Friendswood man donates exotic cars worth millions

August 21, 2010 9:15:14 PM PDT
Tony Buzbee insists he doesn't feel the faintest pang of remorse about a decision to give away $3.5 million worth of exotic cars. As his driver polished the fast, sexy sheet metal fleet in the circular driveway of his West Spreading Oaks home, Buzbee was at peace. The rolling displays of wealth and power will go to The Jesse Tree, a faith-based social service agency, of which Buzbee is a longtime board member.

"They're just cars," Buzbee said. "How many can you drive around?"

His four children are having a tougher time coming to terms with the extravagant gift of 13 exotic automobiles, including a $525,000 gunmetal gray Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR; a $250,000, canary yellow Spyker C-8; and a $250,000 Ford GT with a top speed of 205 mph.

Anthony Jr., 11, had hoped to drive a $313,000 green Lamborghini Murcielago when he turned 16. Elizabeth, 13, Flower, 9, and Robert, 7, also had admired the gleaming collection.

"There was a lot of disbelief," Buzbee, 42, said. "They thought I was joking."

But Buzbee, a developer and tort attorney who made a fortune -- and some critics -- fighting corporate giants, including BP, a large local employer, said he's very serious. As tough as it is for his children to understand, the lesson is for them, he said.

"It's very easy to raise spoiled children when you're wealthy," Buzbee said. "I'm not going to raise a spoiled child."

Buzbee and his wife, Zoe, want to teach their children there's more to life than possessions and that some people live hand-to-mouth, he said.

"The American dream is to be successful," said Buzbee, who grew up poor in Atlanta, Texas, one of four children of a butcher and high school cafeteria worker. "I've done that beyond any of my expectations. But no responsible citizen should lose sight of the obligation to help others when in a position to do so; that's what I try, and am trying, to teach my children."

Buzbee mowed yards and worked at other jobs to make payments on his first car, a used 1974 Jeep CJ5.

He attended Texas A&M University on an ROTC scholarship, graduating in 1990.

After college, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps. As an infantry officer, he served in the Persian Gulf and Somalian conflicts, where he commanded various units.

He later was selected by the Marines to become a special forces officer, commanding an elite recon company in the fabled First Marine Regiment.

After Marine Corps service, he entered law school at the University of Houston. One of his first big wins came in 2001. Buzbee represented offshore drilling workers who alleged their wages had been suppressed by their employers. He won a $75 million judgment against Transocean Ltd. The payout to his firm was $18 million, enabling him to indulge his interest in cars.

Buzbee's children weren't alone in being floored by the decision. So was Ted Hanley, executive director of The Jesse Tree, an island-based organization that provides food, clothing, job-training and medical assistance to thousands of county residents.

About 200 elderly residents receive food boxes monthly from the agency.

The organization also uses cash donations to help families ward off evictions or keep their power from being cut off for inability to pay.

Buzbee's car collection represents the largest single donation to The Jesse Tree in its 15-year history.

After Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008, flooding thousands of houses and buildings and wiping out hundreds of jobs, The Jesse Tree saw a sharp rise in need for its services while its supplies dwindled.

"It's so overwhelmingly generous," Hanley said. "What he's really offering is the opportunity to sustain a local organization battered by the storm and overworked by the immense need of the storm and created by lack of access to medical care."

Through food banks and donations, The Jesse Tree is able each year to give away about $15 million in vegetables, fruits and other foods, along with medical equipment and other supplies.

One anonymous donor last year gave $325,000, which helped keep the doors open and the organization to respond to the rising need.

But like the people it helps, The Jesse Tree, 2622 Market St. in the island's downtown, sometimes is forced to live hand-to-mouth.

It also relies too heavily on Hanley, who often is stretched thin with multiple responsibilities. Buzbee wanted to do something that would ensure The Jesse Tree would not end if anything happened to Hanley, whom he calls a hero.

The donation will help The Jesse Tree sustain what previous donors have built, Hanley said. It will mean financial stability and allow the organization to sustain programs, add critical staff positions and increase revenue, including for its chronic conditions management program.

Buzbee has agreed to store and maintain the cars for The Jesse Tree until the organization auctions them.

The Jesse Tree is drawing up plans on how it will best leverage the donation.

It also will use some of the cars for display at events to raise funds and awareness for its programs.

But the donation also has created buzz that Hanley hopes inspires others to make similar donations to The Jesse Tree.

"It has inspired some incredible reactions and responses -- all positive and all that stimulate further interest in supporting and sustaining The Jesse Tree," Hanley said.

Buzbee said his children already are good and care about others.

When his son asked if the family could keep just one car, perhaps the Lamborghini, Buzbee said "no."

"It's a teaching moment for him to realize that there's more to life than owning a Lamborghini," Buzbee said. "I told him to think about how many people you could feed by donating it to charity."

Friendswood resident Tony Buzbee, 42, is giving away his $3.5 million car collection to island-based social services organization The Jesse Tree. His favorite? The Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR with a top speed of 200.

"It's a true work of art," Buzbee said. "It is the only one I know of in Texas. Jay Leno owns one, but most are sold overseas, specifically in the Middle East."

Buzbee, an attorney, hopes his gift will inspire others to give to The Jesse Tree, which helps to provide food, clothes and aid in obtaining prescription medications to thousands of county residents.


Load Comments