John Pappajohn, whose name graces both the building that is home to the Tippie College of Business and the entrepreneurial center that serves thousands of University of Iowa students, faculty, and researchers every year, died April 22. He was 94.
“This is a great loss for the Tippie College of Business and the University of Iowa, as John Pappajohn is so much more than a name on our business school building,” said Amy Kristof-Brown, dean of the Tippie College of Business. “His story is at the heart of what we do and inspires us every day. He lived the American dream, immigrating to the United States as a child, raising a family and using his intelligence and hard work to become a business leader. His is a success story we can all learn from. ”
Born in Greece in 1928, Pappajohn immigrated to the United States with his mother at the age of nine months and grew up in the Greek community in Mason City. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1952, earning his Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree from the then-College of Business Administration, taking six years to do so because he alternated going to college with his two brothers—two would work while the other attended classes.
Pappajohn said he learned the value of hard work early growing up in Mason City. As a child, he had to repeat kindergarten because he spoke little English. His father died when he was 16, forcing him to work while simultaneously attending school. He told the Des Moines Register he would go to a nearby scrapyard and scavenge for lead, copper, rags, or anything else he could sell. He helped tear down his grade school and sold the bricks.
He returned to Mason City after graduating from the University of Iowa and sold insurance. He then started Guardsman Life Insurance Company in Des Moines in 1962. He sold the company in 1969 for $100,000 and used the money to start his own venture capital fund, Equity Dynamics. Focusing on health care and medical technology, the firm grew rapidly and he became one of the state’s most prominent business leaders. Pappajohn has been involved in more than 100 startups and more than 50 initial public offerings and has served as a director in more than 40 public companies.
“As one of the state’s leading business builders, John serves as a daily inspiration to Iowans who want to become entrepreneurs,” said Kristof-Brown. “I saw firsthand the passion he felt when he engaged with students, inspiring and guiding those who sought to follow his path.”
As his profile grew, Pappajohn decided one of his life’s priorities was to give away much of his fortune to benefit the greater good and, ultimately, become one of Iowa’s largest philanthropists. He and his wife, Mary, felt a debt to his alma mater and repaid the university many times over for his educational experience, including a significant gift in 1992 to build the John Pappajohn Business Building for the College of Business.
He also donated $1.5 million in 1996 to seed the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) with additional gifts to launch four other entrepreneurial centers housed at Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa, Drake University, and North Iowa Area Community College. Pappajohn’s commitment to the five Pappajohn Centers never waned. In total, he gave more than $30 million to the five Pappajohn Centers. His goal was to revive the entrepreneurial spirit in Iowa, where the economy had been battered by the farm crisis. “I want to make Iowa the most entrepreneurial state in America,” he said at the time.
It was a visionary investment that paid off. In the 26 years since, Iowa JPEC has been recognized as a leader in supporting student, faculty, and community entrepreneurs. Alumni, students, and other Iowans have used Iowa JPEC resources to start hundreds of businesses and create thousands of jobs in Iowa and around the country. Iowa JPEC alumni have made breakthroughs in health science, education technology, agricultural technology, and green manufacturing, as well as selling clothes, consulting services, coffee, and ice cream.
“John Pappajohn’s unparalleled commitment to entrepreneurship education and support has transformed countless lives and sparked innovation and economic development across Iowa and the world,” said David Hensley, executive director of Iowa JPEC. “He has been an outstanding role model and lived his life with passion and empathy. John will be remembered for his business expertise, strong work ethic, positive mental attitude, uncanny ability to recognize opportunities, and incredible generosity to help others pursue their dreams. I have been truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from John. He will be deeply missed.”
The Pappajohns have provided more than $100 million in support of philanthropic causes with particular devotion to higher education and the arts. This includes the Pappajohn Pavilion in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the John and Mary Pappajohn Clinical Cancer Center, and the John and Mary Pappajohn Biomedical Research Building. They also supported the John and Mary Pappajohn Educational Center in downtown Des Moines, which provides classrooms for the Tippie College’s Iowa MBA and Master of Business Analytics program, as well as several other University of Iowa programs. The center is adjacent to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which features 32 outdoor sculptures donated by the Pappajohns, who were named multiple times by Art News magazine as among the top 200 art collectors in the world. The 4.4-acre park has quickly become a landmark and destination in central Des Moines.
Pappajohn was an honorary lifetime director of the University of Iowa Center for Advancement Board of Directors and is an emeritus member of the Tippie Advisory Board. A 1995 recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Iowa in 2010. He received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1991 and the Hancher-Finkbine Alumni Medallion in 2004. Other awards and honors include the Iowa Business Leader of the Year, Beta Gamma Sigma Entrepreneur of the Year, Iowa Region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews Brotherhood Award, Hellenic Heritage Achievement Award, Meredith Willson Heritage Award, Central Iowa Business Hall of Achievement, Iowa Hall of Fame, and Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
“His inspiration and philosophy of positive mental attitude have proven invaluable to me as a dean and deans who have come before me,” says Kristof-Brown. “All of us at the Tippie College will miss his inspiration.”
You can learn more about his life and legacy here and here.
MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (o); 319-541-8434 (c); firstname.lastname@example.org