Iowa icon in business, arts and philanthropy, John Pappajohn, dies at 94
Speaking about his close friend John Pappajohn, the late David Miller said, “He has an ambition to be the biggest philanthropist this state has ever seen. His desire is to make money and give it away.”
Thirty years after the then-West Bank president shared his observation with the Des Moines Register, the evidence of Pappajohn’s success in achieving that ambition is spread across Iowa.
Pappajohn, who died Saturday at his vacation home in Naples, Florida, devoted some $35 million to establishing entrepreneurial centers not just at the University of Iowa, his alma mater, but at Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, Drake University and North Iowa Area Community College.
He also was a major donor to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and with his wife, Mary, who died last year, established the John and Mary Pappajohn Higher Education Center in Des Moines.
The Pappajohns were long among America’s leading collectors of contemporary art, and were devoted patrons of the Des Moines Art Center. Nowhere is John Pappajohn’s legacy more apparent than the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a 4.4-acre civic treasure, managed by the art center, on which he and his wife lavished upward of $30 million to share their love of modernist sculpture with the people of Des Moines.
In the process, they helped complete the transition of the Western Gateway, a once-seedy section of downtown, into a symbol of a city on the rise, a place that has become increasingly attractive to the entrepreneurs Pappajohn nurtured and who in turn helped him earn his fortune.
“Their amazing contributions made it one of the best sculpture parks in the country,” said Jeff Fleming, the retiring director of the Des Moines Art Center. “Everything around it has been renovated. So it has economically transformed that community, that neighborhood.”
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie in a statement praised the couple’s “love for Des Moines.’
“The City of Des Moines lost a great friend, generous benefactor and beloved member of our community in the passing of John Pappajohn,” Cownie said. “The tremendous contribution to Des Moines of the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is one of our most frequented parks, enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.”
But the couple’s legacy “goes well beyond their beautiful sculpture park,” Cownie said. “Their mutual love for Des Moines and Iowa can be seen in dozens of contributions and gifts they bestowed on communities, hospitals and universities throughout our state. We will miss them both and are forever grateful and indebted to them.”
How John Pappajohn became a professional risk taker
Pappajohn was born in Greece in 1928. He came to America when he was 9 months old with his mother, Maria, following his father, George, to Mason City. He graduated from Mason City High School, then spent six years earning a degree at the University of Iowa.
He went into the insurance business and after a decade decided to start his own company, Guardsman Life Insurance, in 1962, traveling the state to raise money and putting together a board of directors.
But Pappajohn, who considered himself a risk taker, recalled in 2016 that “insurance was boring to me,” So seven years after he founded it, he sold Guardsman to become a venture capitalist.
He launched Equity Dynamics, a financial consulting firm, then founded Pappajohn Capital Resources, a venture capital fund. A self-taught expert in medicine, he was particularly successful with his investments in medical technology and innovations such as managed care. He was known for being hands-on with the companies he backed, helping them get on track and making sure other investors were paid before taking his own profits ― which earned him invaluable trust.
“When the day of reckoning comes, your legacy, your reputation is number uno,” he told the Register in 2016.
It helped that his instincts also were strong, with only a few missteps marring his investing career.
“I think I have a knack, a good nose, for finding good deals.” Pappajohn said in 1993.
Entrepreneur says Pappajohn’s investments made his company possible
Dr. Jean Robillard, the former vice president for medical affairs at the University of Iowa, credits Pappajohn for giving the company he co-founded, Inseer, a chance at success.
Inseer uses computer vision and machine learning to develop software that prevents, predicts and mitigates injury in industries ranging from meatpacking to health care by training employees and modifying work stations.
The whole idea started with a discussion Robillard had with Pappajohn. Now the company has secured four patents.
Pappajohn invested in companies that could break barriers, he said.
“I think he invested in this because of the impact we were to have and we are having. Without the support, this thing would not have taken off.”
Robillard said Pappajohn’s philanthropy also was an investment, helping build a culture that could incubate startups like Inseer. Pappajohn has a wing at the UI Hospital and Clinics named after him, and in 2009, he donated $26.4 million to UI to build its Biomedical Discovery Building.
He even established a small sculpture park in front of the UI Children’s Hospital, Robillard said. That and his other gifts help UI to attract the best scientists in the country, he said.
“Without the building, without these resources, we would never have been able to develop the diabetes center we have here, neuroscience institute we have here and so on.”
Robillard said Pappajohn’s major legacy is entrepreneurship and the ways he encouraged people to become entrepreneurs in Iowa.
“We wanted people to be excellent,” Robillard said. “That was one way to measure that.”
Pappajohn stayed in Iowa, called it the ‘real world’
Recognized as one of the country’s leading venture capitalists, Pappajohn, who acknowledged Iowa was no Silicon Valley, at one time considered moving to the West Coast. But he stayed put.
Miller, his friend who died in 2021, said, “He has no reason to be in Iowa. He has a funny allegiance to this state.” Pappajohn, explaining his attachment to the place where he’d grown up, said, “This is real world, and you know it’s a wonderful place.”
In 1996, when the Iowa economy was still reeling from the farm crisis and its economy, in Pappajohn’s words, was “lower than whale poop in the bottom of the ocean,” he had a vision to make the state a prime spot to start new businesses. He said that led him to provide the funding to “plant the seed” of entrepreneurship at the five Iowa colleges.
The centers and their affiliated programs have helped launch thousands of businesses, and he was still giving to them as late as 2021, donating another $10 million.
Pappajohn’s impact on entrepreneurship in Iowa cannot be calculated, say those who knew him.
When he helped Iowa State University open its center for entrepreneurship in 1996, the university had one class in entrepreneurship. Today, the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship has more than 100.
“When we started the center, there were not very many courses. There were not many people who studied entrepreneurship,” said Judi Eyles, the center’s director. “He was advocating for entrepreneurs in every way in Iowa. I think that was the way he was raised.”
At the University of Iowa’s center, students in disciplines ranging from engineering to journalism take entrepreneurship classes, said David Hensley, its director.
The work Pappajohn did was basic, Hensley and Eyles said. He showed people that entrepreneurship was an option.
After Pappajohn created the five entrepreneurship centers, other colleges and universities expanded their entrepreneurship programs, Hensley said.
“It really helped launch entrepreneurship education at colleges and universities,” Hensley said.
Eventually thousands of startups would be created from the five centers, he said, and showed governmental leaders that entrepreneurship could build companies and change economies.
“We’re a small business state, but entrepreneurship was still seen mostly on the coasts. By creating the center, it served as catalyst for building a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem across the state of Iowa,” he said.
“I don’t think that would have happened without John’s commitment to launching the centers and being a champion for entrepreneurship in Iowa for all of those years” Hensley added.
Art Center director: ‘They wanted to make an impact, and they did’
Whether it was entrepreneurship, arts or philanthropy, John and Mary Pappajohn wanted their work to be transformative, said Fleming, the Des Moines Art Center director.
“They wanted to make an impact, and they did,” Fleming said.
Mary and John Pappajohn had enormous wealth, but they never flaunted it, Eyles and Fleming said.
“They were incredibly humble,” Fleming said. “When you visited them, Mary would have to share something with you, whether it was a piece of baklava or a piece of cake or a piece of pie. You couldn’t leave empty handed.”
Throughout his 80s and into his 90s, John Pappajohn kept working. At age 88 he described himself as a workaholic, rising at 5 a.m., getting to the office by 8 a.m. and getting home by 6 p.m.
Still at it in his 90s, Pappajohn shared with Fleming the same goal Miller spoke of three decades earlier: “‘I keep working so I can give it away.’”
Philip Joens covers retail, real estate and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.