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Richard O. Jacobson, benefactor to Iowa universities, dies at 79

'His passion for the Hawkeyes was only exceeded by his commitment and generosity to our program'

Richard Jacobson
Richard Jacobson

A University of Iowa business student who parlayed a few thousand dollars into creating his own warehouse business and a growing fortune that let him donate tens of millions of dollars to the state’s public universities and other organizations nationwide died Friday at his home in Clearwater, Fla. Richard O. Jacobson was 79.

Among his many philanthropic endeavors, Jacobson gave $11 million to the Center for Comprehensive Literacy at the University of Northern Iowa — the institution’s largest-ever gift.

At the University of Iowa, the Richard O. Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship is part of the Henry B. Tippie School of Business.

And he was a huge sports fan, donating millions to athletic programs at Iowa State University and the UI.

“Dick Jacobson was a wonderful friend and fan of the University of Iowa and Iowa football,” UI Head Football Coach Kirk Ferentz said in a statement Friday. “His passion for the Hawkeyes was only exceeded by his commitment and generosity to our program. Dick embodied the spirit of what makes the state of Iowa so great — work hard, take pride in what you do and understand the value of character.”

The UI’s football center is named for Jacobson.

Beyond offering support to Iowa universities, Jacobson helped fund a program to fight cancerous tumors using proton beams at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and at its facility in Arizona.

In a statement expressing condolences, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said the $100 million donation was “the largest gift to Mayo Clinic they had ever received.”

“Dick was an Iowa business icon and someone who relished in his philanthropic efforts around the country,” Branstad said in the statement. “ ... He will be missed.”

Richard Orrin Jacobson was born in Greeley, Colo., on Oct. 18, 1936. In 1941, the family moved to Belmond, where he graduated high school in 1954 — in a class of only 35. He used money he earned from part-time jobs to attend business classes at the UI, graduating in 1957.

He then served in the Army and worked for Monsanto Chemical Co. before going out on his own.

According to his obituary, Jacobson used $3,500 he had saved to form the Jacobson Warehouse Co.

The Des Moines-area warehouse company eventually grew to have more than 9,000 employees and 194 locations, and expanded into other offshoots including trucking and packaging.

Jacobson became a partner in establishing Hawkeye Renewables, one of the nation’s largest ethanol producers.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy named him the 12th most generous individual donor in the nation for 2011, according to its website.

Among his contributions in Iowa were toward the Jacobson Athletic Building and College of Design’s King Pavilion at ISU, and toward the Human Performance Complex, scholarships and educational programs at UNI.

“Dick Jacobson was an outstanding businessman and an even better human being,” UNI President Bill Ruud said in a statement.

A celebration of life was scheduled from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 7 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

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