The millionaire who lived at the Y

Author: Ed Cohen


Orphaned at age 4. Never owned a home. Lived most of his life in a YMCA.

Those biographical details would be unlikely to qualify a person as a hot prospect in the eyes of fund-raisers. So you can imagine the surprise of Notre Dame’s development department when it found out a man fitting just such a description was leaving the University $1.5 million.

Last January the University received half of the estate of Joseph L. Gaia, an engineer who earned his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame in the 1920s. As far as anyone can tell it was the first donation he ever made to the University.

The gift didn’t come entirely from out of the blue. Gaia died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1995 at age 87, and shortly thereafter a trust officer notified the University that arrangements had been made for a future benefaction to Notre Dame.

Born in Memphis in 1907, Gaia became an orphan when his parents died of separate illnesses in 1911. He and an older sister then went to live with his maternal aunt. Six years later his sister died. Joseph attended the Catholic Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, now a university. Then he came to Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1929. He later added an engineering master’s from Purdue.

Gaia never married and he lived frugally, residing most of his adult life at the YMCA in downtown Muskegon, Michigan. There he worked for Continental Motors, principally an aircraft engine manufacturer. He bought a car once but gave it up after two months and never bought another. He walked everywhere or rode public transportation, including Greyhound buses on trips home to Memphis to visit his cousins.

His only extravagance was clothing, as he’s remembered as being quite debonair. The rest of his earnings he invested — shrewdly, as it turned out. According to a surviving cousin, he bought shares of Exxon and Ford Motor Company and held onto them for 65 years.
After retiring in 1971, the engineer set up the trust that after his death provided a steady income to the surviving members of the family that had reared him. As stipulated in his will, when the last of these women died (in 2000), the remainder of his estate — in excess of $3 million — was split evenly between Christian Brothers and Notre Dame.

The Gaia story recalls the case of Florence M. Dailey, whose estate gift in the 1960s was believed to be the largest in Notre Dame’s history until being surpassed last year.

When Dailey went to work as a secretary at a bank in Rochester, New York, shortly after the turn of the century, her boss suggested employees buy stock in a company being launched by a friend of his. The banker even offered to loan them money for the investment. His friend’s name was George Eastman and the company was Eastman Kodak.

Dailey, who like Gaia never married, took her boss’s advice and at the time of her death in 1966 owned around 154,000 shares of Kodak, which subsequently split two-for-one. Her estate was worth $20 million, which she willed be split evenly between Notre Dame and Georgetown University.

According to Father Edmund P. Joyce, CSC, executive vice president emeritus, Dailey had apparently invested a couple of thousand dollars in Kodak stock and then forgot about it. She was mentally and physically incapacitated for several years before her death, and her gargantuan portfolio came as a surprise to relatives, who contested the will in court.

Why Florence Dailey wanted her estate to go to Notre Dame and Georgetown is a mystery. As far as anyone can tell, she had no association with either school. The only clue, Joyce says, is that she was a good Catholic and the bishop of Rochester in the early part of the century vigorously promoted Catholic higher education. The two institutions the bishop mentioned most often: Notre Dame and Georgetown.

Notre Dame used Florence Dailey’s bequest to endow the John & Mary Boyle Dailey Memorial Scholarship. Named for her parents, the fund has provided financial aid for thousands of students.

Plans call for the Gaia gift to endow a new doctoral-student fellowship, the Joseph L. Gaia Distinguished Fellowship in Latino Studies.


ND Development Department

Electrical engineering

Georgetown University