News & Events

John Pappajohn Enjoys Life, Giving

By Joe Gardyasz

John Pappajohn remembers how as a boy growing up during the Depression, he would tell his mother, "I'm going to be a millionaire."

Years later, she heard that her son had, in fact, achieved that milestone.

"She said, ‘Son, now that you've made a million dollars, I assume you're going to retire,'" Pappajohn recalled. "I said, ‘No, mother, it's the beginning of the trip.'"

That trip, in addition to launching his own insurance company and later founding a venture capital firm, would include giving away tens of millions of dollars to universities, charitable organizations and students throughout Iowa.

When you add up all the giving Pappajohn and his wife, Mary, have done over the years, the figure approaches nearly $50 million. The philanthropist says he plans to continue to give more as his investment earnings permit.

Pappajohn, whose family emigrated from Greece to Mason City when he was 1, grew up working in his father's small grocery business, and would later work his way through North Iowa Area Community College and later the University of Iowa to earn a business administration degree. Moving to Des Moines, he and a partner formed Guardsman Life Insurance Co. in 1962, and seven years later, he began his career as a venture capitalist, investing primarily in health care and technology companies.

"I think that when my wife and I got married, we always intended to be philanthropic," he said. "You never know the extent of your ability to be philanthropic. God's been good to us; the economy's been good, we've had good health. I'm in a business where if I do well and I'm successful, I make money. So I feel obligated and delighted to be able to give money away. My wife and I unanimously agree on the gifts we give away, and education is a very important part of that."

Pappajohn has given more than $10 million to fund five entrepreneurial centers at universities and colleges across the state, which in the past six years have trained more than 35,000 people how to start and run their own businesses.

His $4 million donation to the University of Iowa in 1992 enabled it to construct the John Pappajohn Business Building, which houses the Henry B. Tippie College of Business.

The Pappajohns donated more than $1 million to start the John and Mary Pappajohn Clinical Cancer Center and $3 million to add the John Pappajohn Pavilion wing to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Through the John and Mary Pappajohn Scholarship Fund, the couple has contributed significant amounts of money to assist entrepreneurial students through scholarships. Last year alone, the fund invested $350,000 in scholarships for students throughout Iowa.

In the arts, Pappajohn last year donated $1 million to the Des Moines Art Center, and also contributed $3.5 million in art to two museums.

The latest product of he and his wife's generosity -- the John and Mary Pappajohn Education Center, which opened in late 2004 in Des Moines -- is dedicated to concentrating entrepreneurial and professional education in a central location, as well as reaching out to tap the potential in Iowa's growing immigrant population.

Pappajohn, whose mother didn't learn to speak English until after his father died, said he's particularly interested in the role the center will play in teaching immigrants to speak English.

"It's very important to me," he said. "In our center, I want to expand beyond that to help immigrants become more successful through training -- entrepreneurial courses as well as language. I think the problem in this world is that many people don't have the opportunity to succeed."

Pappajohn has said one of his goals is to add a business incubator to the new higher education center. He also plans to approach the Legislature during this session to make his case for continued funding of the Grow Iowa Values Fund, and to ask legislators to consider allocating a portion of those funds to Iowa's rural communities for entrepreneurs to start small businesses.

"That education creates value, because it gives people enough confidence to go out and start a business and raise some money and make a good living for themselves and their family, and often create jobs in their community," he said.

Pappajohn approaches philanthropy much like a business.

"I make my commitments in advance where I want to invest my money in philanthropy," he said. "So I kind of know where I want it to go, because I spend time thinking about it. I think about, where do I create the most value for people with a particular amount of money. It's a project; it isn't something you just arbitrarily do.

"And, I might add, we have a limit, and sometimes we have to turn down requests that are very deserving."

Pappajohn's zeal for philanthropy ties in well with his real "hot button" -- creating more successful Iowa businesses.

"I tell them to take a chance, to go out and make their dream work," he said. "Today there is support through the [entrepreneurial] centers, and there's more money available today than there ever has been."

As for the giving, Pappajohn says in a near whisper: "I'm delighted to be able to do it, because my dream has always been to be able to do it."


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