Esseff Foundation has provided money and resources to individuals and organizations across the globe who assist and house the homeless, feed and clothe the poor, and provide medical care to those in need.
Today, Esseff, 89, a lifelong practicing Catholic, continues to be active in his foundation and in his faith. He is a member of Legatus’ Ventura-LA North Chapter in California. Esseff and Rosemary, his wife of 66 years, together had four children, one of whom is Deacon George Esseff, Jr., who presented his father with the 2018 Ambassador of the Year
Award at the Legatus Summit in January. In a recent interview with Legatus magazine, the elder Esseff spoke of that honor as well as his unique spiritual journey
What was a turning point in your life?
It was 1984. I had a change of heart after I heard the gospel about the rich man having a hard time getting to heaven. Here we were with four homes. I had a Rolls Royce, an airplane, a sport fishing boat in Hawaii. I had everything a man could have, and I decided to turn it all in. I had started the foundation a few years before, so I ended up putting everything I had into it. It took me about 10 years to liquidate everything.
What kind of work has the Esseff Foundation done?
We’ve done stuff from Vietnam to Haiti, Africa, Ukraine, and elsewhere. In the Philippines, I helped a Salesian priest establish a business for the poor in Manilla. I brought 10 nuns from Vietnam to St. Louis, and supported them for a couple of years until they got on their feet. We started a microbank in Uganda, and helped the people built a town with a school, a bank, a dispensary. In Haiti, we got involved with the Salesians who built a home for street boys.
Where does your passion for the corporal works of mercy come from?
I attribute that to my grandfather, who probably never made more than $5 or $7 a day in his life. During the Depression, he would collect rags and scrap in the winter time, and in the summertime he’d sell vegetables from a horse and wagon. Every Tuesday, he would save every dime he collected and put the money into a jar. On Fridays, he would buy and deliver seven or eight bags of groceries to widows and people who were very poor. I’d be sitting next to him on the wagon as he would be making his deliveries. That was the kind of education in the faith I received.
Has the Catholic faith long been an important part of your life?
I would say so. I’ve gone to Mass probably almost every day of my life, from my youngest days in Catholic school through college. In my business, I tried to go to Mass anyplace I ever traveled.
How does it feel to be named the 2018 Legatus Ambassador of the Year?
I am really aghast. I’m sure they could have found a lot more guys better than me to honor, but I really do appreciate it. It’s quite an honor.
How do you try to be an ambassador for Christ in your everyday life?
By trying to be a good example to my children, my family, and in my prayer life. I’m also pretty active in the Church. I’ve gotten involved with rosary makers in our parish. We make about 100 rosaries a week that we send to the missions.