IOWA CITY — Venture capitalist John Pappajohn, who has donated more than $50 million to the University of Iowa, on Friday gave away nearly $10,000 to UI students in hopes of inspiring them to follow in his philanthropic footsteps.
After speaking to a crowd of more than 1,000 during a homecoming week event focused on philanthropy, Pappajohn, 87, handed out envelopes containing $10 each. The envelopes allow students to pick where they want the money to go and challenged them to keep giving annually at a pace of $10 a year for five years.
“And I will match you,” said Pappajohn, whose generosity has been honored in the naming of several buildings on the health care campus and in the business college. He told students they didn’t have to give the $10 back.
“If you’d rather go to the Airliner and buy a beer, OK. But your conscience is going to bother you,” he said to a roomful of laughs.
Pappajohn’s presentation comes as the university is nearing the end of its $1.7 billion fundraising campaign, which has accomplished 92 percent of its goal with one year left to go. He talked about the importance of supporting education, research, students and universities like the UI. But he also spoke broadly about sharing and making charity a part of life.
“We all believe in helping people,” he said. “Philanthropy is a way of life. And, if you incorporate it in your DNA, it becomes part of your persona.”
In addition to the students who came to Pappajohn’s talk in the Iowa Memorial Union, faculty, staff and UI President-elect J. Bruce Harreld attended. He officially starts the job Nov. 2.
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After his speech, Pappajohn urged support for Harreld, a former top executive at IBM and Boston Market whose lack of academic administration experience is drawing harsh criticism from students, faculty and staff.
“I think you have to give the new president an opportunity to perform,” Pappajohn told The Gazette. “The gentlemen, who I recently met, is entitled to a chance.”
Pappajohn said running a university no longer is about academics alone. The higher education landscape, he said, is different and requires new and inspired thinking.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the new president to come up with new ideas,” Pappajohn said.
When Pappajohn was a UI undergraduate in the early 1950s, leading the institution was Virgil M. Hancher — the university’s 13th and longest-serving president who, like Harreld, was seen as a non-traditional choice.
Pappajohn said he was so shaped by his UI experience that he was motivated to start giving right away, although he started with just $5.
“When I came to Iowa, I didn’t know about anything,” he said. “I learned how to live with people and get along. I got smart here. That’s what allowed me to make a living.” As a Greek immigrant raised in Mason City, Pappajohn said he grew up in poverty during the Great Depression and saw philanthropy in action at his father’s store.
“The Depression is the main reason I’m so passionate about philanthropy,” he said. “Because my father’s little grocery store provided credit. The receivables account was terrible. Terrible. People would beg for credit, and we would give them credit, and they couldn’t pay, so we called it charity.”
Life at that time forced you to live out basic childhood principals, he said.
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“Poverty has always stayed with me, and I think one of the things I want young people to understand is you have to learn to share,” he said. “You have to learn to give. It makes you feel good.”
When Pappajohn was 16, his father died. And, he said, that adversity shaped him. It matured him. It forced him to learn to solve problems.
“I believe strongly that adversity is a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I keep telling young people that if you have problems, solve your problems. It will make you stronger. It will help you do better in life.”
Senior Jackie Wolf, 21, and her friends said they jumped at the opportunity to hear Pappajohn speak — calling him “a star on campus.”
“He held the door open for us when we came in,” Wolf said. “We all kind of freaked out.”