A self-made entrepreneur, visionary philanthropist, and generous champion of Iowa students, John Pappajohn (BSC52) used his success in business to make the world a better place.
He was born in Greece, the first child of George and Maria Pappajohn. He and his two brothers, Socrates and Aristotle, grew up in Mason City, Iowa, during the Great Depression. Beginning at age 5, John pitched in at his father’s corner store, which was open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
John’s status as an immigrant often put him at a disadvantage early in life. He remembered being turned away by the local Boy Scouts because of his ethnicity and the fact that he lived, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. He had to repeat kindergarten because he spoke little English. But what John lacked in social status he made up for with pluck. “I was an entrepreneur when I was born,” Pappajohn once said. Always trying to earn a buck, John sold brass, copper, steel, rags, and whatever else of value he could find at the city dump. When he would talk about his childhood later in life, he called himself “the Opportunity Kid.”
His father died when he was 16, and it hardened his resolve to make something of himself and help his brothers succeed. In 2017, he said, “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Adversity is a blessing in disguise.’ ” The three brothers put themselves through college by taking turns attending the University of Iowa for a year or two, then staying home for a year to manage the store. John graduated in 1952 after
six years of off-and-on attendance—all while working nearly 40 hours a week as a butcher at Brady’s Supermarket in downtown Iowa City.
Pappajohn spent his early career selling insurance, but a pivotal moment in his life came while serving as president of a life insurance underwriting group. The organization invited a guest speaker to Iowa named W. Clement Stone, a Chicago insurance executive and author of Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude. Pappajohn became a disciple of Stone and his message about the power of a positive mental attitude. Inspired, he started his own insurance company.
Another pivotal point came in the late 1960s, when he read a story in The Wall Street Journal about Ned Heizer, who was described as a venture capitalist—an investor who funded fledgling companies and made money as they grew. Pappajohn had never heard of venture capitalism, a relatively new industry, but the concept thrilled him. He soon established Equity Dynamics, a financial consulting firm, and
Pappajohn Capital Resources, a venture capital firm.
He made his first million a few years in by helping launch Kay Laboratories, a San Diego company that held patents for the hot and cold packs used in hospitals. Pappajohn recognized the promise of the biomedical industry, and a string of lucrative ventures soon followed on the West Coast. Most notably, he invested in the nation’s first home health care company, Caremark, which today is a part of CVS Caremark. In the coming decades, Pappajohn fostered more than 100 startups, facilitated over 50 initial public offerings, and served as a director for more than 40 public companies.
John and Mary (1933-2022) wed in 1961 and settled in Des Moines, Iowa, where they raised their daughter, Ann, and became deeply involved in cultural organizations. Mary had studied art at the University of Minnesota, and John came to share her love of painting and sculpture. Over the years the Pappajohns became noted art collectors, served on prestigious art organizations’ boards, and established the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines in 2009.
Pappajohn also found joy investing in the future of young Iowans. He told Forbes magazine in the 1990s that his ambition was to become “the greatest philanthropist in the history of Iowa.” Through his support of the arts, young entrepreneurs, and higher education institutions across the state, he made a strong case for himself.
Pappajohn’s leadership and largess is nowhere more apparent than here at the University of Iowa, where his impact has been transformative. His generosity made the Pappajohn Business Building and the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center possible at the Henry B. Tippie College of Business, and he made many donations to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics—including funding a cancer center, biomedical institute, a pavilion at the hospital, and the Biomedical Discovery Building. The Pappajohns also established
numerous UI scholarship and faculty funds, and John was a dedicated member of several UI boards and committees.
“Mary and I feel strongly that a successful life must include service to society and our fellow man,” Pappajohn said in 2018. “This is how we will be judged. We must all try to make a difference in this world.”