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A Tribute to John Pappajohn, DSM Philanthropist + Business Leader

John Pappajohn Tribute

May 2, 2023

John Pappajohn (1928 – 2023)

Compressing someone’s life, even a component of a life, into a few sentences is a daunting task, especially the life of my friend, John Pappajohn. John could be demanding, difficult, tough and complex, but he was also very smart, forward-thinking, generous and exceedingly kind. First, I want to make it clear that when I speak of John, I am also speaking of Mary, for they were a couple who acted as one. John would often say, “Let me speak with Mary,” or “Let me run it by Mary.” I am not saying he did this in his business life, but he certainly did so in his philanthropy and art collecting. And they were art collectors with a capital C. They did not collect art to fill a space in their home, they acquired artwork because they had a passion for the challenges that art provided them. John and Mary acquired artworks that helped define Western visual culture by established artists who had stood the test of time. These artworks then filled their home, their yard and later storage facilities. They certainly did not collect to show off, in fact, they were rather hesitant to broadcast their holdings. But what John and Mary did enjoy was providing an opportunity for others to share the same experience. Thus, the idea for the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Downtown Des Moines (DSM) was born. They wanted a public sculpture park that was free and accessible to all, but it had to hold the best, and it does.

Since its opening in 2009, it has transformed the cultural, educational, social and economic landscape of the city. This park exemplifies John and Mary’s greatest strength — the ability to envision the possibilities of an idea, to act upon it and then bring others into making that vision a reality. It must have been sixth sense, because it happened again and again. This park was simply one example.

John and Mary were equally generous in allowing others to participate in their vision. Only once in 13 years did John strongly suggest where to place a work of art in the park. At no other time did he become part of the process. And LOVE turned out to be in the exact right place. John and I would always discuss possible additions to the park. He would bring up a name, and I would say, “No I don’t think that will work.” I would suggest an artist, and he would say something like, “No, Mary and I think it is too realistic.” When we finally agreed upon a new sculpture, it was an exciting and appropriate addition, and we would begin the formal processes demanded by our agreements with the city.

John and Mary’s generosity was often life changing. They gave to many causes and organizations, but what they preferred was a gift that could be transformative and really make a difference. John famously stated that he kept working so he could give the money away. While many grand gestures were highly visible, there were many more countless, smaller ones as well, not just to organizations but to individuals in numerous personal ways. You could never leave their home empty handed. Mary’s baklava, the best in the world, would find its way into your pocket when you left. Their hearts must have been tired and needing a rest. We are all the better for their beating amidst us for a time.

Jeff Fleming
Retired John and Mary Pappajohn Director/Des Moines Art Center

Jeff Fleming

Jeff Fleming spent 25 years as Director of the Des Moines Art Center.